KNOXVILLE: SUMMER OF 1915, OP. 24
By SAMUEL BARBER
Born May 9, 1910, in West Chester, Pennsylvania; died January 23, 1981, in New York City
Listen to it here
“When I’m writing music for words,” Samuel Barber once explained, “then I immerse myself in those words, and I let the music flow out of them.” With such a philosophy, it is little wonder that, among American composers of the last century, he is one of those who is most regarded for his skill and effectiveness in writing for the human voice. As a young man, Barber was himself a fine baritone. He was first taught to sing by his aunt, the famous Metropolitan Opera contralto Louise Homer, and he continued his voice training throughout high school and at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he was a charter student. During the mid-1930’s, he gave a series of lieder recitals in Vienna as well as recorded his own setting for voice and string quartet of Matthew Arnold’s poem Dover Beach.
In 1947, the American soprano Eleanor Steber requested from Barber a work that she could use as a concert piece. He responded with Knoxville: Summer of 1915, a short scena for soprano and small orchestra that was a setting of a text by the American poet and novelist James Agee (1909-1955). The text was later included as the prologue to Agee’s not quite completed novel A Death in the Family, for which he was posthumously awarded the 1958 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Barber’s father was terminally ill at the time, and Agee’s nostalgic, bittersweet reminiscences recalled for the composer memories of his own boyhood and the happy times that he had spent with his family growing up in Pennsylvania. He dedicated the published score to the memory of his father, who had died shortly before the work was finished. Miss Steber presented the premiere of the piece on April 5, 1948, at Symphony Hall in Boston with Serge Koussevitzky conducting the Boston Symphony.
In Barber’s warm, simple setting of Agee’s text, the soprano sings the lines “in a quasi-conversational manner, following closely the verbal rhythms and the emotional inflections implied by the evenings in Knoxville, Tennessee in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child.”
. . . It has become that time of evening when people sit on their porches, rocking gently and talking gently and watching the street and the standing up into their sphere of possession of the trees, of birds’ hung havens, hangars. People go by: things go by. A horse, drawing a buggy, breaking his hollow iron music on the asphalt: a loud auto: a quiet auto: people in pairs, not in a hurry, scuffling, switching their weight of eastival body, talking casually, the taste hovering over them of vanilla, strawberry, pasteboard, and starched milk, the image upon them of lovers and horsemen, squared with clowns in hueless amber. A streetcar raining its iron moan; stopping; belling and starting, stentorous; rousing and raising again its iron increasing moan and swimming its gold windows and straw seats on past and past, the bleak spark crackling and cursing above it like a small malignant spirit sent to dog its tracks; the iron whine rise on rising speed; still risen, faints; halts; the faint stinging bell; rises again, still fainter; fainting, lifting, lifts, faints foregone: forgotten. Now is the night one blue dew.
Now is the night one blue dew, my father has drained, he has coiled the hose.
Low on the length of lawns, a frailing of fire who breathes. . .
Parents on porches rock and rock. From damp strings morning glories hang their ancient faces.
The dry and exalted noise of the locusts from all the air at once enchants my eardrums.
On the rough wet grass of the back yard my father and mother have spread quilts. We all lie there, my mother, my father, my uncle, my aunt, and I too am lying there. . . They are not talking much, and the talk is quiet, of nothing in particular, of nothing at all in particular, of nothing at all. The stars are wide and alive, they seem each like a smile of great sweetness, and they seem very near. All my people are larger bodies than mine. . . . with voices gentle and meaningless like the voices of sleeping birds. One is an artist, he is living at home. One is a musician, she is living at home. One is my mother who is good to me. One is my father who is good to me. By some chance, here they are, all on this earth, and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying, on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening among the sounds of the night. May God bless my people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father, oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble, and in the hour of their taking away.
After a little I am taken in and put to bed. Sleep, soft smiling, draws me unto her; and those receive me, who quietly treat me, as one familiar and well-beloved in that home; but will not, oh, will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me who I am.
Kenneth C. Viant