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Knoxville Summer of 1915, Eleanor Steber, soprano

By July 14, 2019March 17th, 2023No Comments

Elenor Steber was a great lyric soprano.  She commissioned a piece from Samuel Barber, one of the most famous American composers of the 20th century.  And Barber wrote Knoxville Summer of 1915 based on a poem written by James Agee.  Barber used about one-third of what Agee had written.  Information on Barber, Agee, and Steber is below.  This is one of the great American pieces of music.

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 tress, 
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 horsement, 
squared with clowns in hueless amber. 
A streetcar raising into iron moan; 
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; 
Now is the night one blue dew; 
my father has drained, 
he has coiled the hose. 
Low on the length of lawns, 
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 backyard 
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. 
The stars are wide and alive, 
they all seem 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 

Samuel Barber, 1910-1981

Composed 1947. First performance: April 9, 1948, Eleanor Steber, soprano. Boston Symphony conducted by Serge Koussevitzky, Boston.

The beginning of 1947 was a difficult time for Samuel Barber. He was happy to have returned to civilian life after his wartime service, but his father and aunt were both in failing health. That January, he encountered James Agee’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915”, a short essay which would eventually become the preamble to the author’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Death in the Family. Agee’s poignant look back at his childhood struck a chord with Barber, and when soprano Eleanor Steber commissioned a work from him in February, he immediately decided to set it to music. The piece came to him very quickly and was completed on April 4.

The text resonated strongly with Steber, who commented, “That was exactly my childhood in Wheeling, West Virginia.” For his part, Barber was struck by the uncanny similarity between his and Agee’s childhood: both were five years old in 1915 and were raised by loving parents and an artistic aunt and uncle (for Barber, the composer Sidney Homer and contralto Louise Homer). The composer later wrote to his uncle, “It reminded me so much of summer evenings in West Chester, now very far away, and all of you are in it.” Barber’s Aunt Louise would pass away on May 6, 1947. His father, to whom the composer dedicated Knoxville, followed on August 12.

The piece begins with a theme that we will come to associate with the comfort of home. A gentle triplet figure in the orchestra brings to mind the image of rocking chairs on the porch, mirroring the text’s description of people “rocking gently and talking gently”. Throughout Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Barber looks to the text for his melodic cues in this way, using word painting to create atmosphere and emphasize words. We hear the horses’ “hollow iron music on the asphalt”, and the unhurried pace of passersby “talking casually” is reflected in the singer’s delivery of the words.

Knoxville’s structure closely follows the free, dreamlike flow of Agee’s prose. The composer referred to the resulting piece as a “lyric rhapsody”, and it can roughly be described in rondo form, with the tranquility of childhood memories interrupted by two episodes.

The gentle rocking theme returns at the end, and attempts to regain the innocent happiness with which it began; it never quite manages to do so. It does, however, achieve a calm acceptance which seems both more profound and more fulfilling. This soliloquy, which began as a naïve and blissful remembrance of the golden years of childhood, ends with acknowledgement of the frailty of life and the realization that, while home may always exist, at least in the mind, in an existential sense, it “will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me who I am.”

James Agee was born on November 27, 1909, in Knoxville, Tennessee, and died on May 16, 1955 of a heart attack, in New York.   American poet, novelist, and writer for and about motion pictures. One of the most influential American film critics in the 1930s and ’40s, he applied rigorous intellectual and aesthetic standards to his reviews, which appeared anonymously in Time and signed in The Nation.

Agee grew up in Tennessee’s Cumberland Mountain area, attended Harvard University, and wrote for Fortune and Time after he graduated in 1932. Permit Me Voyage, a volume of poems, appeared in 1934.

From 1948 until his death, Agee worked mainly as a film scriptwriter, notably for The African Queen (1951) and The Night of the Hunter (1955). His novel A Death in the Family (1957), which is about the effect of a man’s sudden death on his six-year-old son and the rest of his family, and his novella The Morning Watch(1951), on the religious experiences of a 12-year-old boy, are both autobiographical.   A Death in the Family, into which Knoxville Summer of 1915 was inserted after Agee’s deathwon a Pulitzer Prize, and it was adapted for the stage as All the Way Home (1960; filmed 1963). Agee’s other works include Agee on Film (1958, reissued in 2000 with a new introduction by David Denby), collected reviews; Agee on Film II (1960, reissued 1969), consisting of five film scripts; and Letters to Father Flye (1962), a collection of his letters to a former teacher and lifelong friend. The Collected Short Prose of James Agee was published in 1968

Eleanor Steber was born in Wheeling, West Virginia, where she grew up in a musical family. Her mother was a singer and taught her voice and piano, took her to concerts, and arranged for coaching. She later studied at the New England Conservatory in Boston. In 1940 she won first prize at the Met Auditions, earning a Met contract. Her first role there was Sophie in Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier. During the next years she benefited from conductors such as Bruno Walter, Sir Thomas Beecham, Erich Leinsdorf and George Szell. She was a versatile artist and appeared in Italian, French and German operas. Things began to change for her at the Met when Rudolf Bing took over the company in 1950. By this time, her career extended well beyond New York (San Francisco, Glyndebourne, Chicago and Bayreuth). At the Met, though, she began to feel that she was being passed over for mainstream Italian roles in favor of Tebaldi and Callas. She occasionally sang Tosca, Elisabetta, Desdemona and Manon Lescaut, but her best opportunities were the great Mozart roles. She was also the company’s first Arabella in 1955 and its first Marie in Wozzeck in 1959. In 1958 she created Barber’s Vanessa (but it was first offered to Callas and Jurinac who both declined).   Her private life was not a happy one.She left the Met in 1961.  Thereafter she sang concerts, appeared in musicals and taught subsequently at The Juilliard School of Music. She died in Pennsylvania in 1990.