Knoxville: Summer of 1915

Martin Cullingford
Monday, April 11, 2011

Samuel Barber's evocative masterpiece was premiered on April 9, 1948 - we mark the anniversary with a look back through its recorded history.

How a nostalgic depiction of early 20th-century Tennessee was transformed into a halcyon evocation of childhood - Andrew Farach-Colton looks at Barber's masterpiece and its best recordings (from Gramophone, August 2002).

‘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,' begins James Agee's Knoxville: Summer of 1915 (the prose-poem which was posthumously added as a kind of prologue to his novel A Death in the Family). Samuel Barber said that when he first read Agee's lyrical reminiscence in 1946, it evoked an immediate and deep response. As the composer explained, 'the summer evening he describes in his native southern town reminded me so much of similar evenings when I was a child at home'.

In fact, the two men were exact contemporaries, and though Agee was a Southerner and Barber a Yankee (born and bred in West Chester, Pennsylvania), Agee's vivid evocation of small-town America seems not to have been limited to any specific geographical location. Eleanor Steber, who premiered Barber's work with Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony in April 1948, said that Knoxville reflected her own upbringing in West Virginia, while Mississippian Leontyne Price claimed that 'you can smell the South in it'.

Agee said he wrote Knoxville in some 90 minutes as an improvisatory exercise, and that once down on paper it required very little revision - an astonishing feat considering the luxuriant precision of its language. With rhythms that lilt and a texture rich in alliteration ('Low on the length of lawn, a frailing of fire who breathes...'), Knoxville is a joy to read aloud - the words make their own music. And the miracle of Barber's setting is that the limpidity of the vocal line allows the text to maintain its integrity, while complementing and enhancing the images and feelings it evokes.

It is also important to note that Barber's Knoxville, like Agee's prose-poem, is nostalgic but unsentimental. The darker aspects of the narrative are given their full due in the score. Agee 'expresses a child's feeling of loneliness, wonder, and lack of identity in that marginal world between twilight and sleep,' to use Barber's own words. So, although the voice we hear is that of a child, it seems to be the child that lives on in an adult's memory - innocent and wide-eyed, but also rapturous and haunted by melancholy.

The pioneering recordings
Steber sang not only Knoxville's premiere in its original scoring for full orchestra, but also the first performance of Barber's definitive revision for chamber orchestra in 1950 with conductor William Strickland. Some six months later they recorded the work for Columbia.

The American soprano's prominence in the musical world at the time made her a natural choice to introduce Knoxville to the public, and she was apparently eager to commission it (though Barber had already started writing before the agreement was finalised). But while Steber was unquestionably a great singer, she was not necessarily the music's ideal interpreter.

There is something prim about Steber's performance, at least in the opening section. She seems to take the lilt out of the rhythms and occasionally rolls her Rs. The sheer size of the voice makes her sound quite mature and not at all childlike. One appreciates her penetrating tone when she describes the streetcar raising its 'iron moan', but her ascent to the pianissimo high B flat in 'Now is the night one blue dew' is awkward, and the nocturnal spell that should be cast is conspicuously missing. Much of her singing is simply too loud, in fact, whether or not microphone placement is ultimately at fault.

And yet there is something more than mere historical significance that draws one back to this half-century-old recording. Along with Steber's characteristic intensity of tone - like gleaming silver - there is an intensity of feeling in the song's final section, beginning with 'The stars are wide and alive.' The Dumbarton Oaks CO, presumably a pick-up group, are rhythmically unsteady and sometimes out of tune. Barber said he liked the way Strickland kept the tempo moving, but one wants more finesse in the orchestral part.

Steber's great affection for Barber's score is also in evidence in a live Carnegie Hall recital from 1958, though Edwin Butcliffe's clumsy piano playing triggers more than a few ungainly moments in her singing as well.

Given Steber's close relationship with the work, the question arises: did Barber help shape her interpretation? But then, the composer also worked closely with Leontyne Price (though not necessarily on Knoxville), and her 1968 RCA recording with Thomas Schippers is utterly different. Price, whose instrument was more voluptuous than Steber's, here slims her voice down to a smiling, slender thread - very childlike, with a boyish hoot. And she savours the words much more, giving a hard rhythmic accent to the horse 'breaking his hollow music on the asphalt’, for example, or painting each word of 'vanilla, strawberry, pasteboard, and starched milk' with a distinct tonal colour.

The streetcar section is taken too slowly, and though one cannot fault the playing of the New Philharmonia, there is insufficient clangour. Price's delivery of the difficult line 'the bleak spark crackling and cursing upon it like a small malignant spirit set to dog its tracks' is not articulated as well as Steber's - but how exquisitely she ascends to the quiet crest of 'Now is the night'. The high B flat is radiant, yet there is a distinct lack of sensuality, as if she were trying to maintain an air of innocence, even here.

There are so many details to isolate and admire - the dark lingering over 'low on the lengths of lawns’, for instance, or the woozy portamentos in 'Sleep, soft-smiling, draws me unto her' - but what is most striking about Price's performance is the way she differentiates between the passages that are speech-like and those that are song-like. 'One is an artist, he is living at home' is sung much more conversationally than 'One is my mother who is good to me' - a distinction that Steber, for one, fails to make as clearly.

