Knoxville: Summer of 1915 is a prose poem by James Agee, written in 1935. This nostalgic autobiographical text is said to have been written as an exercise in improvisational writing, and is said to have taken a mere 90 minutes to write.1 The close repetitions of phrases and the sense of organic growth within the text would seem to support this allegation. This piece was first published in 1938 in the Parisian Review, vol. V, no. 3. This piece is now included as the prologue to Agee's novel, A Death in the Family.2
Knoxville: Summer of 1915 is also the title of a piece for soprano and orchestra by Samuel Barber, which sets approximately the last third of Agee's text. Barber completed the score on April 4, 1947. Serge Koussevitzky obtained for him a commission for the premiere of this piece by the Boston Symphony with soprano Eleanor Steber (who later sang the title role in Barber's opera Vanessa) in 1948.3
In 1949, Barber revised the score, paring the woodwinds down to one each and excising the timpani part. On April 1, 1950, the chamber orchestral version had its premiere at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. This chamber orchestra version is given opus number 24, It is scored for flute (doubling piccolo), oboe (doubling English horn), clarinet, bassoon, two horns, trumpet, triangle (optional), harp, solo soprano, and strings.
The score includes this line of James Agee's at the top of the front page:
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 text as set by Barber:
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, hangers.
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, squared 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, fainter, lifting, lifts, faints forgone: forgotten.
Now is the night one blue dew.
Now is the night one blue dew,
On the rough wet grass of the backyard my father and mother have spread quilts.
my father has drained,
now 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.
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 voice 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 be.
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, no ,will not, not now, not ever;
but will not ever tell me who I am.
1. This factoid from Geoff Kuenning. http://fmg-www.cs.ucla.edu/geoff/prognotes/barber/knoxville.html
2. The discussion questions associated with Masterpiece Theatre's film of A Death in the Family raise the possibility that this was an editorial decision, rather than the author's intent. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/bookclub/death.html
3. Biographic details from Samuel Barber: The Composer and his Music by Barbera Heyman (Oxford University Press, 1992)
For me, it is Leontyne Price's 1968 recording of this piece with Thomas Schippers conducting (available on RCA Victor/BMG Classics) that is the ne plus ultra of this piece.