KnoxyThis setting for soprano and orchestra of an autobiographical prose-poem by James Agee is Barber’s “most completely representative work – and one of his most beautiful”, says Wilfrid Mellers, and it’s hard to disagree. The voice is that of a child – or at least that of a man “re-living his childhood so intensely that the child’s voice speaks through him”. Agee’s text, from his autobiographical A Death in the Family, starts off like this: “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”. Barber begins with a flowing, lyrical texture, using the rhythm of a rocking cradle (not far removed from the rocking semiquaver accompaniment signifying the sea in Dover Beach), of

….the time of evening
when people sit on their porches,
rocking gently and talking gently
and watching the street

After a more lively, jazz-tinged section (“A streetcar raising its iron moan”) comes calm and stillness with a beautiful image, set to an ecstatic rising figure: “Now is the night, one blue dew”. On the lawn, quilts are spread and everyone – “my mother, my father, my uncle, my aunt, and I too” – talks quietly “of nothing in particular, of nothing at all in particular, of nothing at all”. But rising orchestral dissonance intrudes with a moment of disquiet about the future.

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 the night

The tension gradually subsides, and the comforting, rocking cradle rhythm returns as the boy sings of being put to bed. However, there is a final cry of anguish with the realization that those who love him will not, “not now, not ever, will not ever tell me who I am”. Through all the comfort and care he is receiving, the child cannot break away, or grow to achieve independent self-awareness. We are left, Mellers concludes “with an ineffably tender version of the rocking. In James Agee’s powerfully evocative text – which the vocal line follows with almost ‘pre-conscious’ spontaneity – Barber would seem to have found his quintessential theme”.

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