Sure on This Shining Night (op. 13, no. 3)


Samuel Barber was a prolific song composer, producing over 100 works for voice and piano. “Sure on This Shining Night” is one of the composer’s most famous and most frequently programmed contributions to the genre.

“Sure on This Shining Night” is the third song in the collection entitled Four Songs, which was published by G. Schirmer in 1940 as Barber’s op. 13. Unlike the composer’s earlier collection of Three Songs, op. 10, in which all three songs are set to poetry by James Joyce, Barber’s Four Songs 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 that 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 principles (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 to instruct singers in the art of producing a pianissimo cantilena vocal line.

No doubt the popularity of “Sure on This Shining Night” was amplified by Barber’s frequent retelling of an anecdote that directly involved the song. In 1979, he had just moved into a new apartment in New York City and needed to call home. He was trying to reach his partner, Gian Carlo Menotti, at the apartment. However, upon trying to dial the number from the telephone booth, Barber realized that he couldn’t recall the newly established phone number. So he contacted the operator for assistance. She initially refused to provide him with the number, but then confessed that she had a weakness for “Sure on This Shining Night.” She asked Barber to sing the song’s opening phrase to confirm his identity. He complied and was rewarded with his telephone number!

Anecdotes aside, Barber must have appreciated the song’s warm reception, for nearly 30 years later he arranged “Sure on This Shining Night” for chorus (along with “A Nun Takes the Veil,” also from Four Songs, op. 13). The arrangements were extremely popular and soon sold over 100,000 copies. To date, “Sure on This Shining Night” remains a favorite among solo singers and choral ensembles.

--Stephanie Poxon, Ph.D.

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