Tag Archives: choral music

Acappella Friday – Music in Poetry: Sure on this shining night

Lyrical phrasing, meter, rhyming, consonance, assonance, timbre, and tone mean so much to both choral music and poetry. Perhaps that is why, when good poetry is combined with a beautiful musical foundation, the result can be an emotional and spiritual adjuvant. It soothes the soul. There is no doubt that there is music in poetry/poetry in music.

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Once again I have been affected by a poem/choral arrangement that is not a cappella. Thus, I have renamed this feature Music in Poetry.

James Agee (1909-1955) was born in Knoxville, TN. His father died when James was only six, and his mother sent James and his younger sister to boarding schools. He was educated in Episcopal Boys Schools, ultimately graduating from Harvard in 1932. He worked as a freelance writer for most of his short life. He was a journalist, novelist, film critic, and screenwriter. He was a well-respected film critic in the 1940s and wrote screenplays for The African Queen (1951) and The Night of the Hunter (1955). His book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) detailed the conditions of sharecropper families in the Depression era Deep South. Agee was also a poet. He published one volume of poetry in 1934, entitled Permit me Voyage, which contained the poem Sure on this Shining Night.

Sure on this shining night*
by James Agee

Sure on this shining night
Of star made shadows round,
Kindness must watch for me
This side the ground.
The late year lies down the north.
All is healed, all is health.
High summer holds the earth.
Hearts all whole.
Sure on this shining night I weep for wonder wand’ring far
alone
Of shadows on the stars.

*from Permit me Voyage published 1934 by Yale University

The poem itself is simple and hopeful. There is no doubt that Agee’s religious upbringing and education had instilled a faith in him, yet a loneliness pervades this poem. Perhaps due to the loss of his father at an early age and being sent to boarding schools away from family, the middle four lines

The late year lies down the north.
All is healed, all is health.
High summer holds the earth.
Hearts all whole.

indicate times when things are good, implying the typical holiday and family times of the year in the late year and the high summer. It is interesting use of the phrasing “all is healed, all is health” which follows the phrasing of the Christmas carol Silent Night, and has as it’s message, heavenly peace.

Other times are spent wandering and wondering, hopeful for Kindness to watch over him.

It is a strong emotional poem and is made musical on its own merit, through consonance with repeating sh-, sure and shining, l- late and lies, and h- healed, health, hearts, and whole. Lyrically, all very pleasing and comforting sounds.

In 1938 Samuel Barber wrote a musical setting of Sure on this shining night as a vocal solo (and later as a choral setting). The piano accompaniment evokes some of the emotional loneliness, and the solo performance by Cheryl Studer (soprano) captures the ache of lonely wonder/wander -ing. I like Barber’s choral arrangement (and have sung it), but this solo art song version is very beautifully done.

Sure on this shining night, music by Samuel Barber, published by G. Schirmer, Inc.

Rather than link to Barber’s choral arrangement, I found a different version of the song written in 2005 with music by Morten Lauridsen, a contemporary American composer. Lauridsen manages to bring the contemplative nature of the poem out in a subdued melody line that just seems to breath a life of its own. The performance by the Vox Humana Choral Ensemble is stunning.

Sure on this shining night, music by Morten Lauridsen, published by Peermusic Classical.

Both versions of the song do credit to James Agee’s poem.

Acappella Friday: Winding up Winter

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.

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So…winter is in full force, all wound up, blustery, snowy, icy, and *cold*.

A blogging friend posted Shakespeare’s “Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind” in her regular Wednesday poetry feature and it jogged a memory. A memory of a song that I couldn’t get out of my head once I read the poem.

Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind
(William Shakespeare)

Blow, blow, thou winter wind,
Thou art not so unkind
As man’s ingratitude;
Thy tooth is not so keen,
Because thou art not seen,
Although thy breath be rude.
Heigh-ho! sing, heigh-ho! unto the green holly:
Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly:
Then, heigh-ho, the holly!
This life is most jolly.

Freeze, freeze, thou bitter sky,
That dost not bite so nigh
As benefits forgot:
Though thou the waters warp,
Thy sting is not so sharp
As friend remembered not.
Heigh-ho! sing, heigh-ho! unto the green holly:
Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly:
Then, heigh-ho, the holly!
This life is most jolly.

I’ve always interpreted this as Shakespeare writing about the nasty part of human relationships being worse than the bitterness of winter. Juxtaposed bleakness with heigh-ho and the holly seems a little tongue in cheek, or is it just him saying “I get it, I can’t depend on most people, but I’ll be jolly anyway.”

Anyway, the song…Again, this is not acapella, and I may have to rename this feature…but the inspiration of poetry to write music is undeniable.

John Quilter (1877-1953) was a composer of songs and light orchestral music in England. One of his songs was a setting of Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind, as part of his Three Shakespeare Songs, Op.6. I recall this song from my college days, either during my short experience in voice lessons or perhaps one of my voice major friends doing this on a recital. But the melody immediately came to mind when I read the poem.

Being in a minor key, the inital verse is conveyed brilliantly by the swirling phrasing, and the heigh-ho section is very different…much more hey nonny nonny no (like a madrigal).

The recording I found was of famed English tenor Gervase Elwes (who incidentally, was actor Cary Elwes great-grandfather) performing the song in 1916. Quilter and Elwes collaborated on a number of songs prior to Elwes tragic death in 1921. This is a great performance. And I love the olde English pronunciation of “wind” – Wynd.

I discovered a second setting of this poem, a choral version written by John Rutter. The choral composition is much more haunting and consistent than the art song version. There are no sudden shifts in style (as with the Quilter version), and the accompaniment adds to the bleak winter ambience. It is very beautiful, mysterious and very Rutteresque, if you are familiar with his choral pieces, I think you’ll understand.

I think perhaps the poem may lose some of its intention in this composition by not contrasting more between the heigh-ho/holly and the winter wind, but it is beautifully written.

Acappella Friday: The Jabberwocky

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.

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OK, so first of all…this setting of Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky is not done acappella. The composer is Sam Pottle (1934-1978). Interestingly, he also wrote many songs used on Sesame Street and cowrote The Muppet Show theme (with Jim Henson).

This song one of the most enjoyable songs I’ve ever performed in a choir…I *chortle* as I think about it. This poem has always held a special place in my brain. The nonsense vocabulary, the heroic details, the wry grin of people who recite it…Lewis Carroll had a tremendous ability to draw pictures with words, some that didn’t even exist prior to him using them. This poem is largely responsible for my foray into poetry. It has inspired some of recent poetry, The chnott and the sarborant and pub song.

So it is not acappella, but it is done with piano accompaniment and toy percussion accent instruments (I think I played the tamborine/rattle when we performed this in 1985-86), and much fun to listen to. The music fits the poem. An interesting point about performance is interpretation. This is true for poetry read as well as sung.

I present two versions from cyberspace. First, a very proper choral performance by the University of Utah Singers – well done (performed with great sarcasm) and a great recording to hear the different lines and harmonies and pay attention to the toy instruments.

Jabberwocky – Utah

And a second performance by the University of Maine Singers (a larger choral group), done with choreography, and some jocularity at the end. The performance revels in silliness….plus the video has the bonus of the Maine Stein Song (don’t know it, never been to Maine). Callooh!! Callay!!

Jabberwocky – Maine

I hope you enjoy it.

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.

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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”.

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.