The Third Essay, Op. 47, is a short orchestral work composed by Samuel Barber in 1978. The score is dedicated to Audrey Sheldon.
Barber's Third Essay was the eventual product of a suggestion made in the spring of 1976 by Eugene Ormandy, who had been approached by an anonymous patron offering a commission of $75,000 from the Merlin Foundation for a large-scale work to be premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra, as well as to support recordings of works of Barber’s choice. The mysterious benefactor eventually was revealed to be Audrey Sheldon Poon, an American socialite, daughter of Huntington D. Sheldon and Magda Merck, the youngest daughter of George Merck, founder of the pharmaceutical firm Merck & Co. Although a contract was signed, a series of misunderstandings between the parties involved resulted in protracted and ultimately fruitless negotiations with the Philadelphia Orchestra Association, who could not accept some of the conditions tied to the contribution. While it is not certain whether it was Barber of his patroness who terminated the arrangement, the Merlin Foundation's check was returned. By this time divorced from Mr. Poon and using her maiden name, Audrey Sheldon renewed the commission for an orchestral work, this time intended for the New York Philharmonic, presenting Barber with $60,000 (Anon. 1951; Heyman 1992, 498–99; Heyman 2012, 468).
In March 1978, the announcement for the opening concert of the next season of the New York Philharmonic gives the title of Barber's new work as The Ambiguities (after Melville) (Ericson 1978). A little more than a month later, on April 21, 1978, Audrey Sheldon died of a drug overdose, which was ruled a suicide (Anon. 1978; Phillips 2006, 436). Barber composed the Essay in Italy during the following summer, completing the score in the third week of August, less than a month before it was premiered on September 14, 1978, in Avery Fisher Hall, by the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Zubin Mehta in his debut as music director. After hearing the work performed, Barber was dissatisfied with what he felt was a too-abrupt ending, which he extended somewhat in revision. The score, which was published only in 1991, a decade after the composer's death, bears a dedication to Audrey Sheldon (Hayman 1992, 502–503; Hayman 2012, 468; Ramey 1981, 4).
The Third Essay is scored for a large orchestra consisting of piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, English horn, E♭ clarinet, two clarinets in B♭, bass clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, euphonium, three trombones, tuba, two harps, piano, two timpanists (each with four drums), an exceptionally large percussion section (small and large tam-tams, bass drum, sheet metal, marimba, xylophone, cymbal, high and low snare drums, wood block, bells, antique cymbal, bongos), and strings.
According to the composer, this essay is absolutely abstract, and more essentially dramatic and less lyric in character than the first two essays, although the central section includes several lyric themes. The introductory twenty-seven bars are for just the percussion with piano and harps, and the thematic nature of the first section is dictated by the percussion. The introductory material serves as a point of reference that holds together the various themes that follow, with the paramount objective of creating unity (Ramey 1981, 4).
- John Corigliano: Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra. Samuel Barber: Third Essay for Orchestra, Op. 47. Stanley Drucker, clarinet; New York Philharmonic; Zubin Mehta, cond. Recorded in Avery Fisher Hall, New York. LP recording, 1 sound disc: analog, 33⅓ rpm, stereo, 12 in. New World Records NW 309. Recorded Anthology of American Music. New York: New World Records, 1981. Reissued on CD, 1 sound disc: digital, stereo, 4¾ in. New World Records NW 309-2. New York, NY: New World Records, 1987.
- Music of Samuel Barber. Overture to The School for Scandal, Op. 5; Adagio for Strings, Op. 11; First Essay for Orchestra, Op. 12; Second Essay, Op. 17; Third Essay, Op. 47; Medea's Dance of Vengeance, Op. 23a. Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra; Leonard Slatkin, cond. Recorded May 3, 1988, at Powell Hall, St. Louis. Missouri. CD recording, 1 audio disc: digital, stereo, 4¾ in. EMI CDC 7 49463 2. Hayes Middlesex, England: EMI Records Ltd., 1989.
- Samuel Barber: Fadograph of a Yestern Scene; Medea (Suite, 1947); Third Essay. New Zealand Symphony Orchestra; Andrew Schenck, cond. Recorded October 1989 at Symphony House, Wellington, New Zealand. CD recording, 1 audio disc: digital, stereo, 4¾ in. Koch International Classics 3-7010-2. Westbury, NY: Koch International, 1990.
- Samuel Barber. Three Essays for Orchestra; Excerpts from Vanessa; Music for a Scene from Shelley; Medea's Mediatation and Dance of Vengeance. Detroit Symphony Orchestra; Neeme Järvi, conductor. Recorded in Detroit Symphony Orchestra Hall, 8–9 Nov. 1991 (Three Essays), 24–25 April 1993 (Vanessa selections and Music for a Scene from Shelley), and 16 January 1994 (Medea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance). CD recording, 1 audio disc: digital, 4¾ in. Chandos CHAN 9908. Colchester, Essex, England: Chandos, 2001.
