Daily Archives: March 15, 2013

A cappella Friday: To Be Sung on the Water

A cappella music (without instrumental accompaniment) is particularly enjoyable for me to listen to. As a poet (and an avocational musician), I am drawn to the similarities that poems and a cappella music have. Lyrical phrasing, meter, rhyming, and onomatopoeia mean so much to a cappella music, because it relies so heavily on the human vocal element.


There are few things more lovely in nature than the calm surface of a body of water. The way a rowboat or canoe cuts through the still waters is direct, and appeals to one’s sight. The sounds of oars dipping into the surface and being pulled forward, leaves an echo. If there are no other sounds around, the setting is serene.

Louise Bogan (1897-1970) was a poet of the early/mid 20th century. She was born in Maine, into a family of mill workers. As a child, she was unfortunately witness to the adulterous affairs of her mother, which definitely shaped her views on love and betrayal, a common theme in her poetry. Most of her poetry was written early in her life. Later in life she worked as a poetry reviewer for the New Yorker. Bogan was fairly reclusive and reticent about sharing personal details of her life. Her poetic voice has a deep romantic resonance, and she manages to pull every bit of emotion out of minimal use of words. Among her works is a poem entitled “To be sung on the water”.

By Louise Bogan

Beautiful, my delight,
Pass, as we pass the wave.
Pass, as the mottled night
Leaves what it cannot save,
Scattering dark and bright.

Beautiful, pass and be
Less than the guiltless shade
To which our vows were said;
Less than the sound of the oar
To which our vows were made, –
Less than the sound of its blade
Dipping the stream once more.

Samuel Barber (1910-1981) was a highly prolific American composer. While his best known work is arguably Adagio for Strings^, he also wrote vocal music and was highly acclaimed as a choral/vocal composer. He was an avid fan of poetry and composed works based on poems by Matthew Arnold, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and James Agee. In 1968, he composed a choral setting of Louise Bogan’s poem ” To be sung on the water.” There is no indication that Ms. Bogan ever heard a performance of this piece, but perhaps she would have nodded in agreement.

It is hauntingly beautiful.

^Adagio for Strings has been used in the soundtracks of The Elephant Man, Lorenzo’s Oil, and Platoon, as well as several other films.