Samuel Barber: Second Essay for Orchestra

Program note written for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. Not to be reprinted without permission.

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Admittedly the title is a bit dry, bringing to mind high-school homework and college term papers. But consider the full breadth of what an essay can be—from a personal essay to a political op-ed. And think of the long history of American essays in particular—from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Joan Didion and beyond.

Samuel Barber is perhaps our only orchestral essayist: he wrote three between 1937 and 1978. The Second Essay is his peak Jimmy Stewart-era entry, written in 1942. Like some of the actor’s most iconic roles, the piece develops personal convictions into a common-sense argument, and then an impassioned speech. It suggests a kind of civic-minded idealism without an ounce of jingoism.

“My music has been going so well that it seems incongruous for times such as these,” Barber wrote a friend, just months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. “I’ve taken the attitude that it is better to continue in one’s job tutta forza [full force] until one’s draft board decides otherwise.” He offered the Second Essay to Bruno Walter who premiered it at Carnegie Hall on April 16, 1942. Shortly thereafter, Barber joined the Army Air Corps (same as Jimmy Stewart), and was commissioned to write a symphony as part of his service.

Though musical essays are unusual, the connection between music and rhetoric goes back at least to 18th-century sonatas, which may have been influenced by classical oratory. Barber brings the American essay genre into a one-movement orchestral form: a piece that otherwise might have been an overture becomes something else—it’s abstract (not programmatic), yet rooted in an extra-musical idea.

The opening is pensive, like inward thoughts before writing. One paragraph generates the next—the flute and clarinet bloom into a broody, lyrical theme in the strings. Thumping timpani becomes a recurring element, the ominous drumbeat of war.

The middle section is a fugue (beginning between clarinet and bassoon)—a brilliant stretch of logical argument. Then Barber turns visceral again, landing with the gravitas of a chorale. Like many good essays, this one balances reason with emotional appeal, all while paying attention to the beauty and clarity of the language itself.

Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony.