Season after Pentecost, 2023
American composer Samuel Barber was born on this date in 1910. One of my favorite pieces of his is Knoxville: Summer of 1915, which, in a way, celebrated a kind of centennial last summer (even more so if you happened to be in Knoxville then).
Here's a (slightly revised) excerpt of a piece I wrote for the St. Paul's, Richmond June/July 2015 edition of The Epistle, the parish newsletter.
Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Op. 24 by American composer Samuel Barber isn’t a piece of sacred music, and you won’t hear it in church any time soon (at least, not that we have planned!), but there is a deep sense of sacredness within.
The piece, scored for voice (usually sung by soprano) and full orchestra, sets an excerpt of prose by James Agee. What I love about how this all comes together—the words, the voice, the orchestra—is that Barber creates the summer in Tennessee 100 years ago. You can hear the passing cars: the “loud auto” and “a quiet auto.” You sense the still, humid summer air. You feel the presence of many people lingering, on their stoops, on their porches, on their lawns at “that time of evening”—all of them trying to escape the heat.
Halfway through the piece, it draws inward. The soprano, who sings from the perspective of a small boy, tells of the people in his life, lying on quilts in their backyard: “All my people are larger bodies than mine.” And these people talk “of nothing in particular.” I am chagrinned to note that among the people in this gathering “one is an artist” and “one is a musician” both of whom are “living at home.” But then the bottom drops out of the music for a moment of great emotional intensity, as the soloist declaims with great love “one is my mother, who is good to me.” And the music contracts again to give the inevitable resolution to this melody as the soprano affirms “one is my father, who is good to me.” And then Barber pivots the music, this time with unsettled harmonies, and the boy realizes the cosmic implications of human existence itself.
“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 night.”
There is, to my ear, a deep kind of sacredness that I don’t think we often encounter in our typical church music.
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