Knoxville: Summer of 1915 –
Seasonal Inspiration During A Time of Plague
James Agee’s childhood home at 1505 Highland Avenue in Knoxville where he lived during the summer of 1915
“It has become that time of evening
When people sit on their porches
Rocking gently and talking gently”
These are the opening words to the musical composition written for High Voice and Orchestra by the American composer Samuel Barber entitled “Knoxville: Summer of 1915”. The piece is usually performed by a soprano but since the work specifies “high voice”, it can be sung by a soprano or a tenor soloist. Barber set to music the written text of a 1938 prose poem of the same title by the novelist James Agee.
With the composer of this unique piece of music being a Pisces and the originator of its written conception being a Sagittarius, from the perspective of this Gemini listener “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” is a Mutable signed masterpiece.
Like Mother Nature about to change cocktail dresses more appropriate for the seasonal change of clime, the Mutable signs of Gemini, Sagittarius, Pisces, and Virgo take place at the end of each of the Four Seasons, just before an entirely new Season begins. This changing of the “seasonal guard” period is what provides the Mutables with their inherent drives and motivations which in turn makes them stand apart from the signs that occur in the middle of each Season, otherwise called the “Fixed” signs, along with those which are the starting points for each of the Four Seasons, better known as the “Cardinal” signs.
The two concepts which motivate the Mutables most? Change and Variety. It isn’t just best for these signs to have some regular doses of both in their daily environment – it’s an absolute necessity. Why?
Boredom is the curse of every Mutable sign.
Unbeknownst even to many Mutables, the best form of mental stimulation that is a sure fire way to guard against Boredom’s mind numbing tentacles from ever manifesting within the mental world of the Mutable? Dualism, better known as the joining of polar opposites.
And dualism lies at the foundational core of “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” as a poem of written prose and as a musical composition, given both works are presented from the perspective of a “man child”. This dualistic foundation is further expounded upon in the musical composition given the piece is narrated by said male entity despite it being almost exclusively performed (and recorded) by a female with a soprano voice.
The Zodiac Seen Seasonally and from the Perspective of a Band-Aid
Let’s now look at the signs of the Zodiac once again from a seasonal perspective in relation to how each grouping would approach the long overdue removal of a wide Band-Aid from the hairiest part of their arm:
The signs which are the Season starters, or the Cardinal signs, would probably have the hardest time of the bunch due to starting the process of band-aid removal but not having the follow through to finish the job. This in turn would cause the band-aid’s partially exposed adhesive to become even further matted down in hair follicles with the second attempt at band-aid removal promising to be even more sting filled than the first.
The mid -Seasoned signs, known as the “Fixed signs” don’t do anything half-assed and really hate being rushed. For them, the situation would remain unchanged until more preparation could be made to confront full band-aid removal.
With “Speed” along with “Impatience” being the middle names for our end of Season signs, the Mutable’s preferred method of approach to band-aid removal is closing their eyes and ripping that baby off in one fast and furious yank of concentrated pain.
More on that Mutable metaphor a bit later.
“Knoxville”’s Origins of Creative Mutability
Another not so familiar personality trait associated with the Mutable signs at large is their astrological grouping is seen as the true multitaskers of the Zodiac. This is not to imply those who are Mutable cannot handle going about things “one at a time”. However there is a far greater likelihood the Mutable person will screw things up due to their usual dynamic of lightning speed being slowed down to a snail’s pace by having to resort to the “one at a time” method. Not only does their need for variety and change make them skillfully adept at multitasking, but the typical Mutable signed person tends to wear many hats and possesses multiple fortes or specialties, never only just one.
This is certainly the case when looking at the line of work done by Knoxville’s original creator, James Agee. As far as his choice of career, one could house everything beneath the singular category of “Writer”, but it was beneath that umbrella term that the Sagittarian undertook the most multi-dimensional writing jobs possible. James Agee first started out as a journalist for TIME Magazine, then later became one of the most celebrated film and literary critics for both that publication and The Nation. In his 40’s Agee became a screenwriter creating the written dialogue between Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart in the acclaimed John Huston film “The African Queen”. As a novelist, Agee’s writing garnered the highest accolade in his field, when his novel “A Death in the Family” was awarded the 1958 Pulitzer Prize.
Along with wearing many writing hats, true to his Mutable proclivities, Agee experimented with writing styles and techniques more varied than his numerous writing jobs, themselves.
James Agee’s graduation photo from Harvard University is 1932, six years prior to when his prose poem “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” was published.
Returning to the astrological band-aid theory, in writing “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” James Agee wanted to explore a writing technique which was based in creative spontaneity that when put in musical terms could be likened to a jazz improvisation versus any kind of meticulously rehearsed piece of music. A writing style similar to “stream of consciousness” which flowed freely and was limited by as few writing constructs as possible. Agee described this improvised writing technique thusly:
“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.