- Samuel Barber: Knoxville: Summer of 1915; Essays for Orchestra Nos. 2 and 3; Toccata Festiva. Karina Gauvin, soprano; Thomas Trotter, organ; Royal Scottish National Orchestra; Marin Alsop, cond. Recorded October 27, 2002 (Knoxville: Summer of 1915); May 3, 1999 (Second Essay); and March 18, 2001 (Third Essay) at Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow; and on June 11, 2002 (Toccata Festiva), at Paisley Abbey, Glasgow. CD recording, 1 audio disc: digital, stereo, 4¾ in. Naxos 8559134. American Classics. [Franklin, Tennessee]: Naxos Records, 2004.
- Samuel Barber: Piano Concerto; Three Essays. Giampaolo Nuti, piano; Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI; Daniel Kawka, cond. Recorded in the Auditorio RAI Torino. CD recording, 1 audio disc: digital, stereo, 4¾ in. Stradivarius STR-33814. Release Date: 02/08/2011.
- Alps, Tim. 1980. "Concerto: Modern". Music and Musicians 28 (January): 66.
- Anon. 1951. "Mrs. J. H. Wickersham Entertain at a Tea". New York Times (May 22): 36.
- Anon. 1978. “Deaths”. New York Times (April 23): 36.
- Ericson, Raymond. 1978. "Mehta Plans Barber Premiere to Open Philharmonic Season". The New York Times (March 14): 30.
- Heyman, Barbara B. 1992. Samuel Barber: The Composer and His Music. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Heyman, Barbara. 2012. Samuel Barber: A Thematic Catalogue of the Complete Works. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-983795-3.
- Phillips, Julie. 2006. James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon. New York: St. Martin’s Press. ISBN 978-0-312-42694-1.
- Ramey, Phillip. 1981. "A Talk with Samuel Barber". In John Corigliano: Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra; Samuel Barber: Third Essay for Orchestra, Op. 47. Stanley Drucker, clarinet; New York Philharmonic; Zubin Mehta, cond. LP recording, 1 disc: 12 inch, 33⅓ rpm, stereo. Recorded Anthology of American Music. New World Records NW 309. Liner notes, 3–4.
- Simmons, Walter. 1981. "Barber: Essay No. 3". Fanfare 4 (May–June): 49–50.
- Simmons, Walter. 2004. Voices in the Wilderness: Six American Neo-romantic Composers. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press. ISBN 978-0-8108-4884-9
- Taylor, Benedict. "Nostalgia and Cultural Memory in Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915". The Journal of Musicology 25, no. 3 (Summer 2008): 211–29.
- Samuel Barber. Bob Sherman talks to composer Samuel Barber, whose Third Essay will be premiered by the New York Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta. WNYC 93.9 FM (September 10, 1978). WNYC Archives id: 70018 (accessed 26 October 2014).
Samuel Barber's First Essay for Orchestra (1938), along with his extremely well-known Adagio for Strings of the same year, brought Barber worldwide recognition after being premiered by maestro Arturo Toscanini and the New York Symphony Orchestra on November 5, 1938. Toscanini was known for not championing the composers of the time or American composers and their works. Yet, in Barber, he heard music that matched the beauty and emotion of previous masters.
Barber, along with Gian Carlo Menotti, a fellow composer and lifelong friend, visited Toscanini for the first time approximately five years before the famous premiere concert. Here, Toscanini informed Barber that he intended to conduct one of his works. In spring of 1938, Barber sent to Toscanini the score for the First Essay for Orchestra along with the Adagio for Strings, hoping that one of them would be chosen for performance. Within months, Toscanini returned the scores to Barber. Toscanini included no comments about the works or plans for performance. Barber was bothered by this and did not visit Toscanini that summer as scheduled. Menotti did visit, though, and here Toscanini informed him that he intended to conduct both of Barber's compositions.
The form of this piece was inspired by the essay of the literary world. In the written essay, one main idea is presented at the beginning and then expanded upon. The brevity of the essay form and its focus upon a single idea attracted Barber. He first experimented with his derived essay form for music in his Three Essays for Piano (1926).
The first section of the Essay for orchestra No. 1 has an elegiac character. The strings begin in a somber mood. The intensity increases toward a first climax and then descends to a desolate fanfare followed by a restatement of the first theme. A scherzo-like section follows in which the rhythm of the lower piano strings plays a prominent part. The tension mounts to reach an intense climax that winds down amidst murmurations of the piano. A new crescendo brings a powerful restatement of the initial theme. Then the music dies out to the lament of distant trumpets.