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Knoxville: Summer of 1915, for soprano and orchestra

Knoxville: Summer of 1915 is one of the bona fide classics of American music (not quite attaining the status of the composer’s universally beloved Adagio for Strings).

Composition and premiere: The manuscript score of Knoxville: Summer of 1915 bears the date April 4, 1947. The soprano Eleanor Steber, who commissioned the work, gave the premiere in Boston on April 9 and 10, 1948, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra led by Serge Koussevitzky. The first Tanglewood performance took place on August 18, 1984, with Edith Wiens and the BSO under Michael Tilson Thomas; Renée Fleming sang the most recent Tanglewood performance with the BSO under William Eddins on July 5, 2014. The score is dedicated, “In Memory of my Father.”

Knoxville: Summer of 1915 is one of the bona fide classics of American music (not quite attaining the status of the composer’s universally beloved Adagio for Strings). The soprano Eleanor Steber retroactively commissioned the work; her involvement was the result of Barber’s relationship with Koussevitzky and the BSO, which had already performed the composer’s School for Scandal Overture, the Violin Concerto, the first Essay for Orchestra, and the premiere of his Second Symphony, Airborne. Barber had no particular prospects for Knoxville when he sent Koussevitzky the score in 1947, but the conductor was delighted, suggesting Barber send it to Steber. An acclaimed American soprano who had made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1940, Steber had sung with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops in 1938 and as soprano soloist in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony under Koussevitzky. She would later create the title role in Barber’s opera Vanessa at the Met in 1958.

The text of Knoxville: Summer of 1915 is taken from James Agee’s autobiographical essay “Knoxville, 1915,” used as the introduction to his novel A Death in the Family. The point of view (but not the nostalgic, poeticized language) is that of the 6-year-old Agee, whose innocent understanding is variously comfortable, excited, and emotionally intense. Barber sets the straightforward but image-rich prose in several episodes. The outer sections focus on Agee’s family and home, at first descriptive, then examining. Barber sets the descriptive sections with lilting, three-beat melodies. The opening tune, which returns throughout the piece, uses the common pentatonic scale for a strong, clear, folk-like quality. This moves almost without transition to an overstimulated episode describing Knoxville’s bustling evening activity, centered on the streetcar. We return to the front porch and the opening tune, which broadens out into a major-key musing on the narrator’s family. The child is overcome with emotion: “May God bless my people.” After the child’s final brief crisis of identity, the opening melody returns in the oboe as a kind of ultimate comfort.

Robert Kirzinger

KNOXVILLE: SUMMER OF 1915

We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville Tennessee in that 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 aestival 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 raising its iron moan; stopping, belling and starting; stertorous; rousing and raising again its iron increasing moan and swimming its gold windows and straw seats on past and past and past, the bleak spark crackling and cursing above it like a small malignant spirit set to dog its tracks; the iron whine rises 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. 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.

—James Agee
©Copyright 1949 by G. Schirmer, Inc.