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In the musical Pantheon of 20th-century America, Samuel Barber occupies a distinctive place as a modern romanticist. He was surrounded by music since childhood; his maternal aunt, Louise Homer, was a famous contralto singer; her husband, a respectable song composer. When Barber was seven years old, he sent this note to his mother: "I was not meant to be an athlete, but a composer, and I will be, I am sure. Don't ask me to go and play football." At that tender age he already had learned to play the cello. Later he became proficient as a pianist. He also studied singing quite seriously, and even sang the baritone solo in a recording of his own work, Dover Beach. This recording, issued by RCA Victor, is now a collector's item....
When Eleanor Steber asked Barber to write for her a movement for soprano and orchestra, he selected a passage from the novel, A Death in the Family, by James Agee, for his text. In it a small boy, lying in the grass at his home in Knoxville, Tennessee, listens to the sounds around him. He hears the "iron moan" of a passing streetcar, with "the bleak spark crackling and cursing above it like a small malignant spirit set to dog its tracks." Looking at the sky, he thinks of the sorrows of life on earth, and says a prayer: "May God bless my people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father…" With this prayer he is put to bed. Agee's reminiscence is precisely autobiographical, for in 1915 he was six years old.
Samuel Barber contributed to Agee's poem in prose a perfect setting. It possesses an immediate sense of childhood memories; the singing line is a natural translation of words into music. The child's train of thought, with its sudden shifts of emotional concentration, is reflected in the gentle changes in the character of the music. Diatonic modalities, articulated by mysterious cadences and plagal harmonic inflections, create the needed ambiance of nostalgic recollection. Occasional metaharmonies and the pointed sharpness of the rhythms do not perturb the luminous euphony of the music. There are also touches of illustrative onomatopeia, as in the unusual effect of pizzicati glissando in the lower strings to represent the electric sparks of the streetcar antenna.
Knoxville was performed for the first time by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Serge Koussevitzky, on April 9, 1948. Eleanor Steber was the soloist.
-- Legendary lexicographer Nicolas Slonimsky annotated Los Angeles Philharmonic programs at various times during his long career.