Evening Scenes

for Voice and 6 Instruments

Dan Welcher

Performing Ensemble: Voice and Instrument
Text: James Agee
Publisher: Elkan-Vogel, Inc.
Print Status: Rental

Quick Overview

The American writer James Agee has achieved considerable fame in the three decades since his death. Although his output was comparatively small in the realms of original fiction and poetry (he made his living writing for magazines and the movies), works such as "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" and "A Death in the Family" will ensure his permanence in the literary cosmos.

Composers of lyrical music are drawn toward poets of a similar bent. Samuel Barber?s evocative and nostalgic "Knoxville, Summer of 1915" for soprano and orchestra is a setting of parts of the prologue to Agee?s masterpiece "A Death in the Family", and it was this work that piqued my interest in Agee. The slim volume of collected poems that is his sole published work in this genre contains a wealth of lyric verse ? finding a text for "Evening Scenes" was simply a matter of putting complementary verses in a musical order.

I chose three poems from Agee?s collection: "In Memory of my Father", "The Storm", and "A Lullabye". Musically speaking, there are no connections between the settings other than a certain similarity of harmony. Dramatically, though, the three pieces have very individual functions and create a whole that is rounded and complete. "In Memory of my Father" is a fragment of highly descriptive imagery, not unlike Knoxville. There is an indescribable nostalgia here, the magical kind of scene and emotion painting at the which Agee excelled, powerfully tugging at the reader?s subconscious associations in highly effective ways. "The Storm" is an exercise in classical poetic form and meter, so I thought it might be effective to use highly organized musical language. Therefore, this song is serialized, except for the vocal line. "A Lullabye" is one of Agee?s most famous poems, found in many anthologies. Like much of the work of such poets as W.H. Auden and T.S. Eliot, the poem is a passionate plea contained in highly structured verse, and demands a simple musical setting to make its strongest effect.

"Evening Scenes" was commissioned by the American tenor Paul Sperry, whose championing of new music for voice stands as a model for all other artists. Sperry is responsible for the creation of many of the finest works of vocal chamber music, voice-and-orchestra, and art song of the past twenty years. Such composers as Bernard Rands (whose "Canti del sole", written for Sperry, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1983), Jacob Druckman, Robert Beaser, Elliot Carter, and a score of others have created significant works for Sperry. He is equally known for promoting forgotten and unknown works by earlier twentieth century composers, and has recorded several volumes of American art songs by composers such as Chadwick, Converse, and Buck.

When tenor Paul Sperry asked me to write a chamber music work for him in 1985, I first considered a lighthearted ?after-dinner entertainment? using comic poetry of the turn of the century. I had heard him sing several humorous pieces, and I felt he had a gift for comedy. His reaction to this first idea, though, was ?no?I really want something lyrical and beautiful to sing, this time.? I had long wanted to set Agee?s "A Lullabye", and went looking for other poems to accompany it.

Agee?s output as a lyric poet is small. Apart from his novel "A Death in the Family" (from which Samuel Barber took his text for "Knoxville, Summer of 1915"), there exists one slim volume of poetry, the famous collaborative venture with Walker Evans' photographs called "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men", and a volume of essays on film criticism. The poetry, it must be said, is not the equal of the prose. Agee excelled in descriptive writing ? but did it best in prose form.

I did find two poems that were suitable colleagues for "A Lullabye": one was a formalistic exercise in metered verse, and the other a very interesting and evocative ?prose-poem fragment? that looked quite promising for music. I decided to end with "A Lullabye", for nothing could follow the apocalyptic pessimism of this poem. That left "The Storm" as a central scherzo-song, and "In Memory of my Father" as a scene-setting, freeform opening lyric.

Musically, the poems largely dictate the forms. The first poem, being quite loosely constructed, is set as a free fantasia, with a certain ?blue? harmonic language to match the opulent prose. The second, although a simple ternary verse form (and subsequently and A-B-A musical form) was so highly structured that I chose to set it in a serial style. The last is a ritornello, with three contrasting episodes.

The work was commissioned by tenor Paul Sperry, and first performed by him with the Voices of Change in Dallas, January 27th of 1986.

Available on Rental

Additional Information

Commission Commissioned by tenor Paul Sperry.
Composition Date 1985
Duration 16:00
Orchestration Fl. Cl. Vln. Vcl. Pno. Perc.
Premiere 27th January, 1986. Paul Sperry, Tenor, Voices of Change ensemble, Dallas, TX.


I. In Memory of My Father
II. The Storm
III. A Lullabye