Our music for this week is the First Essay for Orchestra by the American composer Samuel Barber. He wrote it in 1938 and it was premiered that same year in the same concert as his world-famous Adagio for Strings. Although he has three such Essays, the first one is the only one that is relatively well known. The Essays are, as a whole, not nearly as famous as the Adagio for Strings or the Dover Beach quartet.
The First Essay is basically the same thing as a movement of a symphony. It is written in a unique format that Barber seems to have invented in a clever twist on the literary form by the same name. It is said that he was aiming to create an artistic experience that mirrored the development of a single-topic written essay. Listen for the violas and cellos at the opening of the piece – they introduce the primary thematic material. They pass the melody on to the upper strings (1st and 2nd violins), who hand it off to the woodwinds and horns. Once the melody has reached the horns, the strings have begun playing a counterpoint melody and the tension in the music has risen significantly. Finally, listen for the “question” that ends the piece. Barber intentionally left the melodic material unresolved so that the listener is challenged to come up with his or her own ending.