Listen to Eleanor Steber sing intro to ‘Knoxville:Summer of 1915′
She was the most celebrated American soprano of the 1940s and 1950s. She went on from there to become head of the voice department at the Cleveland Institute of Music from 1963 to 1972, to teach at the Juilliard School of Music in New York, the American Institute of Music Studies in Graz and at her alma mater, the New England Conservatory of Music.
But one of Eleanor Steber’s most important contributions to the world of opera was to commission and bring to life a 16-minute song that luxuriates in the calm of an earlier America, a contented, rocking-chair America.
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 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 while 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.
Knoxville: Summer of 1915
Composer Samuel Barber adapted the text for his vocal work from the introduction to A Death In The Family, James Agee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography. It is a rhapsodic childhood memory, summertime in Tennessee, enjoying the family, sitting on the porch, watching life in the town go by your street, an idyllic time unaware of the war raging in Europe. “That was exactly my childhood in Wheeling, West Virginia,” said Steber, who premièred Knoxville with Serge Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony in 1948.
Steber’s father, mother and both sets of grandparents were part of Wheeling’s large German-American community, in which music played a major role. After winning the Metropolitan Opera Auditions in early 1940, Steber returned to Wheeling for a concert in the Virginia Theater on May 1, a concert that was repeated the next evening in Madison School auditorium.
For this homecoming concert, West Virginia Governor Homer Holt came from Charleston to join all the local dignitaries honoring her. This was the first of sixteen annual homecoming concerts which she presented in Wheeling. Throughout her long career she never forgot Wheeling, where she was born July 17, 1916.