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ClassicsOnline Home » BARBER: Knoxville: Summer of 1915 / Essays for Orchestra Nos. 2 and 3
This fifth instalment in ‘Naxos’s continuing and continuously revelatory series devoted to Barber’s music’ (The Daily Telegraph), conducted by Gramophone Artist of the Year 2003 Marin Alsop, features the ripely romantic Knoxville: Summer of 1915, a ‘lyric rhapsody’ for soprano and orchestra, and the rarely-recorded Toccata Festiva for organ and orchestra which, with its fast, furious opening fanfare and virtuosic cadenza, is a veritable tourde- force for the soloist.
By Greg Hettmansberger
By Stephen Eddins
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
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
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
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).
International Copyright secured. All Rights Reserved
Reprinted by Permission
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