Agee’s writing is so lyrically powerful, his words have been set to music not just by Samuel Barber but 3 other composers as well, including the man currently considered to be one of the world’s greatest contemporary writers of choral music, himself a fellow Mutable sign, Morten Lauridsen.
Samuel Barber would supply James Agee’s innovatively unique writing technique with his own compositional terminology – “the lyric rhapsody”.
Thus the lyric rhapsody for high voice and orchestra known as “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” was born.
The Autobiographical Nature of Knoxville’s Poetic Prose
Officially termed a “prose poem” James Agee published his literary work “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” at the age of 27 in 1938. The piece is “thoroughly autobiographical” telling the sensory experiences of Agee as a young boy in the summer of 1915 in the month of August during the time of year attributed to the Mutable Earth sign of Virgo.
At that time, James Agee was at the tail end of his 5th year of life by being on the verge of becoming a 6 year old. He and his extended family all resided in Knoxville back then. 1915 was highly significant for James, given it was the last year his family was “in tact”. The following year would see the death of his father in an automobile accident resulting in the author and his younger sister, Emma attending out of state boarding schools, along with his extended family members eventually leaving Knoxville as well, never to return.
The End of Many Eras
1915 marked the end of many eras. For the United States, it was the year before our country became involved in a major war. While Europe had been destroying its Old World in the muddy trenches of the First World War for well over a year, America spent the summer of 1915 content to not involve itself in such overblown foreign squabbles. This would all change, of course, the following year when American troops were dispatched to Europe upon entering the century’s first global conflict.
Also during that time, the United States was not the superpower it would eventually become. In 1915, America was deeply rooted in agriculture with barely any military forces, let alone might. She was a quiet country whose sleep was to be permanently interrupted by the forces of Modernism and Innovation. The structure of the American home was to be forever altered, with verandas and porches being replaced by the invention of air conditioners and televisions. Even the humble and sturdy rocking chair was doomed to become a forgotten thing of the past due to it no longer having a purpose for the restless, ever-changing times ahead.
The adjustments to modern life which were taking place during the summer of 1915 were being distractedly observed by a soon-to-be 6 year old named James who with his father and mother watched the world go by while lying on quilts with the rest of their family under the summer evening skies.
The Thoughtful Ruminations of a Man, as Seen Through the Eyes of a Child
Samuel Barber chose excerpts from James Agee’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915”, but the passages he chose to set to music are truly profound especially in the piece’s third stanza where the philosophical musings of Agee the grown man emerge from the observational memories narrated by Agee the young boy.
“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.
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.”
A photo of the man considered among a choice few as being one of the greatest American modern composers, creator of the piece for high voice and orchestra, “Knoxville: Summer of 1915”, Mutable musician, Samuel Barber
The orchestral passage which follows this stanza swells with such sweeping emotion, I found it incredibly moving when I learned that Samuel Barber’s own father was terminally ill and dying while the composer was in the process of writing this piece.
The same steadily metered theme which began the piece resumes once again, indicating that the little boy who has been so attentive listening to the grown-ups talk for most of the evening is now completely worn out and can barely keep his sleep-filled eyes open.
We are led to believe things have once again returned to the sole perspective of the 6 year old boy, yet the work ends with the words shifting to those of the grown man. An adult man who is confident in knowing that at the very least one thing is certain – he is an artist. The last and shortest of the stanzas ends “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” with these words:
“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.”
Samuel Barber wrote of having “much in common” when he met James Agee in person. Not only did they differ in age by a mere 4 months, one artist mirrored the other’s process of creative inspiration by taking an inordinately short amount of time to craft and create his masterful work of art. To quote Wikipedia:
“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.”
What I believe makes Barber’s music and Agee’s words stand apart from most artistic works considered to be “American cultural treasures” is that both artistic greats were born under Mutable signs and their conjoined efforts resulted in a Mutable masterpiece of music that has established itself as an everlasting fixture within the canon of American composition.
Many sopranos have recorded “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” but your author’s preferred singer of choice to interpret Barber and Agee’s artistry is fellow Tennessee born artist, Dawn Upshaw:
*Brad Kronen has written numerous books most of them based in astrological theory but the Mutable signed astrologer has himself also worn a few different writing hats since some of his published works are of a purely historical nature. One of his books that focuses on both subjects deals with a topic this article has lightly touched upon – the First World War . Entitled “The Cosmic Force of War” Kronen analyzes the karmic purpose War has played in times past in order to instigate change by looking at two of the most historically crucial events of the 20th century – the beginnings of World Wars I and II. “The Cosmic Force of War” is available for purchase on amazon.com. Click on the link below to get a complete listing of Brad’s many published titles: