I poked around the web afterward but neither eSnips (which is no longer very helpful) nor YouTube has this, and the various CD-selling sites want you to buy the whole recording, of course (can't blame them). I don't own the recording or know how to work one of those little music thingies (I must get the software) so alas, I can't share this with you, but do listen to it sometime! It's a wondrous work.
I did find online a set of 2004 program notes about the work and its context. It's worth a read. Here it is. But try to get a hold of the full musical piece!
Knoxville: Summer of 1915
Samuel Barber (1910-1981)
“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” — the opening of James Agee’s essay Knoxville and Samuel Barber’s 1950 composition for soprano and orchestra, “Knoxville: Summer of 1915.”
The American Civil War was the bloodiest war that the world had known up to that time. This war has often been considered the precursor to modern warfare, with its trenches and tremendous death tolls. The Civil War was a harbinger of modern war in other disturbing ways as well. It was fought over attempted cultural hegemony and blatant nationalism, bound up with racial oppression. The civilian population of the South was brutalized in the Union’s vindictive march to the Atlantic Ocean on the Georgian coast. The year 1915—the year that James Agee chose for his essay—was only 50 years after that war, less, in fact, than our distance now from the Second World War.
Of course, 1915 has other implications. That year Americans were determined to avoid the war in Europe, both in spite of and because of the knowledge of the terrible human cost. “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” is poised precariously in the early evening, before the dark horrors of the night of the 20th Century. The family in the Agee/Barber work is a portrait of Southern stoicism and reserve; their quiet small-talk skirts the fears of tomorrow as well as the sadnesses of yesterday, and focuses on life at the moment.
The voice of this text seems to vacillate between that of the child-narrator and the adult-narrator remembering his childhood thoughts. We are not sure where one voice ends and the other begins. The beginning of the piece quotes the music of the impassioned prayer sung later, at the climax. Gradually, the strident leaps in the strings dissolve into a gentle rocking motion against which the text unfolds. While this rocking motive is indeed less vehement, it still contains the same musical element of the fervent prayer, only softened. In this way, the music seems to guide us to that state of being “successfully disguised to [one’s self] as a child.” The pathos is apparent but contained.
In fact, the child’s sense of security is in continual conflict with his sense of existential terror. Most obviously, the streetcar passing by obliterates the previous Edenesque depiction of evening. In its wake remains the rough wet fear of mortality and the loneliness of the night. The night scene is described: “On the rough wet grass of the back yard my father and mother have spread quilts.” The sustaining comfort of quilts, on which the family rests, is only an inch thick; underneath lie uncertainty and mortality in its biblical metaphor of grass.
Childlike simplicity and dark emotion alternate with increasing duress, culminating in the speaker’s desperate prayer for the well-being of his people: “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.”
The rocking music returns, all the more comforting, if ultimately less reassuring. As the voice of the adult and child fuse, the speaker realizes that with all their regard and love, his family will not—in fact, could not, even when they were still alive—tell him who he is, who he should be. In this tragedy of universal loneliness, however, lies also the hope that one’s spirit, since it must be cultivated alone, will develop on its own terms and flourish.
Barber dedicated the piece to the memory of his father.
— Jed Gaylin
Text, “Knoxville: Summer of 1915”— from James Agee’s essay "Knoxville" and the introduction to his Pulitzer Prize-winning posthumous novel, A Death in the Family
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 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, squaring 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 in 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 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.
© 1949 (renewed) by G. Schirmer, Inc. (ASCAP). International copyright secured. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission
Agee, by the way, was raised an Episcopalian and attended an Episcopal boarding school in the Appalachian mountains. Here and there in his work you can catch that influence in the cadences and content of his language.