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Sure On This Shining Night Barber Analysis Essay

Samuel Barber's Four Songs, Op. 13 (1937-40) is one of many pieces composed during an extremely productive span in Barber's young career. The second song of the piece, "A Nun Takes the Veil: Heaven Haven" was composed in 1937, the same year that his First Essay for Orchestra, Op. 12 was composed. The final two songs of the cycle were composed the following year, along with Adagio for Strings (1938), adapted from the String Quartet, Op. 11 (1936). The next significant work is the Violin Concerto, Op. 14 (1939). The opening song of Four Songs was completed in 1940, the year that Barber composed the work for male chorus and kettledrums, A Stopwatch and an Ordnance Map, Op. 15. Also composed over nearly the same stretch of time as Four Songs was Reincarnations, Op. 16 (1936-40), a cycle of madrigals for chorus.

The texts chosen for Four Songs are not unified by their subject matters. Each separate subject, though, was individually appealing to Barber. Also, the songs are not connected by musical elements, such as melodies or motives, as was the case in his Three Songs, Op. 10 (1936). Each song was composed independently of one another, and the four were grouped together and published in 1940. Four Songs was first performed on April 4, 1941, by the soprano Barbara Troxell with pianist Eugene Bossart at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Some of the songs gained popularity over the years, especially "Sure on this Shining Night," the final movement of Four Songs. Barber often relayed an anecdote concerning a New York City telephone operator who withheld his new telephone number until he sang the opening phrase of "Sure on this Shining Night," which she loved.

The first song, "Nocturne," is based on a love poem by Frederic Prokosch of the same title. The speaker is a person talking to his or her lover at night. The song is written only for voice, male or female. The opening phrases resemble a lullaby, set in a slightly chromatic harmonic language by Barber. The middle section becomes more active with a chordal accompaniment pattern resembling Schumann's "Ich Grolle Nicht," a song from his Dichterliebe (1840).

"A Nun Takes the Veil: Heaven Haven" is the title of the second song of the cycle. It is based on a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89), a Victorian poet. This text deals with the subject of solitude, in which Barber had a lifelong interest. The speaker is a woman who has decided to become a nun, and discusses the beauty of her destination. The song is extremely squared and rhythmic. The piano accompaniment is primarily chordal and the vocal line is syllabic and melodic. A mood of simplicity is conveyed. "Secrets of the Old," the third song, is based on poetry by W. B. Yeats (1865-1939). The theme of the song is friendship, conveyed through three elderly women. The final song is "Sure on this Shining Night," previously mentioned.


Detail fromDrifter, by Rockwell Kent, [1933]. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

from Four Songs, op. 13, 1937-40
by Samuel Barber, 1910-1981

Samuel Barber was a prolific song composer, having written over 100 works for voice and piano, the majority of which still remain unpublished. Of the published songs, Barber's "Sure on this Shining Night" (from Four Songs, op. 13) is widely considered as one of the composer's most famous contributions to the genre. Quintessential Barber with its lyrical lines, "Sure on this Shining Night" has become one of the most frequently programmed songs both in the United States and Europe.

"Sure on this Shining Night" is the third song in the collection entitled Four Songs which was published by G. Schirmer in 1940. Unlike his earlier collection of Three Songs, op. 10, in which all three songs are set to poetry by James Joyce, Barber's Four Songs, op. 13 features the texts of four different poets. The text for "Sure on this Shining Night" was based on an untitled lyric from James Agee's first published collection of poems, Permit Me Voyage (1934). Barber eventually met and formed a lasting friendship with the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, but it was not until after he set Agee's Knoxville: Summer of 1915 in 1948.

The brilliance of "Sure on this Shining Night" lies in its long, seamlessly lyrical canonical lines, initiated by the voice and followed immediately by the piano. The song's structure resembles that of songs crafted by 19th-century masters such as Johannes Brahms and Robert Schumann, especially in the dexterous use of canonic principals (in which Brahms excelled) and in the use of the pulsating chordal-style accompaniment, as found in Schmann's "Ich grolle nicht" (from Dichterliebe, 1840). "Sure on this Shining Night" has also been used by voice teachers, including Marinka Gurewich, to instruct singers in the art of producing a pianissimo cantilena vocal line.

No doubt the popularity of "Sure on the Shining Night" was amplified by Barber's frequent retelling of an anecdote that directly involved the song. In 1979, Barber had just moved into a new apartment in New York City and needed to call home. He was trying to reach Gian Carlo Menotti, whom he knew was visiting the apartment. However, upon trying to dial the number from the telephone booth, Barber realized that he could not recall the newly established phone number. The composer contacted the operator for assistance who initially refused to provide Barber with the number, but confessed that she possessed a "weakness" for "Sure on this Shining Night" and requested that Barber sing the song's opening phrase to confirm his identity. Barber complied and was rewarded with his telephone number!

Anecdotes aside, Barber must have appreciated the song's warm reception for nearly thirty years later he arranged "Sure on this Shining Night" (along with "A Nun Takes the Veil," also from Four Songs, op. 13) for chorus. The arrangements were extremely popular and sold over a hundred thousand copies. To date, "Sure on this Shining Night" remains a favorite among solo singers and choral ensembles alike.

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