Samuel Barber Knoxville: Summer of 1915

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Samuel Barber Knoxville Summer of 1915 Program Notes

The text of Samuel Barber Knoxville Summer of 1915 is an autobiographical vignette by James Agee, depicting his impression of an evening when he was six years old, in Knoxville, TN. Agee was a poet, novelist, Time magazine journalist, and screenwriter, including for the Katherine Hepburn and Humphry Bogart movie The African Queen. Agee experimented in writing a “lyric which I thought should be purely improvised… it took possibly an hour and a half.”
Samuel Barber adopted most of the text for his setting in 1947, commissioned by the powerhouse mid-century American soprano Eleanor Steber for a premiere with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It employs chamber-orchestra forces – mostly single winds plus harp alongside the strings. In a dream-like idiom, Agee juxtaposes the commonplace (people walking in pairs, the father wrapping up the hose) with the deeply profound.
After a brief introduction to Samuel Barber Knoxville Summer of 1915, the strings enter and a calm accompaniment sets our narrator in a scene of relaxed, middle-class free time, sitting with family and seeing the world go by. Abruptly changing, an Allegro agitato tells of a careening and noisy streetcar – with “bleak spark,” “malignant spirit” and “iron whine” expressed by half-step dissonances. Barber’s word painting (when composers illustrate non-musical ideas with musical expressions) is quite poetic. The words “fainter… lifting” have a diminuendo, and its notes rise, before a return to the homily backyard scene. Leaping octave grace notes in flute, clarinet and harp, overlay “The stars are wide and alive.” Hinting at the pathos of a child’s small place in a wider world, the text speaks of “the sorrow of being on this earth,” and a child’s awareness of mortality. Barber writes his strongest musical statement here, with the full orchestra returning to the music of the introduction. Then, quietly, the music gives way to the routines of homelife: “I am taken in and put to bed,” but not without a moment of profundity: as Agee writes, before the poem begins: “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.”
As a side-note, in 1915, Knoxville’s streetcars were horse-drawn or steam-powered, running on iron tracks. (They were replaced with an electric system in the 1920s, then discontinued, coincidentally, in 1947.) The Knoxville Tribune said they ran “smoothly and without noise,” – perhaps Agee is accentuating the sensitivity of the young narrator.

Born: March 9, 1910, West Chester, PA
Died: January 23, 1981, New York, NY

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 horsement,
Squared with clowns in hueless amber.
A streetcar raising into iron moan;
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;
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 backyard
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 all seem 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.

Categories: Program Notes