Surely one of the finest and most underperformed composers of the 20th century was Samuel Barber, whose catalogue may be short but that is more than made up by its quality. I’m pleased to say that we’ve connected with another American composer in the vocal tradition of Barber and Ned Rorem. One of Barber’s post-war pieces (written in 1947 and, therefore, nearly my contemporary) is the song “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” from a text by James Agee. There are several recordings on youtube, as well as numerous on-line analyses. I’d forgot how evocative “Knoxville” was the first time I heard it more than fifty years ago, and how subtly it influenced to character of a fictitious town in Iowa.
Knoxville: Summer of 1915
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; / 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; / my father has drained, / he has coiled the hose. / Low on 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 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.
Among the several conscious acknowledgments I must make — to explain; justify; make plain — the subconscious sources of a project like Agincourt, music has occupied a significant place.