Barber – Knoxville: Summer of 1915, for Soprano and Orchestra, Op. 24

by Max Derrickson

Samuel Barber
(Born in West Chester, PA, 1910; died in New York, 1981)

Knoxville: Summer of 1915, for Soprano and Orchestra, Op. 24

Knoxville: Summer of 1915 began as an autobiographical essay by the celebrated American author James Agee (1909 -1955).  It was first published in The Partisan Review in 1938 and then, in 1957, became the prologue to Agee’s posthumously published Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Death in the Family.  American composer Samuel Barber first read Agee’s reminiscence in 1947 and he related so deeply to it that he began sketching his own musical portrait of it, Knoxville: Summer of 1915 for Soprano and Orchestra.  Within a month, American soprano Eleanor Steber (1914 – 1990) commissioned Barber for a piece, and the composer completed his Summer for her to sing with and full orchestra.   In 1950, Barber reduced the instrumental forces to create a chamber orchestra version which was the one he published.

Agee’s Knoxville scene is of the quiet summer evenings he recalled as a child in the South – [. . .]  The Civil War was barely more than a generation old and the South in many ways still suffered in its aftermath.  And everyone feared that America, despite its neutrality, was about to go to war again.  Agee, so “successfully disguised to myself as a child,” grapples with the [. . .]   The narration, therefore, wafts between the child’s voice of innocence and the bittersweet wisdom reaped as an adult – used by Agee as a metaphor [. . .]  The horrors of modern warfare would begin for “his people” with World War I within 2 short years.

The tenderness of Agee’s “scene” called for a light touch, and Barber created a musical masterpiece which hints but never overwhelms – rather, words and sounds together create [. . .]  But when the crackling, clacking street car interrupts that night scene, the dissonance [. . .]  an existential prayer followed by the sleepiness of Barber’s musical rocking as the summer nocturne fades into memory.