Samuel Barber - more than just Adagio
Samuel Barber was born in Pennsylvania in 1910, and despite his family’s best attempts for him to be an all-American football-playing boy, his musical talent was apparent from an early age – as was his distaste for football, he wrote his mother a letter apologising for wanting to be a composer and begging not to be sent to play it. Many of us can relate, if not to the compositional talent but for the longed-for sick note.
Much of his music is for the voice, perhaps because Barber was a talented baritone – at one time he considered making this his profession. Luckily for us though he chose composition, and by his twenties he was getting considerable fame and attention. His music is characterised by having long lyrical lines and use of instrumental colour. But more than anything, what makes it distinctive is the way his music wears its heart unashamedly on its sleeve – often being an expression of profound emotion, something that led to him rapidly gain popularity, even if, at times, his music was criticised for being ‘old fashioned’.
Today Samuel Barber is mainly known for one piece; his Adagio for strings, made famous through use in the film Platoon. None of his many other compositions has quite attained the same level of fame, which is a shame as they are well worth discovering.
Knoxville, Summer of 1915 is a piece for voice and orchestra which he wrote in 1947, at the height of his fame. The piece is usually sung by soprano but its text is sung from the point of view of a male child. That text is by the writer James Agee, and when Barber first read it it provoked an immediate reaction, reminding him of his own childhood. Upon deciding to set it to music he completed the bulk of the piece in just ninety minutes.
The music describes a warm summers evening in an American town, with, to be honest, nothing much happening, as is probably typical of small-town America. Knoxville contains many of Barber’s hallmarks – long flowing melodies, lush orchestration and rich textures, and a certain wistfulness and nostalgia. There’s also a somewhat dreamlike quality to it, with it sometimes being hard to identity the speaker, and them sometimes talking as an adult rather than a child. Barber talked of it expressing ‘a child’s feelings of loneliness, wonder and lack of identity in that marginal world between twilight and sleep’.
The piece ends with the singer talking of being put to bed and the music slowly drifting upwards, almost floating, evoking sleep and dreams.