Samuel Barber (American, 1910-1981): Knoxville: Summer of 1915
Anniversary of his death on 1/23
You probably have heard Barber's "Adagio for Strings," which is an adaptation of a movement from his string quartet. But Barber was an extraordinarily versatile musician, the only person ever to have completed a triple major at the renowned Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia--in piano, composition, and voice. Besides the "Adagio," he is probably best known for his operas and other vocal works. He wrote beautiful melodies, and his style is (I think) personal and immediate; to me, a lot of his music has a distinctive warm, almost “generous” sound. (Describing music with words can be very difficult!)
Anyway, this is one of Barber’s better known works. It’s based on a text by James Agee, an experiment in improvisatory writing which, he claimed, he wrote in 90 minutes. There is a LOT of “word painting” in this, so keep your ears open. This is a version by Leontyne Price, for whom Barber wrote many of his soprano parts. She said that Agee’s prose-poem was “like painting a picture of my hometown, and that’s the way I sang it.” The recording was made shortly after the death of her father, and that too affects this performance. She was a famous opera singer but at times sings very intimately here, like she is speaking.
(I went through a phase when I listened to this piece almost every day on repeat...actually, it was a cassette tape so not really on repeat, I had to rewind it each time. Yes, I’m old. )
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, 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, 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 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 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. 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