Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915

performed by Barbara Hendricks and the London Symphony Orchestra under Michael Tilson Thomas, a remarkable performance, or below by Dawn Upshaw and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s under David Zinman

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

Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 was commissioned by soprano Eleanor Steber, who sang the premiere on April 9, 1914 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Serge Koussevitzky. It sets an outstandingly lovely piece of prose entitled Knoxville, from James Agee’s collection A Death in the Family, to music, stunningly, simple, painfully beautiful music for soprano voice and orchestra.

Barber and Agee shared a number of connections to both Knoxville and the year 1915. For Agee, it was his hometown, and as Wikipedia says, 1915 “was the last year his family was intact; his father died in an automobile accident in 1916, and the remaining family members left Knoxville, never to return.” Barber himself, similar in age to Agee, was dealing with his own father’s deteriorating health, and the genesis of both works, Agee’s text and the later setting of it to music, was marked by quick composition, a sort of effortlessness and naturalness.

I love literature… I hardly ever read fiction anymore, but there was a time that I devoured it. There’s a sense of delicacy, of simple beauty but also pain and heartache, and acceptance of it, in works from authors like William Faulkner or John Steinbeck, and others. A straightforward simplicity reveals itself to be a multifaceted story of light and shadow, the unspoken emotions and struggles of each character palpable on each page, and the reader relishes in the realness and vividness, and even the pain, of the writing.

I hear this in Agee’s text as well as Barber’s setting of it. The piece doesn’t use Agee’s original text in full, but rather chooses specific excerpts, but it’s at no loss for it. The work is marked by a nostalgic delicacy, but also a freeness, an extemporaneous unfolding as if the music had never existed before this very moment, and it’s spellbinding.

I’d not intended to feature this piece, but for another project I’m working on, decided to try to find some orchestral songs in English, still with not even a inkling of a consideration that they could fit into this series. This was the first one I decided to give an ear to, and I’d never even heard of the piece before a few weeks ago. I picked up the score from the library and purchased Barbara Hendricks’ stunning performance, and that was that. It had to be included.

The work is about 15 minutes in length, and is described as a rhapsody, which is fitting for its free, spontaneous, expressive nature. There are some sections that seem to be repeated or related, but the most significant of these is in the overall return of the opening material at the end. That aside, there’s a passage after the wonderful opening about a car starting up, and while the music is poetically evocative of a loud motor revving, I find it an unpleasant passage, a little show tune-y, inelegant in contrast with the beautiful, fragrant tapestry of the rest of the piece, but it serves a strong, almost grating contrast with the rest of the work.

There’s not a lot more I feel I can or should (try to) say about this piece. I remember the first few magical moments, score in hand, hearing Barbara Hendricks begin to sing, the lush, tender textures of the music, woodwinds and strings at the beginning, and knowing in that instant that I had to make room for this piece.

I’d never even heard of this work, much less listened to it or looked at the score, and I think this typifies the excitement and joy that can come from just reading, just listening to new music. Like a book, you can always put it down and pick it back up later, but you have nothing to lose from trying it, and I almost did ‘put this back down’, as it were.

After the initial, overwhelming impression of knowing I wanted to share this piece, I heard the ‘car’ part, and thought that… maybe it’s not as amazing as the beginning if it’s going to continue that way, but that’s just me being critical. It’s painting with words and music, and offers some contrasts.

You can hear, nay feel, the emotion and the tension in the relationships as the main character (Hendricks, in our case) sings about relationships with father, mother, and other members of the family, what they do, how their little world is organized, and suddenly, there are glimpses, even an entire wave, of questioning and self-awareness. It is its own little cosmos, stunning in its beauty and brevity.

Sometimes music happens like this, and likely even more so nowadays. You don’t have to wander accidentally into a concert hall or opera house to stumble upon something amazing. We have YouTube and iTunes and streaming services and Shazam and so many music resources nowadays. All you have to do is give it a try.

We’re almost done, actually, with our series on the human voice, and in fact, Monday’s piece was to be the end of that series, but there were a few more that came along, including this one, that will give us a small (or large) taste of vocal music in the English language, all of it more modern than this piece, so do stay tuned. I think you might enjoy what’s coming, and even if you don’t, the articles are worth a read, right?

Thank you.


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