Coming to a Conclusion: Samuel Barber’s Essays for Orchestra

Questions about genre are usually far from my thinking and, in general, seem to be of slight interest to most contemporary lit critters. And for good reason: discussions of genre often promote the sort of prescriptivism, essentialism, and other -isms that our post-po-mo sensibilities find offensive. And frankly, I’m more interested in the work itself than its taxonomy.

However, as Jonathan Culler has recently pointed out, genre can be understood in a more meaningful way. Each genre can be read as the history of a group of certain practices and conventions; seeing how a given work engages or resists those conventions can deepen our understanding and appreciation of it. Genre also informs how we approach a work; it establishes the rules of engagement. (This is self-evident in large distinctions, such as fiction vs. nonfiction). And, each subsequent member of a genre, working in Borgesian fashion, revises (and, in some cases, expands) our understanding of that genre. In other words, genre is not a fixed thing but a dynamic process.

Speaking of expansion, I am especially interested in this “process” when genre jumps media: when, for example, a fugue (a multi-voiced musical composition) is realized as a painting, as Paul Klee did in 1922:


Fugue in Red, Paul Klee

The essay has found form in various media, more familiarly in photography and film. There are also poems that call themselves essays, such as Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man and Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay.” And recently, I came across the essay in an unexpected place: in instrumental music, specifically Samuel Barber’s Essays for Orchestra. You may know Barber from his over-played Adagio for Strings, (aka, “the saddest classical music ever written,” according to a 2004 BBC poll). Barber composed three Essays: the first was completed in 1937, the second in 1942, and the third in 1978, shortly before he died.

So how does one essay in music? The commentaries I’ve found on Barber’s essays are unhelpful.  Barber himself merely cites the OED non-definition of the essay: “a composition of moderate length on a particular subject… more or less elaborate in style, though limited in range,” which is so general that it could be applied to almost any shortish piece of music, begging the question of why he bothered to use the term.  Journalist Thomas Larson found Barber’s use of the essay label baffling, declaring that “how this is essayistic is lost on me,” pointing out that these works are too cohesive to fit the digressive, wandering style of the Montaignian essay. Cellist J. Anthony McAlister says these works are indeed essays: “As with a written essay, the idea behind a musical essay is the development of a complex, well-reasoned, thoughtful work drawn from a single melodic thesis.” However, McAlister understands “essay” as those formulaic “thesis—support—conclusion” papers you were forced to write in school. As others have pointed out, that sort of “essay,” while an effective student torture device, has nothing to do with the rich history and practice of the literary essay (or “lyric essay” or whatever you prefer to call it).

Perhaps the music itself will yield some compelling answers. Here’s the Second Essay:

Barber says that “Although [the Second Essay for Orchestra] has no program, one perhaps hears that it was written in war-time” in 1942. The piece opens with a quiet, contemplative fragment of a melody, played twice in the first minute, first by the flute, then by the clarinet. A second theme enters a bit later, around 1:40.

At 3:00, something fascinating happens: The first theme—what was an introspective fragment in the first minute of the piece—is recast as an impersonal battle cry, complete with timpani (originally developed as a military drum). Shortly thereafter, the music fades, becoming almost contemplative again, only to be interrupted by more tympani-fueled bombast at 3:33. From 3:45-4:07, these two seemingly incompatible perspectives make an uneasy truce. Then a jarring chord at 4:08 signals the beginning of an almost manic fugue where the two main themes interact, overlap, and collide.

Montaigne says that although he contradicts himself, he never contradicts the truth, suggesting that the truth is in the contradiction itself. What I’ve described so far could be viewed as Montaignian in that regard. But the question is, does Barber’s essay truly embody contradiction, or is it more a matter of “statement and refutation”? I’m thinking specifically of Barber’s conclusion: the piece ends with an even more bombastic statement of the first theme. It’s almost a cliche, the musical equivalent of the flat-footed “As I have demonstrated…” conclusions we sometimes find in academic essays.

Has the small voice from the opening of this essay been completely overwhelmed by collective militaristic fervor? Is the work somehow advocating for this self-surrender/sacrifice? Or has Barber exaggerated things to a parodic extreme? The tone is somewhat evasive, and irony in instrumental music is a tricky business.  But my sense is that while the conclusion is extreme, it’s not parodic. It follows logically from the work’s climatic structure, which is hardly unique, and essayistic only in the limited academic sense.

So why did Barber call these works essays? One final try: in all three essays, the thematic seed is a fragment, a half-melody (Thomas Larson agrees with this description). To me, this is the most compelling aspect of these works. It’s also what makes them most essay-like: as Adorno once pointed out,  “the essay thinks in fragments.” But rather than embrace this fragmentary status, each piece (I’m done with calling them essays) builds towards a very anti-essayistic wholeness.

In rejecting these works as essays, I may be playing the role of the villainous prescriptivist mentioned above, but I don’t think so. These works don’t merely fail to “fit” the definition of the essay. They do not honor the potentialities of the form. Rather than expanding our understanding of the essay, they return instead to a conventional wholeness, and make the essay something less than it was in its “native” medium, language.

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