Length: c. 10 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, side drum, cymbals, and tam-tam), and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: January 6, 1944, Alfred Wallenstein conducting
A downside to the perennial popularity of the Adagio for Strings is that it tends to eclipse everything else Samuel Barber composed. But he was far more than a one-hit wonder. Barber’s days as a prodigy student at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia foreshadowed a brilliant career, and he soon made good on that promise. In his 20s, Barber produced a series of compositions that established his name internationally – including the First String Quartet, whose slow movement he reworked for string orchestra in 1938 in response to Arturo Toscanini’s request for new pieces to perform with his fledgling NBC Symphony Radio Orchestra. In this form, as the celebrated Adagio for Strings, Barber’s brand of American Romanticism attracted enormous attention when Toscanini premiered it on his legendary broadcast of November 5, 1938.
The same broadcast also included Barber’s Essay for Orchestra (Op. 12), which explored a new single-movement format for a concert piece. As Barber’s stock rose, so did the request for new works, and in 1942 he returned to this formal experiment to fulfill a commission from Bruno Walter marking the centennial of the New York Philharmonic. For the work that resulted, the Second Essay for Orchestra (a third would follow near the very end of the composer’s career), Barber drew on some musical ideas he had put aside while crafting his Violin Concerto in 1939. The implied analogy with the literary prose essay – with its suggestion of a tightly argued sequence of ideas and reflections – is not arbitrary, yet despite the deep affinity for literature Barber shows in several other works, the Second Essay presents a self-contained, abstract musical structure and is not tied to a particular program. The only influence extrinsic to the music that may be discernible, remarked Barber, is the fact that the piece “was written in wartime.” (He would soon go on to serve in the Army Air Corps.)
While Barber’s unabashedly lyrical style set him at odds with 20th-century developments, the Second Essay displays a structural concision and economic use of thematic material that the most sober-minded modernist might begrudgingly admire. Within its brief span, Barber spins out a musical metamorphosis of a few basic thematic elements, while the score’s interconnected sections echo aspects of a highly condensed multi-movement symphony. The Second Essay comprises distinctly contrasting moods, yet each of these is carefully evolved from what has come before.
The broadly meandering first theme, entrusted to flute and then passed among the other woodwinds, unfolds against a deep shadow cast by low brass and bass drum. Its tranquility briefly darkens, and the theme then becomes more expansive. The timpani add a rhythmic motif, and a second theme is then elaborated (using elements of the first). Barber’s art of transition, which includes a sure sense of how to pace the addition of orchestral colors, is masterful: the perspective grows larger as the full ensemble develops the emotional scope, while the timpani’s rhythm introduces hints of war. A sudden chord jolts the music into another, scherzo-like direction, beginning with an initially light-hearted, faster-paced fugal section. The counterpoint intensifies and thickens as Barber weaves the earlier themes together and then prepares the way for a bold coda in which the hesitations of the opening music are cast aside in triumphal, stately assertions.
Thomas May is a frequent contributor to Los Angeles Philharmonic programs.