So I put on a recording of Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” and hectored the others into spending sixteen minutes glorying in this magnificently evocative piece.
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The prose piece, “Knoxville,” was written in the mid-1930s. Agee gave fuller treatment to childhood events in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Death in the Family, published (and finished) posthumously in 1957. By this time, Barber’s 1947 work had achieved some success, and the prose piece was inserted into the novel as a prologue.
Barber was born the same year as Agee, and must have found resonance with the heartbreak of losing a father: as he began to set Agee’s words, Barber’s own father was ill and soon would die. But it was the power of the words themselves that inspired the composer to set them. As Barber noted, “The summer evening he describes ... reminded me so much of similar evenings when I was a child at home ... It expresses a child’s feeling of loneliness, wonder, and lack of identity in that marginal world between twilight and sleep.”
Make no mistake: this is a prose piece of very heightened language, as the words Barber chose as the opening to his piece demonstrate: “ ... It has become the 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.”
The piece was commissioned and premiered by Eleanor Steber, who made a fine recording of the work in 1950 – but she brought a big, big voice to a largely gentle work that better rewards an intimate approach. Of the other recorded versions I’ve acquired, Dawn Upshaw’s strikes a beautiful balance between capturing the beauty of the music while also creating a plausible character for the narrative voice.
But the version to which I most often return was made by Leontyne Price in 1968, with Thomas Schippers conducting the New Philharmonia Orchestra – only a couple of years after Price originated the role of the Egyptian queen in the ill-fated Metropolitan Opera premiere of Barber’s “Antony and Cleopatra.”
It’s not the Price of “Aida” or even Donna Anna, but a voice she allows to relax into a pure aural image of child-scape wonder. After the ambiguous woodwind chorale that opens the work, there’s a sweet six-eight figure that might be porch-rocking, and then the vocal comes in. Free at first of vibrato and, seemingly, any other operatic affect, Price’s voice wends through the gentle opening with marvelously controlled scoops and shadings.
“A streetcar raising its iron moan ... ” A three-note warning races through the orchestra before the vocal continues in a strident way, describing the passing of this car with kid-perspective terror expressed through poetically enhanced hyperbole. “(T)he iron whine rises on rising speed ... ” And even as the vehicle is about to be forgotten, the singer rises through the clarion phrase, “Now is the night one blue dew” (and listen to that gutsy scoop into “dew”), leading to as magical a transition as music can offer.
We’re considering the house again, but the color of Price’s voice has changed. It’s darker, a little older, perhaps, but trying to hurry back to the sense of safety we heard in the beginning. When the winds perk up to introduce the phrase, “On the rough wet grass of the back yard,” we hear Price the child again, happy and unguarded enough to break your heart with the pain-foreshadowed joy of, “One is my father who is good to me.”
And suddenly I’m back on the backyard lawn of a squat brick house in the Finneytown area of north Cincinnati, and it’s a warm summer night in 1960. We’re nominally perched on webbed lawn chairs, my toddler brother and I, and my father sits by us. I can glimpse from time to time my mother through the kitchen window, but she doesn’t join us. Both of my parents are only a few years out of the Navy, and Dad has many stories to tell and probably, that evening, tells some of them. But what I remember most vividly comes when he pulls a harmonica from his pocket – I think he explains that he did this on shipboard watch – and begins to play, and I had no idea he could coax such strange and wonderful sounds from the instrument.
Perhaps I focus on the moment, carrying that memory of the grass and the bricks, the sky and the music because, like Agee, I’d soon suffer a family loss, but it wasn’t as starkly poignant as a death. It was the loss of the family itself as a tenuous marriage began to unravel further, until my brother and I spent so many nights crouched on an upstairs landing in the house – a house in New Jersey, a house in Connecticut – gripping the balusters as our parents quarreled below, too frightened to remain in the dead-ends of our bedrooms.
“After a little I am taken in and put to bed.” That six-eight rocking figure has returned, but the clarinet is unhappy and is joined in uncertainty by others in the instrumental choir as the lyric laments “those ... who quietly treat me, as one familiar and well-beloved in that house,” and yet deny what’s not even theirs to give: a reliable sense of identity.
Price finishes far from the innocence with which she enters the piece, and even as the winds and strings try to hang on to the porch-scene’s peace, you feel childhood slipping away and you leave the piece feeling a thousand years older.