Piece of the week 34: ‘In such a Night’

During the recent very hot September weather that the UK has been experiencing I’ve been lying in bed at night, windows open, listening to the sounds around me – distant sounds of traffic and railway trains – closer sounds of birds and animals rustling in the undergrowth, people passing by chatting, and in the background that repetitive and hard-to-define sound which always seems to be there when otherwise you think it’s quiet.

Perhaps it’s a church bell ringing – or a stray windchime – or is it a neighbour’s grandfather clock? – anyway this was perhaps the starting point for my song In Such A Night, for mixed choir (SATB) and piano. The poem is by Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea (1661-1720) – pictured. She must have been an interesting lady – a royal lady-in-waiting whose Catholic husband got into some trouble when William and Mary became joint monarchs, resulting in a move to the countryside, and who lived under some stress during much of her life. She was a prolific poet and you can read all about her on Wikipedia.

The poem I set is actually a selection of lines from a longer poem called A Nocturnal Reverie: here they are:

In such a night, when passing clouds give place,
Or thinly veil the heav’ns’ mysterious face;
When in some river, overhung with green,
The waving moon and the trembling leaves are seen;

When freshened grass now bears itself upright,
And makes cool banks to pleasing rest invite,
Whence springs the woodbine, and the bramble-rose,
And where the sleepy cowslip sheltered grows;

In such a night let me abroad remain,
Till morning breaks, and all’s confused again;
In such a night let me remain.

(abroad = outside)

I found this a really inspirational poem, and it was a joy to respond musically. A repeated piano note (a clock-chime?) sets the nocturnal scene, and continues throughout the piece while the voices, moving all together in rich harmony, follow the poetic shape. The music moves to a climax three lines from the end, with a widely spaced loud but gentle diatonic dissonance on ‘night’, while the repeated piano note is enriched with other ones. Then the music is gradually calming, falling and quietening – for a few moments the repeated piano note stops for the choir to sing the last three words, then resumes and dies away into the distance.

I only realised afterwards that the note I had chosen was an A flat – the same note that is repeated throughout Chopin’s ‘Raindrop Prelude’ – but I don’t think there is much trace of a rainstorm in this dreamy song.  In any case, if you have trouble sleeping, you could try repeated A flats….

Here’s a link to a recording with scrolling score, and here’s a link for details of the song.

In Such a Night is a movement from my choral suite called ‘Pictures of Night’ which was commissioned by Essex Young Choirs and first performed in a concert directed by Janette Ruocco. Some of the movements are for SATB and some for SA and you can hear the whole suite here.  All of them can also be performed separately.

(PS: I mistakenly typed ‘woodland’ instead of ‘woodbine’ in my setting: this is now corrected in the score, though not in the scrolling score video!)