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8.559134 - BARBER: Knoxville: Summer of 1915 / Essays for Orchestra Nos. 2 and 3
Samuel Barber (1910-1981)
Knoxville: Summer of 1915 • Toccata Festiva
The music of Samuel Barber has always managed to elude critics and scholars, largely because he was never part of a particular school, aesthetic, or dogma in the midst of a tumultuous century where composers defined themselves by artistic camps. The reductive term “neo-romantic” is conveniently attached to Barber’s work, yet there was nothing “neo” about him—rather, Barber was the last of the true romantics, an American equivalent to Sibelius or Elgar, but with a richer craft, a craggier surface to his work, and a more curious, far-reaching mind.
Barber was born in Westchester, Pennsylvania in March 1910, and showed great promise from an early age, composing some rather impressive, large-scale pieces under the tutelage of composer Sidney Homer, who doubled as his uncle. In 1924 he entered the Curtis Institute as a member of its first class, where he not only studied composition and piano, but also became quite a good baritone. So impressive was he that his fellow students, in awe of his prodigious talent and keen intellect, spoke without irony of the three “B’s”, “Bach, Beethoven, and Barber.”
Barber would go on to be one of the most feted composers of his day, winning two Pulitzer Prizes and the Prix de Rome, and receiving commissions from the world’s most established musical institutions, most notably the Metropolitan Opera, but the failure of his second opera, Antony and Cleopatra, eventually curtailed his otherwise rather prolific output. In the end, watching post-Webernian composers like Boulez and Carter rise to prominence, observing his own evolving obsolescence, made him into a somewhat reclusive, tragic figure. He died in January 1981 in New York City.
In 1942, Barber was commissioned by Bruno Walter to compose a work for the New York Philharmonic, and he obliged with his Second Essay for Orchestra, widely regarded as the tightest, most incisive of the three compositions bearing this title. Some even consider it a single-movement symphony more than an essay, since it is densely packed, and more happens in its scant ten minutes than in some works which sprawl for half an hour. The music itself is all based on the opening flute motif, a sort of quiet fanfare, which eases into the second theme, a more sparse, stark idea in contrast to the lyrical opening. Eventually, Barber spins the initial idea into a spry fugue, and then, in a tour de force, combines all three ideas in a rousing finale, which culminates in a coda echoing the beginning - from his endings come his beginnings. It is Barber at his best, showing his flawless technical mechanism at its most sound, most musical.
A few years before his death, in 1976, Barber discussed the possibility of a commission for a large-scale orchestral work with Eugene Ormandy, then music director for the Philadelphia Orchestra. This became his Third Essay for Orchestra, a form Barber himself had invented several decades earlier. The piece has a large orchestral sweep but is cast in a single, unbroken, tightly wrought movement (all of the material is generated from the opening percussion figure). It is not without lyrical moments, but ultimately it is less melodic than the other two Essays, both composed over thirty years before.
It is little wonder that Barber took to the lyrical prose-poetry of James Agee, whose lilting, nostalgic words the composer would convert into one of his most beloved works, Knoxville: Summer of 1915. The words evoke quieter, plaintive, more innocent times, and composed, as it was, two years after World War II had come to its horrifying close, everyone in the Western world sought refuge in the idea of less violent, more optimistic times. Behind the pure sparsity of the musical textures, however, lurks a darker threat, the potential for shattered innocence, and it comes as no surprise to learn that while Barber was writing this piece, his father, to whom Knoxville is dedicated, was slowly dying. The work is scored for soprano and string quintet, with harp, flute and clarinet, and Barber manages a piece which wonderfully balances the largeness of orchestral writing with the intimacy of chamber music: the composer himself described the work as a “lyric rhapsody”. It was commissioned and first performed by his friend and long-time champion Eleanor Steber, and the première was in April 1948 under the baton of Serge Koussevitzky leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
In 1960, when the wealthy musical patron Mary Zimbalist offered to pay for a new pipe organ in Phildadelphia, the offer came, to the double delight of Eugene Ormandy, with a commission for Barber to write a piece initiating the new instrument. For this occasion he made the Toccata Festiva, a work scored for solo organ with a mid-sized orchestra and designed to display the full range of technical possibilities of the recent, much appreciated gift. Using the orchestra not as an accompanying force, but to create a sort of hyper-organ, the piece is a true star-turn for the player, including a fast, furious opening fanfare, and a cadenza, a soloist’s moment for virtuosic display, using only the pedals, a feat which baffles even the most accomplished of performers.
Knoxville: Summer of 1915
words by James Agee
We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville Tennessee in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child.
...It has become that time of evening when people sit on their porches, rocking gently and talking gently and watching the street and the standing up into their sphere of possession of the trees, of birds’ hung havens, hangars. 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 in vanilla, strawberry, pasteboard, and starched milk, the image upon them of lovers and horsemen, squaring with clowns in hueless amber. A streetcar raising its iron moan; stopping; belling and starting, stertorous; rousing and raising again its iron increasing moan and swimming its gold windows and straw seats on past and past and past, the bleak spark crackling and cursing above it like a small malignant spirit set to dog its tracks; the iron whine rises on rising speed; still risen, faints; halts; the faint stinging bell; rises again, still fainter; fainting, lifting, lifts, faints foregone: forgotten. Now is the night one blue dew.
Now is the night one blue dew, my father has drained, he has coiled the hose.
Low in the length of lawns, a frailing of fire who breathes...
Parents on porches: rock and rock. From damp strings morning glories hang their ancient faces.
The dry and exalted noise of the locusts from all the air at once enchants my eardrums.
On the rough wet grass of the back yard my father and mother have spread quilts. We all lie there, my mother, my father, my uncle, my aunt, and I too am lying there... They are not talking much, and the talk is quiet, of nothing in particular, of nothing at all in particular, of nothing at all. The stars are wide and alive, they seem each like a smile of great sweetness, and they are very near. All my people are larger bodies than mine,... with voices gentle and meaningless like the voices of sleeping birds. One is an artist, he is living at home. One is a musician, she is living at home. One is my mother who is good to me. One is my father who is good to me. 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 the summer evening, among the sounds of the night. May God bless my people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father, oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble; and in the hour of their taking away.
After a little I am taken in and put to be. Sleep, soft smiling, draws me unto her: and those receive me, who quietly treat me, as one familiar and well-beloved in that home: but will not, no, will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me who I am.
© Copyright 1949 (Renewed) by G Schirmer, inc. (ASCAP).
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Reprinted by Permission
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