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Song Stories: Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915”

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This month’s “Song Stories” feature doesn’t necessarily tell a story, but rather it describes a setting. It uses prose to paint a picture of the early 20th century American South, as told through a child’s eyes. The text and music are the result of two masters of their crafts at work: James Agee and Samuel Barber.

Samuel Barber (1910-1981) composed the music for Knoxville: Summer of 1915 in 1947 for a commission from Serge Koussevitzky, conductor of the Boston Symphony, and soprano Eleanor Stebor. Barber intended for the work to be a lyric rhapsody, and he wanted the text, composed by James Agee (1909-1955), to have a clear rhythmic pattern that is emulated in the music. Barber did not use the entire text, but rather rearranged portions that helped reinforce the musical ideas he was portraying.

Photograph showing Samuel Barber, well-known American composer, in uniform, left, and conductor Serge Koussevitzy, right, during an intermission of the rehearsal of "Commando March."
Photograph showing Samuel Barber, well-known American composer, in uniform, left, and conductor Serge Koussevitzy, right, during an intermission of the rehearsal of Barber’s new “Commando March.” 1943. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

Barber was drawn to Agee’s work because there were similarities between the author’s adolescent experiences and his own. He said of Agee’s text, “I had always admired Mr. Agee’s writing and this prose-poem particularly struck me because the summer evening he describes in his native southern town reminded me so much of similar evenings, when I was a child at home.” Agee, describing his work, remarked, “There is little if anything consciously invented in it, it is strictly autobiographical.”

In the poem, Agee describes the year of his life in Knoxville shortly before his father’s death. When Barber composed Knoxville, his father and aunt (herself a renowned singer), were both terminally ill. Barber described his reaction to reading Agee’s prose, “Agee’s poem was vivid and moved me deeply, and my musical response was immediate and intense.” The state of the world in 1947 when Knoxville was composed was in direct contrast with what was happening in Barber’s life. Two years removed from World War Two, the world was seeking peace, while Barber’s life was enduring sadness and loss. He would dedicate the work to his father.

Photograph shows Samuel Barber, 28 year old American composer, whose "Adagio for Strings" and "Essay for Orchestra" were given their world premiere performance by Arturo Toscanini during his NBC Symphony Orchestra broadcast on Saturday, Nov. 5.
Samuel Barber, seated, making notes on his music, 1938. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

James Agee’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 would appear as a preface to his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Death in the Family, which was published posthumously in 1957. Barber first became aware of the prose poem after it appeared in the periodical Partisan Review in 1938. Aaron Copland once mentioned that he wished he had found the text first, but remarked, “It’s just as well it happened the way it did, or we wouldn’t have Sam’s beautiful score.”

While the text is mainly descriptive and meant to set a scene, it represents a time in Agee’s life that preceded tragedy and sudden change. His father died in a car accident in 1916, and after that his family left Knoxville, and would never return. This understandably became the most significant milepost in the timeline of his life, with the text of Knoxville representing the very best memories he had of his childhood before the tragic loss of his father.

James Agee, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing slightly right.1954. Agee wrote the prose poem that Barber used as his libretto for "Knoxville: Summer of 1915."
James Agee (1909-1955), head-and-shoulders portrait, facing slightly right. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection.

The text is so descriptive that the reader (or in the music’s case, the listener) can easily place themselves in the scene. Agee wrote, “The dry and exalted noise of the locusts from all the air at once enchants my eardrums.” At another point, Barber extracted this phrase: “The stars are wide and alive, they seem each like a smile of great sweetness, and they seem very near.” The prose can set the scene just as easily as the music, but used together, the experience is greatly enhanced.

The original version of Knoxville: Summer of 1915 was composed for voice and orchestra, and it was later re-worked for a smaller chamber orchestra: flute, oboe, two French horns, triangle, strings, harp, and solo voice. While the solo part has been traditionally performed by a soprano voice, it may also be sung by a tenor.  In addition to Eleanor Steber, who helped commission and premier the work, it has attracted many of the most famous performers over the last several decades, including Renée Fleming, Leontyne Price, Dawn Upshaw, and Barbara Hendricks.

If you enjoyed learning about Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, then please sample some of the following selections from the NLS Music and general collection that relate to this blog. You can download them from BARD or ask for hard copy scores and audio-cartridges from the NLS Music Section. Please feel free to contact us to find out about more music materials you may like to borrow by calling 800-424-8567, extension 2, or e-mail us at [email protected].


Agee, James. A Death in the Family. A modern classic about the impact of tragedy on a close-knit family in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the early twentieth century. The story begins a few hours before the death of Jay Follet and ends on the day of his funeral. Strong language. Pulitzer Prize. (BR11893)

Barber, Samuel. Ballade. For piano in bar over bar format. (BRM36027)

____ Excursions, op. 20. For piano in bar over bar format. (BRM35122)

____ A Hand of Bridge, op. 35. For four solo voices (SATB) in bar over bar format. English text. (BRM36026)

____ Hermit Songs, op. 29. For high voice and piano in line by line and bar over bar formats. (BRM17836)

____ Knoxville: Summer of 1915. Line by line format. Vocal part only. Words by James Agee. (BRM24707)

____ Souvenirs, op. 28. Originally for one piano, four hands; arranged for piano solo by the composer. Section by section format. (BRM34589)

Talking Books

Agee, James. A Death in the Family. (DB55669)

Barber, Samuel. The Crucifixion. Titles in this series include a performance of the song with accompaniment, a reading of the lyrics for diction guidance, a translation of the song, a recording of the melody (on piano) and a separate recording of the piano accompaniment alone for use in practice. (DBM01800)

____ The Daisies. (DBM01801)

Dangerfield, Marcia. Narrated Life History of John Philip Sousa, George Gershwin, Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber. Short surveys of the life and music of the American composers John Philip Sousa, George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, and Samuel Barber with music by the composers in the background.  (DBM03407)

Hanson, Howard. Pioneers of Twentieth-Century Music. Howard Hanson conducts his Cherubic Hymn, Daniel Gregory Mason’s Festival Overture, Roy Harris’s Symphony no. 3, Samuel Barber’s Adagio for strings, and Louis Mennini’s Allegro Energico. (DBM00050)

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