After an extended tour with the band through Middle-earth, I thought it would be nice to change gears and listen to some choral music. Up next is “She Walks In Beauty,” based on the poem by Lord Byron (1788–1824) with music set by David Foltz (1911 – 1992). It was published in 1952.
Lord Byron (George Gordon), described by the Poetry Foundation as “[t]he most flamboyant and notorious of the major Romantics,” wrote “She Walks In Beauty” in 1814. The woman to whom the poem refers was a cousin of Byron’s, seen one night at a party wearing a mourning dress.
It’s a bit harder finding info on David Foltz. He was briefly the conductor of the Wichita Choral Society (1959-196X), but I’m not having much luck finding anything else.
(The sheet music is available from Sheet Music Plus. Your purchase supports the blog!)
First, I’d like to present the poem. Note as you listen that the composer takes a few minor liberties with the text, deleting some words and phrases and adding or substituting others.
She walks in beauty, like the nightOf cloudless climes and starry skies;And all that’s best of dark and brightMeet in her aspect and her eyes;Thus mellowed to that tender lightWhich heaven to gaudy day denies.
One shade the more, one ray the less,Had half impaired the nameless graceWhich waves in every raven tress,Or softly softly lightens o’er her face;Where thoughts serenely sweet express,How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.
And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,The smiles that win, the tints that glow,But tell of days in goodness spent,A mind at peace with all below,A heart whose love is innocent!
The musical setting of the poem is “through-composed,” meaning that each stanza or verse gets its own melodic content. We’re much more familiar with “strophic form,” where each verse is sung to the same melody (think about most any hymn, folk song, or Christmas carol you’ve ever heard. They’re strophic).
Another thing you’ll notice right away is that this piece is a cappella (without instrumental accompaniment). It was written for SATB (soprano, alto, tenor, bass). Some parts divide throughout the piece; for example, half of the altos sing one note while half sing another. This opens up more harmonic possibilities – instead of just four notes (SATB), the composer can use up to eight. Or more, really. There’s no law saying a composer can’t divide the sopranos into six parts, though I’d question the sanity of doing so.
The first stanza begins in the key of E major, more or less, and alternates between time signatures of 3/4 and 4/4, several measures for each. The choir starts softly for the first couple of lines, then builds towards the climax of the first stanza. Foltz uses some wonderfully squishy chords as we climb toward the word “bright,” which is the highest note in this stanza. Many chords in Western classical music are based on triads, the easiest to recognize consists of the first, third, and fifth notes of a scale (for E major, that would be E-G♯-B). Foltz likes to add sevenths and ninths in there as well ( i.e. D♯ and F♯). He also adds several suspensions throughout the piece, which means one of the notes of the chord begins on the note next to it before resolving to its proper pitch.
Listen to how beautifully the sopranos sing that high G♯ on “bright” (0:25). It just floats up there! After that, we begin to descend towards the end of the first stanza. We don’t go directly there, however. The chord on “eyes” (0:38) is lovely, but unsettled; we can’t just leave things there. We have one more slight ascent, then back down toward a traditional (and satisfying) “authentic cadence“, ending on a solid E major chord. (The cadence link has a good definition and example, but for a quick-and-dirty example, think of the “two bits” part of “shave and a haircut, two bits”)
The second stanza begins with what you think will be similar to the first (0:58), but right away it demonstrates that we’re not in the strophic realm. He repeats the merest bit of the upward motif, but changes the soprano note by one half-step (C♯ to C♮, 1:07). Just that one change helps lead into the next line of the stanza. What’s interesting to me is that this is where he changes key – not at the beginning of the stanza. Now we’re in C major, more or less. This section is in 4/4, and stays put for a while. Foltz also gives the tempo indication of “a little faster” here (1:10).
We feel a bit of turmoil, and although the line keeps rising upward, the choir actually decrescendos and slows down after “waves,” despite reaching ever higher. Our natural tendency is to get louder as our notes go higher. Foltz goes counter to this, having the highest note of this stanza also be the quietest of the piece (marked ppp, or pianississimo – very soft; 1:21). Once again I’m very impressed with how the sopranos achieve that.
The “softly” line also brings yet another key change, this time to A♭ major (more or less). We remain quiet through that line, then build a little – but not too much – during the next line. The stanza finishes with a decrescendo down to pianissimo (pp), yet not as soft as the ppp that happened at the high point of this stanza.
The third, and final, stanza returns to the key of E major*. It may seem an odd transition at first, but it does have some theoretical sense behind it. If anyone remembers way back when I analyzed Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” the term “chromatic mediant” may sound familiar. It describes a certain way two keys are related. In this case, you have to think of A♭ by its enharmonic name, G♯. The notes E, G♯, and B make up the basis of an E major chord.
Anyhoo, we’ve begun the third stanza (1:50). We’ve also reverted to 3/4 time for a bit. While the melody is different from the beginning of the piece, Foltz uses some of the same chords which lend familiarity to the ear. At 1:58-2:07, he presents a nice series of chord changes beneath repetition in the soprano line. The composer indicates “slowly” there, which helps bring out that sequence. We finish out that line with a nice descent into an E major chord.
From there we start growing, both in volume and upper range. The melody leaps up at 2:13, coming down just a little bit, then leaps higher for a similar phrase (2:18). The other voices also creep upward. Although the altos have some downward movement, they ultimately end up higher than they were before. The music changes back to 4/4 and continues to crescendo to the climax of the entire piece, with the first sopranos hitting a high A – the highest note in their part. They lower just a bit to an F♯ for the loudest chord (marked fff, or fortississimo; 2:29). After that, the group comes down in volume and range, ending in a whisper of an E major chord.
This particular setting has been a favorite of mine since I first sang it in high school. If you’d like to hear a couple more settings of this poem, check out this post by Chris Shepard, music director of the Dessoff Choirs.
* you know the drill
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