The new breed
Unlike Price, Dawn Upshaw does not need to slim down her voice, for it is naturally slender - and neither does she go for Price's simulated boyishness. She is just being herself, or so it seems, and this is what makes her 1988 Nonesuch recording so satisfying. Perhaps this is simply because Upshaw has no diva-like persona to cast off, unlike her predecessors.
Surprisingly, perhaps, Upshaw follows Steber rather than Price by putting less emphasis on individual words and more on the musical line. Yet how clear and natural her diction is. Thus, she is able to sing the line about the streetcar's 'bleak spark' while articulating the words with vital lucidity. And her shaping of 'Now is the night' is faultless - the precisely placed high B flat sung in a breathtaking pianissimo. To say that Upshaw emphasises song over text is not meant to imply that her singing is undercharacterised, however. Far from it. 'The stars are wide and alive' is full of awe, and Upshaw's description of being brought in to bed is as sweet and warm as the words themselves suggest.

Some may find David Zinman's conducting a bit cool, but that impression may result from his refusal to indulge in any unwritten tempo modifications. Certainly no other conductor on record pays such scrupulous attention to Barber's instructions. For the final seven bars of the work, for example, Barber has written sempre con moto, yet only Zinman keeps the tempo flowing through to the very last note. More impressive, still, is the way he scales down the orchestral part to match Upshaw's innately intimate conception of the work, enabling the singer to respect Barber's dynamic markings without strain. And it is likely that Barber would have appreciated Zinman's refusal to dawdle, just as he did Strickland's.

Certainly Yoel Levi hangs around in Telarc's 1991 recording with Sylvia McNair. Levi's lazy tempo for the opening section ('It has become that time of evening') seems effective at first, but the tension never tightens sufficiently, and the conductor seems unwilling to maintain a steady tempo. The Atlanta Symphony has a dark, almost voluptuous sound – vividly caught by Telarc's engineers – but with Levi's constant pushing and pulling, the result seems positively Mahlerian. What a pity, as McNair sings Knoxville extremely well. Her sound is svelte, though brighter and breathier than Upshaw's. The exquisite delicacy with which she sings 'Now is the night' is ravishing.

McNair enunciates the text clearly but, again like Upshaw, seems more interested in line than word. She is more overtly passionate, too, singing 'and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying, on quilts' with an audible gasp and a piercing cry of pain. Her misreading of the rhythm of the last three notes in 'One is an artist, he is living at home' is a tiny flaw, certainly, but disconcerting once noticed.

Transatlantic collaborations
Knoxville's increasing popularity can be gauged by the rapid proliferation of the work on disc beginning in the late 1980s - some featuring European orchestras or conductors. The only non-US singer to tackle the part thus far is British soprano Jill Gomez, whose 1988 Virgin Classics recording (recently deleted) with Richard Hickox and the City of London Sinfonia is admirable overall. She does not really manage to affect a convincing American drawl, but she was probably wise not to try too hard in the first place. The glistening, dewy quality of her voice is very appealing - so much so that its womanly character does not seem at all out of place. Interestingly, Gomez treats Knoxville as pure song, often sacrificing diction for vocal grace. Her expressive swooping in 'Sleep, soft-smiling, draws me unto her' is surely too opulent, but elsewhere she sings with the appropriate simplicity. One senses that she wanted to take the opening section and its various recurrences a bit faster than Hickox lets her, though at least his slow tempos are steadily maintained.

Roberta Alexander is even more songful on her 1992 all-Barber disc with Edo de Waart and the Netherlands Philharmonic. She softens consonants so much, in fact, that even in key passages like 'who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth', the text is entirely unintelligible. (Her diction, though, is not unintelligible enough to hide the fact that she mispronounces 'stertorous' as 'sterotous.') Yet her performance is oddly compelling. Not all of the part sits comfortably in her voice, though her basic sound with its vulnerable flutter is charming. And even if she treats the piece as something akin to a vocalise, there are interpretive details to admire: the way she lingers over 'low on the length of lawns,' the sustained yet appropriately simple quality of 'on the rough wet grass of the back yard', and the delicate shading of 'Sleep, soft-smiling'. De Waart's conducting is affectionate and supple, and he does not tarry too much. The recording aims for a concert hall perspective, though the recessed sound renders the orchestra's tone rather colourless.

Barbara Hendricks, in her 1994 EMI recording, stands at the opposite extreme from Alexander in terms of articulating the text. Here is a singer willing to sacrifice rhythmic precision and even pitch placement in order to bring the words to the fore. Her tone is naturally boyish, which suits the music well - though her tendency to scoop up notes does not. But Hendricks's radical interpretation is persuasive, too. She is one of the few who really sings 'the dry and exalted noise of the locusts' with a palpable sense of wonderment, for example. And while she sometimes appears to be directing too much energy into the childlike aspect of her characterisation, one never doubts her sincerity. She clearly loves Agee's words as much as Barber's music - and that in itself provides pleasure.

Unfortunately, Michael Tilson Thomas lets the London Symphony play much too loudly much too often, and he favours some very odd balances, letting the trumpet blast fortissimo, for example, in a secondary line that is marked mezzo forte (two bars before 'By some chance, here they are'). The engineering does not help matters, either, making Hendricks's upper register unusually shrill and the LSO strings unpleasantly glassy.

The sound quality of Kathleen Battle's 1992 DG recording is even more distressing. André Previn appears to have a genuine, tender feeling for the music, though it is difficult to tell given the muddy sound of the orchestra, and Battle's part seems to have been recorded in a completely separate and overly resonant acoustic. But the bad recording cannot hide the fact that Battle is temperamentally unsuited to Knoxville (not to mention that she occasionally sings under pitch). Indeed, her arch delivery must be heard to be believed. She sounds so snooty, one imagines that Knoxville in 1915 was not a small town but a gated community. Battle's best singing comes at the end. She gives a warm caress to 'with voices gentle and meaningless', and she holds back touchingly on 'who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth', instead of blaring forth as others do. Beyond those points, though, her interpretation has little to recommend it.

One can say, however, that Battle's soprano is (or was) naturally suited to Knoxville; Ruth Golden's is entirely wrong for it. Thick and unwieldy, with a tendency to spread at the top of the staff, she makes Steber sound quite youthful. Golden opts for the pure-song approach, though compared with Alexander or Gomez, there is precious little delicacy or grace in the way she shapes the musical line. The 1995 Koch recording by the San Diego Chamber Orchestra offers some attractive Barber rarities, but this is another Knoxville to be avoided.

Evelyn Lear demonstrates that taking a motherly tone can work in Knoxville on an undocumented live recording from the 1960s (VAI). The sound is quite decent, all things considered, but the orchestral playing is sub par and Kenneth Montgomery's conducting is maddeningly sluggish. Too bad Lear was not given the opportunity to make a proper recording - she has a lot to offer.

One wants to like Linda Hohenfeld's performance because she tries so hard, though that conspicuous sense of striving is probably why her 1997 Claves recording ultimately fails to satisfy. To succeed fully, Knoxville must sound effortless. Hohenfeld begins by speaking the first sentence of Agee's complete text (quoted above), which Barber placed as an epigraph to the score. Hearing the faint chuckle in her voice when she reads 'so successfully disguised to myself as a child', one thinks, 'Uh-oh, an actress'. In fact, Hohenfeld characterises many passages effectively. The problem ultimately is the voice itself - thin, pale and edgy, it communicates neither the music's sweetness nor its darker qualities. Conductor Stephen Somary indulges in too many unmarked ritardandos, and the Nürnberg Symphony Orchestra lumbers through the score.

The top choices
Let's not beat around the bush - if you want just one recording of Knoxville, it should be Upshaw's. In no other version is the intimacy of Barber's music so poignantly conveyed. Upshaw manages to sing the piece beautifully while articulating the text with absolute clarity. Zinman's fastidiously attentive conducting contributes strongly to the performance's success. One caveat: the couplings (Harbison's Mirabai Songs and an aria each by Menotti and Stravinsky) are a bit skimpy - yielding a total playing time of just 43 minutes - and the Stravinsky is out of place in this programme of Americana.

Price's imaginative interpretation is also essential, and the recording's value is increased by the inclusion of excerpts from Antony and Cleopatra and a live recording of the premiere of the Hermit Songs with Barber at the piano. It is a disc that belongs in any serious collection of vocal music.

And then there's Steber - another historic recording that deserves serious consideration. If you have heard Upshaw, McNair, Hendricks, or even Price, Steber's voice may seem too heavy for the part. Once the ear adjusts, however, the concentration and dignity of her singing shine through. The most recent reissue, on Masterworks Heritage, includes Price's studio version of the Hermit Songs (again with the composer at the piano), Copland accompanying William Warfield in both sets of Old American Songs and two rare works by Virgil Thomson - classic recordings all.

Finally, it is fun to imagine what recorded interpretations the future may hold. Surely, with her purity of tone and sensitivity to words - particularly in American music - Barbara Bonney would give us a memorable Knoxville. Renée Fleming's feeling for American popular song would likely provide a performance to savour, too. Of course these tantalising possibilities may remain forever in the realm of fantasy. No matter. Upshaw, Price and Steber have already given its recordings to 'enchant our eardrums'.

Eleanor Steber, Dumbarton Oaks SO / William Strickland
Sony Classical MI-K60899 Buy from Amazon

Leontyne Price, New Philharmonia / Thomas Schippers
RCA 09026 61983-2 Buy from Amazon

Dawn Upshaw, Orch of St Luke's / David Zinman Nonesuch
7559-79187-2 Buy from Amazon

Karina Gauvin, RSNO / Marin Alsop
Naxos 8.559134 Buy from Amazon

An Editor's Choice in June 2004. James Jolly wrote: 'This new Naxos disc is something of a revelation. Karina Gauvin…takes a wonderfully innocent approach, beautifully accompanied by Marin Alsop whose uncovers all sorts of ear-tickling orchestral details.'

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