Wednesday, February 6, 2008

"Knoxville, Summer 1915:" James Agee, Samuel Barber, Dawn Upshaw

Late last night, in the early hours of Ash Wednesday, I was cleaning up from the Fat Tuesday party and listening to the radio, and on the nighttime classical music show came a familiar tune which I had forgotten. Then I remembered it in all its beauty as I listened. It is Samuel Barber's "Knoxville: Summer of 1915," text by James Agee, sung in this case by the incomparable Dawn Upshaw.

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.


Anonymous said...

Yes, one of those (rare) perfect marriages of music and words. As a retired musician I can say it’s as delightful to play as to hear.

My understanding is that Barber and Copland were not on comfortable speaking terms on the issue of style (one could speak of Copland’s as “French-American” and Barber’s as “Italian-American”), But to my ear Barber’s “sound-world” in Knoxville sort of meets Copland in the middle.

Another match made in heaven imo is Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music. I doubt I will ever again read or hear these lines without hearing V. W.’s music in my head:

… How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this
Here will we sit, and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.…

— Sir Francis

Anonymous said...

Lost in the copy & paste: … lines from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, Act V Scene I.

— Ibid.

FranIAm said...

I had the good fortune to hear/see Dawn Upshaw live at the Metropolitan Opera house a number of years back and more than once. Really good.

Nice post- thank you Jane.

Jane R said...

Hello, Sir Francis, always good to have you visit! How wonderful that you had the privilege of playing in this piece. FranIAm, always happy to have you around, and lucky you to have heard Dawn Upshaw live! I never have.

I'm so glad this post was of interest to some readers. I was worried that it wouldn't be or would be too long. This also reminds me that I miss Simple Village Organist, who disappeared off the radar in late September. I have written him off-blog but no answer. Very worrisome. I hope he resurfaces. He always had fun and thoughtful musical and other posts.

That Barber/Agee piece really is a marvel. And Sir Francis, I found your comment on Copland very interesting -- all the more so given that I love Copland and this is my favorite Barber piece. (Not that I'm a Barber expert, though; I need to become acquaintance with much more of his work.)

Cari said...

It's one of the most rewarding and fantastic American pieces for soprano. :)

I'm singing it in my MFA recital (although alas, with piano) and I hope to sing it with orchestra soon. Just in case anyone reading is in Southern CA, it's at the University of CA, Irvine on May 23.

Peace, and thanks for your activism in your community and church!


Fantastic posting and conversation thread: certainly the best on Barber's miniature masterpiece and Agee's text. Glad to see signs of intelligent life on the web!

The Mind and Music of Phil Hall said...

This is one of the sublimest marriages of lyric, music, and--in Eleanor Steber's recording--voice I've ever heard. I've been playing the piano since I was 9, majored in music at UNC/Chapel Hill (undergrad) and Indiana University/Bloomington (grad). I make my living as a musician in NYC, and having been raised in the south (Durham, NC), the last two paragraphs of this lyric depict unlike anyone else who has ever written about it (to my knowledge)
the joy and sorrow of being raised in the south--even in the late 1950s. Surely God smiled upon this commission and collaboration of artists as He/She does every time I hear it.

Anonymous said...

Everything that has been said is much more important and eloquent than anything that one such as myself could possibly contribute to this. The "omniscient child" character has always been one of my weak spots. Agee here does it perfectly. The only comment that I can make would be to say that Ruth Golden's performance of theis work is awesomely impressive. It is available in full digital on cd with Donald Barra conducting the San Diego Chamber Orchestra.

Roger Wilco said...

These are all excellent comments. "Knoxville" takes me back to the very wonderful memories of my childhood where I am beginning to put together poetry and music for my own hometown impressions.

The mention of Serenade to Music was also good.


Roger Wilco said...

And thanks so very, very much for letting me comment on your outstanding blog!


Jonathan C said...

Just played it in the Vancouver WA Symphony (cello section). Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful!