Wednesday, June 25th, 2014...9:30 am
Steber and Knoxville: Summer of 1915
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.”
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.
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.
Dale Stinchcomb, Curatorial Assistant in the Harvard Theatre Collection, contributed this post.