A Request for Summer

By James David Jacobs

Jan. 7

Today's 4:00 request is from Chris of Falmouth, Maine: "I'm requesting that you play Barber's Knoxville Summer of 1915. Its a really beautiful and nostalgic piece that evokes images of a quaint midwestern town in the 1920s. It really means something to me because it reminds me of my own childhood and also Barber is my favorite composer. Thanks! Chris S. Age 14 Falmouth, Maine". Even though it's the middle of winter in New England and about as far from a Tennessee summer 96 years ago as can be imagined, we here at 99.5 couldn't pass up the opportunity to fulfill the nostalgic longings of a Maine resident born in 1996. And there's no arguing with Chris that it is indeed a beautiful piece that may bring us some evocative warmth this chilly weekend.

The text is adapted from the prose piece of the same name by James Agee, which was posthumously incorporated into his novel A Death in the Family (which I highly recommend, by the way - very intense, and for me evokes a reaction similar to Chris's reaction to the Barber - though it should be said that the two works are not really related and should be considered independent of each other.). Barber took it upon himself to edit the text, which Agee begins “We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville Tennessee in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child.” These words, while left unsung, were inscribed by Barber at the top of the score to this work.  You can learn more about the piece and even hear Barber himself in an interview about it at NPR Music.

And here is the text of Barber's piece:

It has become that time of evening when people sit on their porches, rocking gently and talking gently, and watching the street and the standing up into their sphere of possession of the trees, of birds' hung havens, hangars. People go by: things go by. A horse, drawing a buggy, breaking his hollow iron music on the asphalt: a loud auto; a quiet auto; people in pairs, not in a hurry, scuffling, switching their weight of aestival body, talking casually, the taste hovering over them of vanilla, strawberry, paste-board, and starched milk, the image upon them of lovers and horsemen, squared with clowns in hueless amber.

A streetcar raising its iron moan; stopping: belling and starting, stertorous; rousing and raising again its iron increasing moan and swimming its gold windows and straw seats on past and past and past, the bleak spark crackling and cursing above it like a small malignant spirit set to dog its tracks: the iron whine rises on rising speed: still risen, faints: halts: the faint stinging bell: rises again, still fainter: fainting, lifting, lifts, faints foregone: forgotten.

Now is the night one blue dew. Now is the night one blue dew, my father has drained, he has coiled the hose. Low on the length of lawns, a frailing of fire who breathes . . . Parents on porches: rock and rock. From damp strings morning glones hang their ancient faces. The dry and exalted noise of the locusts from all the air at once enchants my eardrums.

On the rough wet grass of the backyard 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 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.

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.

—James Agee

(image of Knoxville Botanical Garden:  Wikimedia Commons)

View Playlists


WCRB Programs and Features

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Sunday Night Special Concerts
The Bach Hour
CD of the Week
Classical Performance Podcast

Sunday Night Opera

Follow WCRB

Sign Up

Sign-up for updates from 99.5 WCRB, WGBH promotions, and previews of what's coming up on WGBH TV.




Support for WGBH is provided by:
Become a WGBH sponsor