Crossing the Bar

Click for the sheet music to Crossing the Bar

Click here to hear Crossing the Bar (music by Samuel Beazley).

Sunset and evening star
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For though from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.

The poet Tennyson felt that the twilight of his life was at hand.  Looking over a harbor (some say a sandbar in the Thames River), he set the scene to poetry, describing a longing for serenity in death.

I first heard Crossing the Bar from a dear mentor in ministry and music, Mike Reeves.  At the time, I was Mike’s intern at the Dalton Gardens, Idaho church of Christ.  I already enjoyed singing, but Mike tapped into something and from those days till now I live James 5:13 (“Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise.”).  You couldn’t go an hour without hearing Mike’s tenor voice lift up a song to God.  Some of Mike’s favorite songs (and he likes all kinds) had fallen out of popularity with the general church going public and, as such, were a completely unknown genera to me: the male quartet song.

If you look in Great Songs of the Church II (and many other older books), you’ll find several songs for “special events,” or with the notation “for male quartet.”  Some people might understand better if these songs were described as TTBB (tenor, tenor, bass, bass).  These songs typically have tight, colorful harmonies, the melody is usually in the second tenor (what would look like alto), and the second bass part is mercifully low.  To sing these songs as written is to sing a man’s song, designed for men’s voices.  One should note that the notes in the upper staff (in the old hymnbooks, written with an obscure C clef on the 3rd space) are not written for the female register.  Of course, a song can be transposed and rearranged to be sung by a full chorus (SATB), but the treble (higher) parts of male quartet songs are written an octave lower than in a song for Soprano and Alto singers.  This doesn’t actually cause a male singer to sing lower, it simply reflects where his voice is already singing.  So, with the treble notes being so close to the bass notes, the harmonies are naturally tighter and more aesthetically pleasing to the ear.  I reflected this in the typesetting of Crossing the Bar by using what’s called an “octave clef.”  One can use any clef (G, F, C) and add the numeral 8 to the top or bottom of that clef symbol.  This indicates that the music is to be sung/played either an octave higher (top) or lower (bottom) than one would typically expect with that clef.  For example, the first note in the first tenor part is a C.  Typically, one with think of this as C-above-middle-C, but since the clef we used indicates everything should be lowered by an octave, this is not C-above-middle-C, but it is – in fact – middle C.

I haven’t reflected on the lyrics of Crossing the Bar in this post.  I’ll probably do that later.  For now, though, what do you think of the poem and music to which it was married?

Look for a few more male quartet songs to follow.  You’ll probably never hear them sung, but you’ll be enriched by exposure to them – I know I have been.  I’m thankful for people like Mike who make our lives more full by showing us that music is inside of us, it’s something to be made, not just listened to as others perform it.

5 thoughts on “Crossing the Bar

  1. A gorgeous song with harmony that blends so beautifully together! Hearing this song makes me think of of a peaceful, quiet evening when I’m all alone – and the thrill of the solitude is a balm to my heart.


  2. That’s the first time I’ve heard this correctly, as written, because it was always impossible for me or anyone else who tried, to get the notes right. Now the only problem is, I don’t understand the poem! The music is soothing, though.


  3. Have heard the song before, but never an arrangement like this! They sounded similar in the beginning, but as the song progressed, they became more and more different. I guess the version I’m used to hearing is more “congregational.” I actually included this song in the supplement I made for my church, but it does not get sung often. (In fact, it hasn’t been sung on a Sunday morning since 2005, according to my records.) I think it’s one of those songs that uses a lot of words and imagery that most young people wouldn’t even understand what they’re singing about.


  4. I always enjoyed Great Songs II. It was the book we sang from when I was in Junior High and High School. Alton Howard used the same arrangement of this song in Songs of the church. But hardly anyone sang this song except at special singings. I think people weren’t sure what to do with the C Clef. And somehow, it was not appropriate to sing this song in a “worship service” because it was special music.

    My favorite of these quartet songs is #575 in Great Songs II– “When Storms Around Are Sweeping”. The tenor line soars up to a G, and the harmony is sweet.

    Thanks for the article and comments, I enjoyed it.


  5. I just found your website and I want to thank you for making this available! I have always sung the SATB arrangement of this song and often wondered about the quartet arrangement. I am now involved in a barbershop chorus and now have enough like-minded guys around me to try this out.

    I’ve always been lead to believe that Tennyson wrote this after the death of a very close friend, which would make sense. Surely, only a soul bereft of friendship could have penned something so moving and which gently reminds the reader of the confidence we have in our Pilot.


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