“All My People” – Agee, Barber and the Night Sound of Knoxville
Having written about it in my post for James Agee’s Centenary, I thought I’d put up the best rendition of Knoxville (1947) I could find on the net – the soprano is Maria Bellanca and it’s from a recital at the Eastman School of Music in New York. There are a handful on YouTube, but in some the voice is too operatic, or doesn’t convincingly master Samuel Barber’s phrasing, or strays too far from the orchestra. The piece was commissioned by Eleanor Steber and there are also celebrated performances by Dawn Upshaw and Leontyne Price but, for me, the most distilled, summer’s night-evoking performance is the one I heard first: Karina Gauvin and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in a 2004 recording. Like Agee’s original story, I love it beyond reason. You can find it on Naxos – 8.559134.
Barber set the work of many writers, among them Kierkegaard, Arnold, Rilke, Joyce and Yeats. But he seems to have found a particular sympathy for Agee. The men were the same age and Barber thought they had much in common. Furthermore, Agee had written ‘Knoxville’ with music in mind: “with a kind of parallel to improvisation in jazz, to a certain kind of ‘genuine’ lyric which I thought should be purely improvised” – something you can hear in the iterated rhythm of his prose:
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 seem 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 a 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 bed. 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, oh, will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me who I am.