Knoxville: Summer of 1915

By Samuel Barber
Composed in 1948

Barber set this masterpiece to a poem by American author James Agee (1909-1955). Knoxville was first performed in 1948 by soprano Eleanor Steber with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Serge Koussevitsky.

It evokes a summer evening in the backyard of a southern town, as seen through the eyes of a small child. It starts out calmly. The main motive of several falling and rising notes appears in the solo winds (oboe, clarinet and bassoon) in the first few measures. This transitions to a wistful, poignant depiction of the scene – people rocking on porches, talking about everyday things, looking at people and buggies going by in the street.

The agitated middle section starts abruptly – a vivid depiction of “a streetcar raising its iron moan; stopping; belling and starting, stertorous …” After the streetcar fades into the distance, the scene and music revert to the backyard scene – calm again at first, then more urgent as the child’s thoughts turn to the family, life and living, and her place in the world.