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ClassicsOnline Home » BARBER: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 / Essay for Orchestra No. 1
By Scott Paulin
Barnes & Noble
By Jon Yungkans
The Flying Inkpot
By Lawrence A. Johnson
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Samuel Barber (1910-1981)
Orchestral Works Volume 1
Samuel Barber quickly established his reputation as a composer in the romantic vein. A native of Westchester. Pennsylvania, he entered Philadelphia's Curtis Institute in 1924, studying piano and composition. His setting of Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach won the praise of no less than Vaughan Williams, while his concert overture The School for Scandal, a sparkling evocation of Sheridan's comedy, won the Beams Prize of Columbia University in 1933.
Stabbing brass chords lead to a capricious string theme. A brief climax leads to a ruminative oboe melody of great beauty, taken up by the strings. A bucolic clarinet motif incites greater animation, leading to the work's central climax; cascading strings and pounding brass presage the full-blown return of the main theme. The oboe melody duly reappears, before a short fugato passage leads to a syncopated coda and final triumphant flourish.
The overture's première by the Philadelphia Orchestra established Barber's national reputation, consolidated by the American launch of his Symphony No.1 by Arthur Rodzinsky and the Cleveland Orchestra in 1937. Its succinct and cohesive one-movement design offers full scope to Barber's expressively intense musical language.
The opening section, Allegro ma non troppo, features a Sibelian theme on strings, punctuated by brass. Cellos introduce a more introspective idea, repeated majestically on full brass, before the momentum spills over into the scherzo section, marked Allegro molto, whose strong rhythmic impetus remains constant, climaxing in an abrasive rhythmic unison. Solo woodwind tail off into the Andante tranquillo section, a plaintive oboe melody over rapt strings. Violas and cellos develop the mood, before the theme reaches a climax in the whole orchestra. A restrained yet purposeful idea now emerges, over which the final Con moto section grows in a steadily intensifying passacaglia Chiming brass usher in the final statement and, with its opening gesture recalled, the symphony comes full circle in a powerfully rhetorical coda.
The symphony was heard at Salzburg in 1937, attracting the praise of no less than Arturo Toscanini, who commissioned Barber to write for his newly formed NBC Symphony Orchestra. The resulting Essay for Orchestra, the first of three such pieces, was first performed in New York in 1938.
The opening immediately establishes a fatalistic mood, with richly-divided strings in a grave threnody, gradually becoming more impassioned. Brass cap a brief Copland-like climax, before a return to the pensive opening. The mood changes abruptly as an animated sequence begins on upper strings and woodwind. Considerable momentum is built up, leading to the climactic restatement of the opening theme, after which the texture thins out, leaving the violins aloft in their questioning response.
Barber's conscription into the US Air Force in 1943 led directly to the commissioning of his Second Symphony, first performed the following year by Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Barber revised the work in 1947 and his recording, with the New Symphony Orchestra, was issued simultaneously in Britain and America in 1951. Yet the piece failed to establish itself in the concert repertory and Barber, perhaps dissatisfied with a lack of true symphonic integration, withdrew it in 1964. Three years later, he took the drastic step of destroying the original score and most of the printed copies. Only after his death did a copy surface, allowing the revival of this his darkest and tonally most forward-looking of his major works.
The first movement's opening gesture immediately indicates a new purposefulness in Barber's writing, its vigorous course highlighting changes in texture rather than actual themes; even the arrival of a plaintive oboe idea does not bring a relaxation in tension. The movement builds to its main climax, where stabbing brass, dive-bombing strings and spitting percussion underline the nature of the music's genesis. The oboe theme returns in the strings, before the movement's components coalesce in a steely resolution of tensions and anxieties. The activity dissipates to leave the violins musing on the opening motif.
The slow movement opens with a rocking motion in the lower strings, the ruminations of a cor anglais creating a subdued nocturnal atmosphere. Melodic interest passes to the flutes and clarinets, with strings providing an atmospheric backdrop. The eventual climax is yearning rather than passionate, strings retaining their mutes throughout. The main theme returns in expressive colouration to round off one of Barber's most affecting inspirations: after the symphony's demise, it was revised and published as a separate work, Night Flight.
The finale erupts propulsively on strings and horns, the opening thematic shards energizing some oddly fragmentary textures, before a brusque string fugato generates greater intensity. Thematic elements from earlier in the work reappear, before the movement's opening returns with new toughness. The peroration is short-lived, and as lamenting strings envelop the texture, the movement seems destined for a resigned conclusion. But the opening returns again with a vengeance, capping the symphony in a mood of grim defiance.
In the words of the late conductor Andrew Schenk, who spearheaded the symphony's revival in the late 1980s: 'It evokes the majesty of flight, the terror of war, the loneliness of the skies at night, the triumph of victory, For this reason above all, [it] deserves a better fate than the oblivion assigned to it by its composer,'
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