Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Op. 24

by Samuel Barber

Samuel Barber Summer in Knoxville 1915 Sylvia McNair Soprano


Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Op. 24, is a 1947 work for voice and orchestra by Samuel Barber, with text from a 1938 short prose piece by James Agee. The work was commissioned by soprano Eleanor Steber, who premiered it in 1948 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Serge Koussevitzky. Although the piece is traditionally sung by a soprano, it may also be sung by tenor; Anthony Rolfe Johnson's interpretation has become popular in recent years.The text is in the persona of a male child.

Samuel Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915 is a lush, richly textured work. Setting music to excerpts from "Knoxville", James Agee's preamble to his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, A Death in the Family, Barber paints an idyllic, nostalgic picture of Agee's native Knoxville, Tennessee. The preamble is a simple, dreamlike depiction of an evening in the American South, narrated by a child who seems, at times, to transform into an adult; both parts are sung by a solo soprano. It is difficult to tell at times the identity of the speaker, enhancing the dreamlike quality of the work. Knoxville is set in one movement, and the composer describes it as "lyric rhapsody" (Heyman). Barber's choice to compose in a form less constricted in the large-scale parallels Agee's own choice in developing his work; both represent the fruits of a spontaneous improvisation, fueled by a moving nostalgia:

I was greatly interested in improvisatory writing, as against carefully composed, multiple-draft writing: i.e., with a kind of parallel to improvisation in jazz, to a certain kind of "genuine" lyric which I thought should be purely improvised... It took possibly an hour and a half; on revision, I stayed about 98 per cent faithful to my rule, for these "improvised" experiments, against any revision whatever. (James Agee, "Program Notes of the Boston Symphony Orchestra", quoted in (Heyman))

While Knoxville is described as a rhapsody, it can also be seen as almost rondo-like in form (Kreiling). After a brief orchestral prelude, the beginning paints a picture of gentle rocking on chairs, supported by the narrative as the soprano enters: "It has become that time of the evening when people sit on their porches, rocking gently." The harp and flute play a steadily rocking line while the soprano introduces the first melody. Interestingly, Barber does not ever repeat this melody exactly; instead, he characteristically alters it subtly in its next few appearances.

The summer of 1915 was a significant year for James Agee: it was the last summer his family was intact; his father died in an automobile accident in 1916. According to Agee, it was the point around which his life began to evolve (Aiken). When Barber was writing his reminiscence "Knoxville", his father, Roy Barber, was losing his health and rapidly approaching death. Barber dedicates the work with the inscription "In memory of my Father," suggesting that his father's deteriorating health had something to do with his identification with the piece. Barber was touched by the familiarity of Agee's childhood memories and the fact that both he and Agee were five years old in 1915. After Barber and Agee met, Barber noted that the two had much in common.

We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville, Tennessee in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child. It was a little bit mixed sort of block, fairly solidly lower middle class, with one or two juts apiece on either side of that. The houses corresponded: middlesized gracefully fretted wood houses built in the late nineties and early nineteen hundreds, with small front and side and more spacious back yards, and trees in the yards.
(James Agee, "Knoxville")

Samuel Barber, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1944

2014-10-19 05:33:28