High Summer Holds the Earth

Whether it is merely a temporary aberration, a ray of hope, or purely a method of getting new music (that might actually be performed) published, a number of composers over the last decades have returned to some semblance of tonality and melody. Few things divert my mind and heart from the ugliness of current politics and popular culture better than the beauty of creation during high summer or excellent music. These two poems, on summery themes, and the musical settings of them I have selected may momentarily lift you from the drudgery. 

Gwyneth Walker is a Vermont composer who resides and works on a dairy farm (perhaps it ties her to reality). E.E. Cummings’ poetry has been set by many current vocal composers, but to me Walker’s setting captures the fascination, wonder and awe of his “i thank You God for most this amazing day” better than other settings I have heard. 

i thank You God for most this amazing day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes (i who have died am alive again today, and this is the sun's birthday; this is the birth day of life and love and wings and of the gay great happening illimitably earth) how should tasting touching hearing seeing breathing any-lifted from the no of all nothing-human merely being doubt unimaginable You? (now the ears of my ears awake and now the eyes of my eyes are opened) 

Here is a link to a performance which follows the composer’s stylistic indications for tempo, volume, etc. very accurately and which also is musically satisfying (as a performer I know that is possible to be technically flawless, but musically unengaging). 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tSo6rvmZ33A 

Morten Lauridsen is a composer who taught at USC for over 40 years. And while he has written some atonal or at least very chromatic and tonally blurry music, his most popular works are tuneful and tonal. 

His “ O magnum mysterium,” “Ave, Maria,” “Prayer” (poem by Dana Gioia), “Sure on This Shining Night” and several others became standards in the choral repertoire quickly after they were published. His setting of James Agee’s “Sure on This Shining Night” has served to calm my soul amid the turmoil of life on a number of occasions. 

Sure on this shining night 

Of starmade 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 

Wandering far alone 

Of shadows on the stars. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=icp4bNb7TDI 

Lauridsen and, to a lesser degree, Walker regularly appear on the programs of high school, college and other local performing vocal groups. There are also a number of reasonable recordings of Lauridsen’s works, though of the ones I am familiar, I recommend those by the Chamber Choir of Europe under the direction of Nicol Matt. 

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David Wihowski

David Wihowski

2 Responses

  1. Avatar Raymond Olson says:

    Thank you, Mr. Wihowski. These two are forgotten (until I am forcibly reminded) favorites of mine. Cummings was a marvelous lyric poet, who caught me, age 12, with his anti-orthography and kept me with his music. Although I’ve still to read A Death in the Family, his poems are my favorite part of Agee’s work. Sometimes that marvelous line, “Sure on this shining night”, will occur to me and dispel everything I had been thinking.

  2. Avatar Patrick Kinnell says:

    Mr. Wihowski I’m glad you mentioned Morten Lauridsen though I’m ashamed to say I haven’t listened to nearly enough of his music. One of his pieces I do know well – Dirait-on – and it has been transposed by the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet. It is well worth listening to. Of course the choral
    version is lovely as well.