Saint Agnes' Eve

What is it?

Saint Agnes' Eve is a setting of the poem by the same name by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. It is the fourth and longest of the five songs that comprise my song cycle Idylls, scored for solo soprano and piano. Although relatively straightforward to sing, the soprano part does ascend gently to a top A in a few places. The piano part requires hands that can span a major ninth interval but otherwise is moderately easy to play.


Deep on the convent-roof the snows
Are sparkling to the moon:
My breath to heaven like vapour goes;
May my soul follow soon!
The shadows of the convent-towers
Slant down the snowy sward,
Still creeping with the creeping hours
That lead me to my Lord:
Make Thou my spirit pure and clear
As are the frosty skies,
Or this first snowdrop of the year
That in my bosom lies.

As these white robes are soil'd and dark,
To yonder shining ground;
As this pale taper's earthly spark,
To yonder argent round;
So shows my soul before the Lamb,
My spirit before Thee;
So in mine earthly house I am,
To that I hope to be.
Break up the heavens, O Lord! and far,
Thro' all yon starlight keen,
Draw me, thy bride, a glittering star,
In raiment white and clean.

He lifts me to the golden doors;
The flashes come and go;
All heaven bursts her starry floors,
And strows her lights below,
And deepens on and up! the gates
Roll back, and far within
For me the Heavenly Bridegroom waits,
To make me pure of sin.
The sabbaths of Eternity,
One sabbath deep and wide—
A light upon the shining sea—
The Bridegroom with his bride!



Who is or was Saint Agnes?

The idea of writing a song cycle based on Tennyson’s poems first occurred to me in 1986. At that time I was thinking of a tenor rather than a soprano and perhaps that's why the present settings work with either voice. Saint Agnes' Eve immediately struck me as a poem with beautiful imagery that I could translate into music. I jotted down vague snippets of Saint Agnes' Eve and Of old sat Freedom on the heights, also about half of Crossing the Bar. Then a change of job resulted in me moving to another town quite some distance away and I lost the motivation to continue working on the songs. They lay dormant until 2014.

I got to know the London-based Chinese soprano Chen Wang through a mutual friend, who introduced her to my music. I offered to compose a song cycle for her and she liked the idea. At the time of making the suggestion I wasn't thinking specifically of the songs that I had started so many years previously, but listening to Chen's voice made me realise they would be the ideal material for her.

Chen Wang

Chen Wang
Photo copyright © Jasmine Snow

I completed a set of five poems by selecting two more (Ring out, wild bells and Love is and was my Lord and King). I had the three song sketches from 1986 and so I worked on Saint Agnes' Eve after first completing the other two of the original set. The music is enough to melt the heart in places, for example when the soprano sings “Draw me, Thy bride, a glittering star in raiment white and clean” to an almost Elizabethan sequence of chords in the piano. I’m well pleased with it and it forms the perfect lead in to the profoundly reflective song that finishes the cycle.

The set of five songs, entitled Idylls and including Saint Agnes' Eve was completed on 8th February 2015, nearly thirty years after I had first jotted down some thoughts about it. I decided to publish the songs individually as well as in the form of a song cycle in order to broaden their appeal.