In 1938, at the age of 28, James Agee composed his prose-poem “Knoxville: Summer, 1915.” He did so in a febrile hour and a half, writing as if from the depths of a dream, summoning forth in five incantatory pages a nostalgic vision from his childhood. “We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville, Tennessee,” Agee begins, transporting us to an unremarkable, lower-middle-class neighborhood of wooden houses and large yards filled with cottonwood and tulip trees. It is that magical time just after dinner, when all the children have been released to enjoy the day’s last light, amid the locusts, fireflies, and frogs, and the men emerge to water their lawns, the women rocking quietly on their front porches. Later, the narrator (presumably Agee, or a version of himself as a five-year-old boy) and his father, mother, uncle, and aunt lie down in the back yard, on quilts. As the narrator contemplates his place in the world, the feeling of warmth and consolation dissipates into something far more desolate, until darkness falls, and the time comes for him to go to bed.
Agee published the piece in The Partisan Review, and after his death in 1955, it became the prologue to his celebrated novel A Death in the Family—a book that at times inhabits a similar emotional and physical terrain. It is, among other things, a highly musical piece of writing. We hear the sounds of automobiles, a passing streetcar, people talking, the garden hoses singing like violins, as well as a horse and buggy, which produce a “hollow iron music on the asphalt.” The crickets issue forth “a sweet cold silver noise,” and the locusts, too, make a kind of music, not
rasped or vibrated but urged … as if through a small orifice by a breath that can never give out. Also there is never one locust but an illusion of at least a thousand. The noise of each locust is pitched in some classic locust range out of which none of them varies more than two full tones: and yet you seem to hear each locust discrete from all the rest, and there is a long, slow, pulse in their noise, like the scarcely defined arch of a long and high set bridge.
The work’s rhythms, cadences, and alliterative phrasing also make it apt for a musical setting, which is what Samuel Barber undertook upon encountering it in 1947. The composer, a near contemporary of Agee’s, recognized many familiar images from his own childhood—even if his hometown of West Chester, Pennsylvania, was a world away from Knoxville—but he also identified with the work’s deeper philosophical questions. “You see,” Barber would later say in a radio interview, “it expresses a child’s feeling of loneliness, wonder, and lack of identity in that marginal world between twilight and sleep.”
Barber, an exquisite writer of art songs, took the final third of Agee’s text and turned it into a lyric rhapsody for soprano and orchestra. He worked quickly, dedicating the finished work, Knoxville: Summer of 1915, to his father, Roy Barber, whose health was fast declining. In April 1948, the soprano Eleanor Steber premiered the piece, with Serge Koussevitzky conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It might just be Barber’s finest vocal composition, a work that can be relished any time of the year, of course, but that seems particularly appropriate for these last few days of summer.
It begins with a melody played by the English horn, clarinet, and bassoon—the mood uncertain, languid, and hushed—before the flutes take up a tender line of triplets that suggests the motion of rocking. We hear the murmur of people’s voices, as well as a loud car going by in the form of a muted French horn. The images appear like a succession of golden memories, drowsy impressions that linger like a haze. Here and, indeed, throughout the piece, the singer declaims Agee’s text with a direct simplicity, the vocal lines free of artifice. The music also sounds American. There is something of the blues in these passages—not a characteristic often associated with the composer of Antony and Cleopatra and the Adagio for Strings.
The wistful calm of the opening section soon gives way to a more agitated and urgent passage, the discordant sounds of the city intruding upon what had very much been a country idyll. Now we hear the “iron moan” of the streetcar, “the bleak spark crackling and cursing above it like a small malignant spirit set to dog its tracks.” The woodwinds play staccato lines, and the strings pluck their notes, the textures crisp, the sonorities metallic. When the streetcar’s “iron whine rises,” so too does the vocal line, and as the streetcar passes, the tumult eases, the soprano declaiming the most exquisite line: “Now is the night one blue dew.” Here Barber slackens the tempo to match the heavy, somnolent rhythms of the text, in which five of the line’s seven syllables are weighed down by accents. The soprano, inhabiting an upper register, ascends to a high B flat on the word blue—an otherworldly harmonic effect—before dropping a half-step to an A on the word dew.
The mood has by this point palpably changed—the return of the opening rocking theme brings only superficial comfort, an uneasiness having entered into the tranquil flow of reverie. We hear the “dry and exalted noise of the locusts” coming to us like a monotonous chant, and then, after a mysterious blues-inflected passage in the strings, the work moves from the general to the specific, the focus of Agee’s text now turning to the narrator’s family, spread out upon quilts “on the rough wet grass of the backyard”:
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 of 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 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.
How could Barber not have been moved by that last sentence, what with his own father nearing death as he set the line to music? (Agee’s father, who died in 1916, is another presence, hovering over this passage as he does over the entirety of A Death in the Family.) Here, as the narrator displays a remarkable maturity, an awareness, at so young an age, of the sorrow of life and the inevitability of death, the music becomes passionate, intense, increasingly turbulent. The line rises to another high B flat on the word sorrow in the phrase “sorrow of being on this earth”—a deft, even ironic touch, given that the note seems to float in some preternatural realm, far above the realm of earthly grief.
As the first theme returns, gentle once more, with the strings now playing those triplet figures and the English horn taking up the solo, we know that the summer evening its approaching its end. But the lines the soprano sings do not bring closure or solace:
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.
That last vocal line, slowly uttered, has a tense, elliptical quality, as Barber renders in sound the dilemma confronting Agee’s narrator: the failure to understand one’s place in the world, a search made all the more futile when one’s family can provide no guidance at all.
“That was exactly my childhood!” said Eleanor Steber of Barber’s work and Agee’s text, remembering her upbringing in Wheeling, West Virginia. Another superb interpreter of Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Leontyne Price, born in Laurel, Mississippi, had a similar response: “it expresses everything I know about my roots and about my mama and father … my home town. … You can smell the South in it.” Why has Barber’s piece appealed to so many people from such different backgrounds—irrespective of race, wealth, or region? The text, a poetic hymn to both nostalgia and existential insecurity, does address questions of universal appeal, but I suspect that the music’s subtle bluesy streaks increases its familiarity and allure. Barber may have been the consummate continental Romantic, but he never sounded so idiomatically American as he does in Knoxville: Summer of 1915. The work speaks to us all. In its journey from innocence to experience, it deals profoundly with our loneliness in the world, with how we reckon with growing up, a business made all the harder when the last thing we come to learn is exactly who we are.
Listen to Leontyne Price sing Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, with Thomas Schippers leading the New Philharmonia Orchestra.
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