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What I was supposed to do this summer

Every year right around this time I get a little panicky. Summer is racing onwards and I don’t seem to be doing enough about it. We have now officially passed over this summer’s halfway point—to be exact, there are only 41 measly days left. Eep. I had so many plans. Gin and tonic hour on the back deck was to be religiously observed. I was going to get systematically quite good at barbecuing. That pile of novels getting dusty on my bedside table still needs whittling down. I was supposed to see Wonder Woman and Planet of the Apes.


This may sound ominously biblical, but we’ve now got forty days and forty nights to make the most of what’s left of summer 2017. Of course, what you do with your summer is entirely up to you, but I do have a little musical advice on the topic for you.


There is a magical piece of music and prose called Knoxville: Summer of 1915. The music is by Samuel Barber; the words were written by James Agee. For most, these are not household names, but they are names worth investigating. Agee was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his novel A Death in the Family. Barber is best known for his Adagio for Strings, one of the most iconic pieces of music from the 20th Century.


With Knoxville, it was the words that came first. Agee evokes a scene from his own childhood with endearing naivety and a nostalgia that makes your heart ache a little:


“It has become that time of evening when people sit on their porches,

rocking gently and talking gently and watching the street…

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. The stars are wide and alive,

they all seem like a smile of great sweetness, and they seem very near.”


It’s not hard to imagine how these words struck an intensely personal chord with the composer, Samuel Barber. In 1947 he was commissioned to write a new work for soprano and orchestra, and he immediately turned to Agee’s profoundly quieting words. The music is masterfully evocative. All the sounds of a small town summer evening are recreated by Barber’s ingenious orchestration, and his trademark soaring lyricism is nowhere more effective. The music gently rolls forward, incapable of being rushed.


When I listen to this remarkable work, it always leaves me with the notion that if you really try, time can be suspended, at least for a little while. For many of us, we can’t seem to get to where we’re going fast enough, but in Knoxville’s summer evening, people strolled along the streets in pairs, not in a hurry. Maybe I shouldn’t be panicking to squeeze in all my itemized summer plans before the snow flies; maybe the real way to make the most of summer is simply to do less.

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© 2020 by GORDON GERRARD. Photos by Brent Calis and Ryan Stewart.