Samuel Barber's ““lyric rhapsody”” for soprano and orchestra, Knoxville: Summer of 1915 (1947), is one of his most celebrated and complicated pieces. The most ostensibly backward-looking, nostalgic work of this ““conservative,”” neoromantic composer, Knoxville is yet atypical of Barber in that by most accounts it is the most American piece in an oeuvre otherwise rarely seen as touched by national flavor. Dating from an era just recovering from the cataclysm of World War II, Knoxville can be seen as conjuring a gentler age, a state of lost innocence, which as its subsequent reception has showed proved an enduring site of cultural memory. And this work that appeals to so many as an embodiment of collective national identity is simultaneously wrapped up in a highly personal response by Barber to a text of James Agee with a deeply autobiographical meaning for author and composer. Knoxville: Summer of 1915 offers a rich source of insight into Barber's music and aesthetics, in its constructions of memory and nostalgia at both a personal, autobiographical level and broader cultural one. Excavating these layers reveals a fuller picture of the composer and what his music has been taken to mean, exposing the relationship between Barber's private world and wider cultural movements and his often understated politics.
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