Tag Archives: Samuel Barber

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.

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
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.

A cappella Friday: Bars and Feathers

em>Acappella 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 acappella music have. Lyrical phrasing, meter, rhyming, assonance, and consonance mean so much to acappella music, because it relies so heavily on the human vocal element.


It has been a while since I did one of these.

Partly because I hadn’t heard any new inspiring songs recently, neither was I particularly inspired to seek out any songs.

Until today.

I was wondering whether anyone had done an arrangement of Emily Dickinson poems for acappella chorus. Google. What a time waster saver. I found quite a few. And it should come as no surprise, as Ms. Dickinson is arguably the most prolific of American Poets and one of the more emotive poets (and also – to her credit – concise). These characteristics make her writing great fodder for choral literature.

The first one I noticed (and I think that I’ve sung it once) was Let down the Bars, O Death, composed by Samuel Barber, who was responsible for another haunting poem/choral selection that I discussed a while back, Louise Bogan’s To Be Sung on the Water. He wrote this piece during the same summer (1936)** as the string quartet that would eventually become Adagio for Strings.

Let down the Bars, O Death*
Emily Dickinson
Music by Samuel Barber

Let down the Bars, O Death —
The tired Flocks come in
Whose bleating ceases to repeat
Whose wandering is done —

Thine is the stillest night
Thine the securest Fold
Too near Thou art for seeking Thee
Too tender, to be told.

This setting is a simple chorale, with none of Barber’s usual complex counterpoint, but it is effective  at letting Dickinson’s text carry  the load.  Given her gift for emotionally charging phrases, it definitely works with his gift for musical conflict and resolution.  The opening of the piece sounds like a call, an invocation that begins hushed, and crescendos to the conclusion, where the opening lines are repeated/declared with emphasis.

The next piece was a bit of a surprise.  I have a soft spot for poetry that is light and hopeful (something that is not necessarily plentiful in Dickinson’s canon of writing), so when I happened upon “Hope” is the thing with feathers, I was hooked.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers*

Emily Dickinson
Music by Kenny Potter

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

There are several different choral arrangements of this poem, but in my opinion, none of them capture the intention of the words like this arrangement by Dr. Kenny Potter of Wingate University. Recently composed in 2011***, this piece allows the underlying message to drive the song, with the opening lines carried through as heartbeat. A carefree melody, which breaks slightly to express the seriousness of the last line (much like Barber in the effective use of chorale style), but then returns to the patter of the “thing with feathers, and sings the tune without the words – and never stops – at all” fading to the end.

I believe he created an earworm.

The video I selected is a combined performance of several pieces. The first one is “Hope” is the thing with feathers. Have a listen. You will be humming this the next day.


*The Poems of Emily Dickinson Edited by R. W. Franklin (Harvard University Press, 1999)
**G. Schirmer, Octavo 8907
***Published by Santa Barbara Music Publishing (SB.SBMP-1017) 2011

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.