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Undergraduate Research Journal

Abstract

“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” (Agee 3). These first words of James Agee’s prose poem “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” introduce the reader to a world of his youth – rural Tennessee in the early part of the century. Agee’s highly descriptive and lyrical language in phrases such as “these sweet pale streamings in the light out their pallors,” (Agee 5) invites the reader to use all his senses and become enveloped in the inherent music of the language. Is it any wonder that upon reading Agee’s words, composer Samuel Barber should be drawn into this narrative that enlivens the senses and touches the heart with its complexity of human emotions told through the recollections of childhood from a time of youth and innocence.

The search for their native voice – their “American” voice – was something that interested both James Agee and Samuel Barber. For Agee, it was finding the sights, sounds, and images of America that had been described in the works of Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, and his contemporaries, Southern writers William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, and Carson McCullers. For Barber, it was a different process. Samuel Barber had to discover his “American voice” by exploring borrowed traditions – folksongs, and homegrown popular musical styles of Jazz and the Blues. The idea of an “American voice” in music was already present and established in works of composers such as Charles Ives and Aaron Copland. For Barber, his native voice emerged when he chose James Agee’s text to set to music.

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