Knoxville: Summer of 1915
solo soprano, flute (doubling piccolo), oboe (doubling English horn), clarinet, bassoon, 2 horns, trumpet, percussion, harp, strings
notes by Chris Myers
Composed 1947. First performance: April 9, 1948, Eleanor Steber, soprano. Boston Symphony conducted by Serge Koussevitzky, Boston.
The beginning of 1947 was a difficult time for Samuel Barber. He was happy to have returned to civilian life after his wartime service, but his father and aunt were both in failing health. That January, he encountered James Agee’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915”, a short essay which would eventually become the preamble to the author’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Death in the Family. Agee’s poignant look back at his childhood struck a chord with Barber, and when soprano Eleanor Steber commissioned a work from him in February, he immediately decided to set it to music. The piece came to him very quickly and was completed on April 4.
James Agee’s essay is a dreamy, conversational, almost improvisatory piece of prose reflecting on summers spent with his family at their home in Tennessee. The author claimed that he wrote the stream-of-consciousness text in less than 90 minutes and made only minor revisions to it once it was complete. In the course of the essay, Agee shifts between viewing the world as an adult and seeing it through the eyes of his five-year-old self. He affectionately describes his parents and his artist uncle and musician aunt, both of whom were very close to him. While the text superficially yearns for the “golden years”, it is suffused with an inescapable adult knowledge of the frailty of life. Written in 1938, with the world on the verge of the Second World War, and reflecting back to 1915, when the nation was struggling to avoid the First World War, Agee seems eager to cling to innocence as long as possible even while recognizing the inevitability of its loss.
The text resonated strongly with Steber, who commented, “That was exactly my childhood in Wheeling, West Virginia.” For his part, Barber was struck by the uncanny similarity between his and Agee’s childhood: both were five years old in 1915 and were raised by loving parents and an artistic aunt and uncle (for Barber, the composer Sidney Homer and contralto Louise Homer). The composer later wrote to his uncle, “It reminded me so much of summer evenings in West Chester, now very far away, and all of you are in it.” Barber’s Aunt Louise would pass away on May 6, 1947. His father, to whom the composer dedicated Knoxville, followed on August 12.
The piece begins with a theme that we will come to associate with the comfort of home. A gentle triplet figure in the orchestra brings to mind the image of rocking chairs on the porch, mirroring the text’s description of people “rocking gently and talking gently”. Throughout Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Barber looks to the text for his melodic cues in this way, using word painting to create atmosphere and emphasize words. We hear the horses’ “hollow iron music on the asphalt”, and the unhurried pace of passersby “talking casually” is reflected in the singer’s delivery of the words.
Knoxville’s structure closely follows the free, dreamlike flow of Agee’s prose. The composer referred to the resulting piece as a “lyric rhapsody”, and it can roughly be described in rondo form, with the tranquility of childhood memories interrupted by two episodes.
First, the gentle and casual evening is disrupted by the clattering onomatopoetic modernity of “a streetcar raising its iron moan, stopping, belling and starting, stertorous.” The orchestra moans, bells, and growls along, and the sparks and “iron whine” are given musical portrayal which slowly fades as the streetcar passes. As the narrator’s father appears to drain and coil the garden hose, we can still hear it fading into the distance.
We return to the opening image of people rocking and talking on the porch. This time, though, it’s no longer abstract people, but the narrator’s parents. As the family gathers together to lie on quilts in the backyard, Agee’s mind wanders, and the comfort of the “home” theme is interrupted again—this time by a slow recognition of mortality. As we meet each member of the family, the music grows in intensity, mirroring the author’s affection for his uncle and aunt, father and mother. The melody crescendos to a heartfelt plea that God will “bless my people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father…” in trouble and at their death, and we realize that the music of the introduction was, in fact, a foreshadowing of this climactic benediction.
The gentle rocking theme returns and attempts to regain the innocent happiness with which it began, but it never quite manages. It does, however, achieve a calm acceptance which seems both more profound and more fulfilling. This soliloquy, which began as a naïve and blissful remembrance of the golden years of childhood, ends with acknowledgement of the frailty of life and the realization that, while home may always be welcoming and comforting, it “will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me who I am.”
Copyright © 2015 Chris Myers. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.