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.

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