Wednesday, June 25th, 2014...9:30 am

Steber and Knoxville: Summer of 1915

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Samuel Barber, Eleanor Steber, and Dimitri Mitropoulos rehearsing Knoxville. [Photograph by Don Berg, 1948]. 2006MT-18In April 1948 concertgoers at Symphony Hall in Boston listened as Eleanor Steber sang for them of summer evenings:

It has become that time of evening when people sit on their porches, rocking gently and talking gently and watching the street…

The words are James Agee’s, excerpted from a portrait of his boyhood in Knoxville and set to music by Samuel Barber. They are poignant words that spoke convincingly to Steber and Barber both of their own upbringings in small-town America.

…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…

Steber had commissioned the work for soprano and orchestra a year earlier, and when Barber showed her the finished score she was thrilled beyond imagining. She wrote in her memoir that “It was Sam’s discerning eye and ear which enabled him to cut and lift bits of [Agee’s] text faultlessly … and set [them] to unforgettable music.”

Steber’s score shows revisions in Barber’s hand. M1614.B23 K6 1947

Arrangements were made for Knoxville’s premiere with the Boston Symphony, then under the direction of Serge Koussevitzky. But circumstances conspired against it. Steber discovered through an acquaintance who had seen and heard the piece even before her commission that Barber had not written it for her, but rather, if Steber’s account is to be believed, intended it for contralto Carol Brice. She was furious. (Barber would later admit that he had indeed begun the composition before Steber approached him, but without a particular singer in mind.) Then, on the eve of the performance, came news of Koussevitzky’s retirement, effectively upstaging the premiere. It didn’t help either that Knoxville’s distinctly American poetry was lost on the Russian-born conductor whom Barber guessed didn’t have a clue as to its meaning.

Serge Koussevitzky’s baton from the premiere, inscribed: “To Eleanor Steber in remembrance of 1st performance of ‘Knoxville’ Serge Koussevitzky 1948.” 2006MT-18

Whatever the shape of its origins, Knoxville belonged first to Steber. To her mind its merit outlasted the sting of its uncertain provenance. And she went on to perform it with Dimitri Mitropoulos in Minneapolis, after which Barber rescored the accompaniment, persuaded that the piece was better off without a full orchestra. This version Steber recorded with William Strickland in 1951. Since, the work has enjoyed enormous popular success, and Agee’s summertime idyll became the prologue to his Pulitzer-prize-winning novel, A Death in the Family.

To hear Barber discuss Knoxville in a 1949 CBS radio interview, click here.

Samuel Barber, Eleanor Steber, and Dimitri Mitropoulos. [Photograph by Don Berg, 1948]. 2006MT-18

This post is the third in a series on the Eleanor Steber collection to mark the centenary of her birth. The previous post can be read here.

Dale Stinchcomb, Curatorial Assistant in the Harvard Theatre Collection, contributed this post.


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  • In OperaNews July 1998, Emily Coleman offers an interesting view of the premier of Knoxville. “In those days nobody was permitted to attend a rehersal of Serge Koussevitsky conducting the Boston Symphony. We the critics maintained that for such an important preview, we had to have a preliminary hearing. A compromise was arranged; we would crouch, or sit, on the floor of the first row of the balcony, hidden behind the wooden railing. We could hearm but only see by popping up our heads now and again. The rehersal did not go well. Koussevitsky was clearly baffled by the American flavor of James Agee’s poetry and Barber’s score. Out of sorts, he left abruptly. Steber’s moxie took over. She and the concertmaster huddled, establishedtheir rapport and the rehersal went on, Steber alone and the BSO playing as if nothing had happened. Koussie did appear for the performance, waving his stickappropriately. But we who were privy to the situation realized that at her own world premier Steber was not only singing her vocal line, but through the concertmaster, conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra as well. (p.52)

  • Dale Stinchcomb
    July 28th, 2014 at 11:46 am

    John, Thank you for pointing out Coleman’s article. What fascinating details from the rehearsal which were only hinted at in the reviews I came across!