Knoxville: Summer of 1915, op. 24
Born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, March 9, 1910; died in New York City, January 23, 1981
The nephew of contralto Louise Homer, one of the operatic superstars of the early 20th century, Samuel Barber possessed such a fine baritone that he too considered a professional singing career. His sensitivity to the beauty of the human voice produced two major operas Vanessa and Antony and Cleopatra, a quantity of gorgeous songs, the choral Prayers of Kierkegaard and Knoxville: Summer of 1915 for lyric soprano and orchestra.
Barber was also a passionate reader and was always looking for possible texts to set to music; in 1947, he came across "Knoxville: Summer of 1915," an evocative ode to childhood by the American writer James Agee in an anthology of articles from The Partisan Review. Agee and Barber were both the same age, born in 1910, and although the writer had grown up in Tennessee and the composer in Pennsylvania, their memories tallied uncannily.
"We both had back yards where our families used to lie in the long summer evenings," Barber wrote, "we each had an aunt who was a musician. I remember well my parents sitting on the porch, talking quietly as they rocked. And there was a trolley car with straw seats and a clanging bell called 'The Dinky,' that traveled up and down the main street. … Agee's poem was vivid and moved me deeply. … I think I must have composed Knoxville within a few days."
Agee's and Barber's Knoxville seemed to strike a common chord in many other people who had grown up in that earlier, more tranquil America. Soprano Eleanor Steber of Wheeling, West Virginia, who sang its first performance on April 9, 1948 with the Boston Symphony under conductor Serge Koussevitzky declared: "That was exactly my childhood!" And Leontyne Price, who grew up in Mississippi and later also became a noted interpreter of this piece, said: "As a southerner, it expresses everything I know about my roots and about my mama and father … You can smell the South in it."
Agee's text is actually in prose, but the language is poetic in its imagery and in its evocation of more than literal facts. Because this text was all-important, Barber skillfully molded his vocal part to the natural rhythms of American-English speech. The orchestral part is also lightly scored so that it never obscures the words. Yet it enhances and amplifies the vocal part throughout: establishing an atmosphere of small-town peace, providing vivid descriptions (especially of the trolley car), and revealing the emotional depths beneath the often-naive words.
The work is structured in five sections. After a brief prelude, the singer's first section is sung to a lilting, childlike melody that returns like a refrain in the middle and at the end. In the first episode, the orchestra bursts in to portray a passing trolley breaking the nocturnal quiet, with woodwinds and violins imitating its clanging bell. After the refrain melody's return, a second episode introduces us to the other members of the child-narrator's family. Beginning with the words "By some chance, here they are all on this earth," the music suddenly becomes louder, more passionate. When he was writing Knoxville, Barber knew that both his father and his aunt were gravely ill; in fact, they died within a few months of the score's completion. It is his adult sense of mortality threatening these beloved figures that fuels this passage and the heartfelt benediction that follows: "May God bless my people." And one final sting of emotion disturbs the concluding return of the refrain melody, as the child voices her adult perception that her loving family can never fully understand her ("But will not ever tell me who I am").
A German Requiem (Ein deutsches Requiem), op. 45
Born in Hamburg, Germany, May 7, 1833; died in Vienna, Austria, April 3, 1897
In early February 1865, Johannes Brahms received a telegram from his brother, Fritz, in Hamburg: “If you want to see our mother again, come at once.” The composer traveled as fast as he could from Vienna, but arrived too late: Christiane Brahms had already died of a stroke at age 76. Though he maintained a stoical face before his family, Brahms was devastated by the loss of the mother who had stood lovingly by him through all his trials and triumphs. After he returned to Vienna, a friend Josef Gänsbacher dropped in at his apartment and found him playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations with tears streaming down his face. Brahms briefly told Gänsbacher of his loss, but never stopped playing. Music was his ideal solace from grief.
That grief would generate the composer’s longest and most profound work: A German Requiem (in German, Ein Deutsches Requiem), mostly composed over a one-year period from 1865 to 1866. But actually the music for this choral-orchestral masterpiece had been gestating for at least a decade, and it was originally intended as a memorial to Robert Schumann, Brahms’ discoverer and mentor. In February 1854, only a few months after Schumann had adopted the then-20-year-old Brahms as his protégé, the older composer, tormented by mental illness, had tried to commit suicide and then spent the remaining two years of his life in an asylum. Throughout this terrible period, Brahms assisted Schumann’s wife, Clara, and visited Schumann regularly. Shortly after the suicide attempt, he composed the sad march music that would become the Requiem’s second movement (“Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras”), intending it to be a slow movement for a projected two-piano sonata.
Thus A German Requiem is actually a memorial to two important people in Brahms’ life: his biological mother and his artistic father. And it was an intensely personal and original work. Unlike most musical requiems, it is not based on the liturgical Catholic rite for the dead: a service emphasizing prayers for the souls of the departed. Rather, it is an idiosyncratic Protestant setting, with its text drawn by Brahms himself from the Old and New Testaments and the Apocrypha of Martin Luther’s German Bible. The emphasis is not on the dead but on finding consolation for the living, as stated in the Requiem’s very first line from St. Matthew’s gospel: “Blessed are they that mourn.”
