There are a few pieces of music that I call “push button,” that is: guaranteed to make me cry immediately. Sometimes all I have to do is think about them, not even hear them, and a “button” is pushed. If that makes me a lachrymose fool, so be it.
One of them is by Samuel Barber (1910-1981), a setting for soprano and orchestra of words by James Agee (1909-1955), called “Knoxville: Summer of 1915.” Those words are from the Prologue to his Pulitzer Prize winning novel “A Death in the Family,” published posthumously in 1957.
Agee was born in Knoxville, and educated at a series of fairly elite boarding schools, including my alma mater Phillips Exeter Academy, then continuing at Harvard. He wrote for Time and Life magazines, and even did screenplays.
Agee’s father died in a car crash when James was six, an event that provided the material that is dramatized in “A Death in the Family.” The child remembers comforting moments with his strong father figure, mingling with his hard drinking and presumed womanizing, qualities that would also adhere to James Agee. He searches for identity, and in the end realizes that no one can ever “give” that to him. He must find it, reveal it, develop it for himself.
Even in his earliest writings, Agee’s gift for language was refined. In one of many letters written over the years to his spiritual mentor Father Flye, he described a Harvard girl he had a crush on as having “unobstreporous intelligence, tinged with a charming limeadish sarcasm.” Right, a real charmer that boy.
Perhaps his best known work today, though it was virtually ignored at the time, is the collaboration with photographer Walker Evans called “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” (1941) about the lives of poor sharecroppers in Alabama.
All his writing from the earliest poems on seems imbued with a sense of the “nearness” of death, of which his own premature demise was the fulfillment. “A life is only found in losing it.”
His statement on “why” he wrote: “Now as awareness of how much life is lost, and how little is left, becomes even more piercing, I feel also, and ever more urgently, the desire to restore and to make a little less impermanent, such of my lost life as I can.”
Won’t you have a listen to my “push button”? There are any number of fine recordings. Diction is paramount, because the words are so beautiful, though the vocal writing is high, making it a challenge to project clearly. Eleanor Steber, Leontyne Price, Sylvia McNair, even Dawn Upshaw, all rise to the challenge
© 2012 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs