Knoxville: Summer of 1915

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Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Op. 24, is a 1947 work for voice and orchestra by Samuel Barber, with text from a 1938 short prose piece by James Agee. The work was commissioned by soprano Eleanor Steber, who premiered it in 1948 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Serge Koussevitzky. Although the piece is traditionally sung by a soprano, it may also be sung by tenor. The text is in the persona of a male child.


Samuel Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915 is a lush, richly textured work. Setting music to excerpts from "Knoxville: Summer of 1915", a 1938 prose poem by James Agee that later became a preamble to his posthumously published, Pulitzer Prize-winning book, A Death in the Family (1957), Barber paints an idyllic, nostalgic picture of Agee's native Knoxville, Tennessee. The preamble is a simple, dreamlike depiction of an evening in the American South, narrated by a child who seems, at times, to transform into an adult. It is difficult to tell at times the identity of the speaker, enhancing the dreamlike quality of the work. Knoxville is set in one movement, and the composer describes it as "lyric rhapsody" (Heyman,[page needed]). Barber's choice to compose in a form less constricted in the large-scale parallels Agee's own choice in developing his work; both represent the fruits of a spontaneous improvisation, fueled by a moving nostalgia:

I was greatly interested in improvisatory writing, as against carefully composed, multiple-draft writing: i.e., with a kind of parallel to improvisation in jazz, to a certain kind of "genuine" lyric which I thought should be purely improvised... It took possibly an hour and a half; on revision, I stayed about 98 per cent faithful to my rule, for these "improvised" experiments, against any revision whatever. (James Agee, "Program Notes of the Boston Symphony Orchestra", quoted in (Heyman, 279–80))

While Knoxville is described as a rhapsody, it can also be seen as almost rondo-like in form (Kreiling,[page needed]).


1915 was a significant year for James Agee. It was the last year his family was intact; his father died in an automobile accident in 1916, and the remaining family members left Knoxville, never to return. According to Agee, it was the point around which his life began to evolve (Aiken,[page needed]). After Barber and Agee met, Barber noted that the two had much in common (Keller).

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 was a little bit mixed sort of block, fairly solidly lower middle class, with one or two juts apiece on either side of that. The houses corresponded: middlesized gracefully fretted wood houses built in the late nineties and early nineteen hundreds, with small front and side and more spacious back yards, and trees in the yards. (Agee 1938, 22; see also A Death in the Family, 3)

Agee's text as excerpted by Barber[edit]

Barber chose only excerpts of "Knoxville" for his composition, but his Knoxville, Summer of 1915, in many ways, parallels Agee's text. Agee was touched by the death of his father in his childhood, while Barber was, during the time of composition, enduring his father's deteriorating health. The two men were similarly aged. Most importantly, however, the two men were so compelled by nostalgia and inspiration that they (supposedly) wrote their pieces quickly and without much revision (Keller).


Knoxville: Summer of 1915 was premiered on April 9, 1948, by Eleanor Steber and the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Serge Koussevitzky. The performance was met with mixed reviews (Heyman, 289).

Barber was not present at the premiere (he was committed to work at the American Academy in Rome at the time, and the performance could not be rescheduled). Koussevitzy wired to him noting that the performance was "an outstanding success and made a deep impression on all" (Heyman, 290). While Koussevitzky never performed the work again, it has remained popular over the years.[citation needed]

While the vocal part is typically sung by a soprano, it is also sometimes sung by a tenor. One such performance of the work with a tenor soloist took place in 2004 at the Launaudiere Festival with Anthony Dean Griffey and the Montreal Symphony, conducted by JoAnn Falletta (Anon. 2004, 14).



  • Agee, James. "Knoxville: Summer of 1915". The Partisan Review (August–September 1938): 22–25.
  • Agee, James. A Death in the Family. 1957; rpt. NY: Penguin, 2008.
  • Aiken, Charles S. "The Transformation of James Agee's Knoxville". Geographical Review, Vol. 73, No. 2, pp. 150–65. 1983.
  • Anon. 2004. "Summer Festivals / Festivals d’été". La Scena Musicale 9, no. 9 (June): 12–23.
  • Heyman, Barbara B. Samuel Barber: The Composer and His Music. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
  • Keller, James M. "Barber: Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Opus 24 – Program Notes". San Francisco Symphony, September 2015 (accessed April 1, 2016).
  • Kreiling, Jean Louise. "The Songs of Samuel Barber: A Study in Literary Taste and Text-Setting". PhD diss. Chapel Hill, N.C.: The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1986.

Further reading[edit]

  • Taylor, Benedict. "Nostalgia and Cultural Memory in Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915". The Journal of Musicology 25, no. 3 (Summer 2008): 211–29.

External links[edit]