A word about Brahms’ own religious stance: the composer was raised in the Protestant tradition and remained a faithful reader of the Bible throughout his life. But in adulthood, he became a religious skeptic bordering on agnosticism and was never a churchgoer. The text he assembled for his Requiem expresses more or less his own convictions: a universal, nondenominational message, but not a specifically Christian one.
A German Requiem is a strikingly original work with few parallels before or since. Immediately after its premiere in Leipzig on February 18, 1869, it received some 20 performances in the German-speaking countries before rapidly moving on to the rest of Europe and America. It proclaimed Brahms’ full maturity to the world; from now on, he would be considered a king among composers, even though he still had not tackled a symphony (that would be rectified in 1876).
Listening to the Music
Constructing solid musical architecture was always an important concern for Brahms, and so the Requiem is shaped as a mighty arch. The quieter, more restrained first and last movements mirror each other, as do the more dramatic and forceful second and sixth movements, and the more personal third and fifth movements dominated by solo voices. The well-loved fourth movement, “How Lovely Are Thy Dwelling Places,” stands alone as an intimate and untroubled central interlude.
Even though it is in the major mode—F major, the Requiem’s home key—movement one, “Blessed are they who mourn,” is weighed done with grief. Brahms chose a very dark-toned ensemble: violas, cellos, double basses and the more somber wind colors and omitted the brighter sounds of clarinets, trumpets and even violins. The first melody we hear, in the cellos, is a variation of J.S. Bach’s chorale tune “Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten”; this rising-and-falling theme will reappear many times in this movement. Equally important is a three-note rising motive in the soprano part topping the chorus’s first entrance; this is the seed motive from which the entire work grows. Despite the heavy sorrow, there is a mood of calm underlying this music, and the lighter middle section, “They that sow with tears shall reap in joy,” explains why.
The second movement, “For all flesh is as grass,” is a strange yet powerful mixture of a funeral march and slow sarabande dance. The violins finally appear, but, since they are played with mutes, they sound veiled and husky. The chorus’s grim unison melody follows the shape of the Bach chorale. Eventually, the music accelerates a bit and actually begins to dance for the interlude “So be patient, beloved brethren”: a promise of deliverance. After a reprise of the funeral dirge comes a magical moment as the music brightens into the major and the chorus proclaims that, unlike mortal man, “the Word of the Lord endures forever.” In the first of the Requiem’s big, extroverted passages, chorus and orchestra rejoice in exuberant counterpoint.
Movement three, “Lord, teach me to know my end,” personalizes the previous movement’s message as the baritone soloist pleads for help in accepting his mortality. “How shall I find consolation?” he cries and the chorus repeats the question with growing frenzy. Moving from D minor to D major, the answer comes in a radiant choral cadenza: “My hope is in the Lord.” Then begins one of the Requiem’s most extraordinary passages: a double fugue for chorus and orchestra with each pursuing its own separate fugue subject. And all this contrapuntal activity is anchored in a mighty sustained pedal on the pitch D, representing the secure grip of the hand of God.
The Requiem’s peaceful, lyrical oasis, “How lovely are thy tabernacles,” is a vision of untroubled faith. The key is a warm E-flat major, the meter a gently swaying 3/4 and the orchestra a chamber ensemble of great beauty and delicacy. At midpoint, Brahms adds contrasting energy in the form of a brief double fugue.
“You now have sorrow,” is a radiant expression of mother love enduring beyond the grave. It was the last movement Brahms composed, added only in 1868 at the suggestion of the composer’s old teacher Eduard Marxsen. But perhaps this was the soonest after his mother’s death that he could bear to write music expressing his own loss so openly. Muted strings and woodwinds, with occasional soft interjections from the chorus, accompany the soprano soloist’s beautiful, arching lines: an idealized representation of the voice of Christiane Brahms.
In the sixth movement, “For we have here no continuing city,” the chorus wanders like homeless refugees through a forest of harmonically unstable lines; this bewildered search is intensified by the entrance of the baritone soloist intoning the famous words from First Corinthians. Here we have the Requiem’s only reference to the trumpets sounding the Day of Judgment, but the chorus and orchestra greet this prospect with confidence and jubilation: “Death is swallowed up in victory!” In the work’s greatest climax, C major is won with a triumphant cry. This culminates in a magnificent, quasi-fugal treatment of the words from Revelation: “Lord, Thou art worthy to receive glory and honor.”
Movement seven, “Blessed are the dead”: Having found hope for the living, the Requiem now turns its attention for the first time to the dead. This music—which begins with the sopranos’ singing a reversal of the Bach chorale tune—relates back to movement one, but is now bigger and more confident. And how much the mood has changed is brought home clearly when the altos lead a reprise of the Requiem’s opening music. Instead of murky low strings, they are now accompanied by shining high woodwinds and violins. At the work’s end, a harp—an instrument Brahms rarely used—wafts sweetly upward. In his Requiem, Brahms won a provisional musical victory over the sorrows and doubts that darkened his entire life, but that at the same time deepened his musical genius.
Notes by Janet E. Bedell copyright 2010
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