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Eric Whitacre's "Water Night" Analyzed

Katie's been an online writer for over five years. Her articles often focus on the music industry.

Eric Whitacre and his Grammy

Eric Whitacre and his Grammy

A Living, Breathing and Completely Immersive Piece of Art

The song “Water Night” is a piece by Grammy-winning composer Eric Whitacre, whose works have entered the basic repertoire of instrumentalists worldwide and is considered one of the most influential classical composers of the 21st century. The text is a translation from Octavio Paz’s poem “Agua Nocturna,” published in 1947, though Whitacre’s musical adaptation was written in 1995, making it one of his earliest works.

This song expresses the ebb and flow of a perpetual cycle of love and the clarity that can be gained through opening up to love. Paz’s poem is formatted into five stanzas, each one evoking different moods through fragmented images. Although each stanza has unique symbols, they are tied together as an extended metaphor.

Water represents love with its waves and cycles, as well as its power to change and transform; eyes are the “window to the soul” and represent the fulfillment one gains when they give/receive love.

Although the lyrics alone are poignant, Whitacre’s a capella harmonies and use of dissonance transform the text into a living, breathing and completely immersive piece of art as if the listener is actually under water.

BYU Singers: "Water Night"

Water's Symbolism

The first two verses of this piece lyrically describe the depth of love one sees in another, with lines like “eyes of well-water.” Although this sets the stage for the rest of the piece, the other verses hold a more unique meaning. This begins with the third stanza, a narrative of two animals searching for water which is a metaphor for the human instinct to seek out love. They are living in “silence and solitude” until they find the water, and essentially, find each other. They concurrently “drink in your eyes,” and “drink in those waters,” which is symbolic of baring their souls to each other and choosing to accept the love of the other.

The absolute perfection of water as a symbol for love is clear here for just as water becomes a part of what it nourishes, love can bring about a metamorphosis and new life when internalized.

The sonic qualities emphasize the symbolism; the shrill onset and piercing dynamic change in the first line express the pain of solitude, Whitacre’s choice to have only two vocal parts sing “two little animals” in a phrase lacking melody displays how lost people are without love, and the crescendo of the last line builds up to the climax of the song like a wave welling up. The line is, “drink in those waters,” and it draws in the audience, as if they are drinking in every note.

If one lets themselves be vulnerable by opening their soul to love, they can discover 'a secret kingdom' of new emotions.

The Power of Love

Without a doubt, the fourth verse of “Water Night” is the climax of the song. The first line, “if you open your eyes,” is a continuation of the metaphor for opening yourself up to love. The haunting and magical chord struck on “eyes” is a fourteen note harmony that spans three octaves, literally opening up the sound.

The rest of the verse describes the gratification love can give a person, with the line “the secret kingdom of the water opens” representing a changing person. In other words, this verse is expressing that if one lets themselves be vulnerable by opening their soul to love, they can discover “a secret kingdom” of new emotions.

The next verse begins with repotia, changing the first line to “and if you close your eyes.” This could be taken to mean closing oneself off to love, but on the other hand, I interpret it as looking for love inside yourself as opposed to from another person. The verse goes on to depict the “river...filling you from within."

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Whitacre again creates a musical image of this text; the basses start on a low E flat, the sopranos start on a high D flat, and the other choral sections gradually join until every note in between those is being sung creating another massive fourteen note chord that has been sonically filled from within.

I believe this verse symbolizes the remunerative powers that loving yourself can have. A flowing river can erode away rock and carry away boats, so with water embodying the concept of love, internal love can give one the strength to make themselves a better person, eroding away doubts and carrying one through hard times.

Van Gogh, "Starry Night Over the Rhone"

Van Gogh, "Starry Night Over the Rhone"

Cycles and Ripples

Besides the instinctual need in humans to seek out love and the power it has over us, Paz and Whitacre are also making a point about the essence of love being a continuous cycle. The animals searching for love are “moon-led,” which alludes to repeating phases. Another example can be found in the combination of the lyrics and sound in the line “flowing from the center of night.”

The lessening in intensity and volume are reminiscent of ripples, like ones created from a pebble thrown into still water. With water traditionally used as a symbol for birth and renewal, characterizing it as love indicates the capacity of love to radiate outwards in a cycle of perpetual movement.

The piece as a whole even represents a cycle by ending with the same chord it begins with. Examining love in this isochronal way gives it a sense of permanence and immortality. That aspect of love is the fundamental core of this song.

Octavio Paz, Nobel Prize winner

Octavio Paz, Nobel Prize winner

Vital to the Human Experience

When Whitacre was asked about writing this piece, he said this: “As I read the poem . . . the music seemed to sing itself out into the air, as if it were a part of the poetry itself.” I agree in that the lyrics and composition of this song naturally compliment each other, bringing out the artistry of both creators.

That is part of the magic of this piece, as well as the way it ties together many facets of love: it is vital to the human experience, it has eternal qualities, it is a cycle of renewal, much can be gained by both self love and the love of others.

“Water Night” is unique because it does not focus on a specific person, instead exploring love’s potential to change people. With the wide-spanning focus and beauty this song contains, I emphatically agree with its points, believing them applicable to all people.

The very last line is probably the most striking to me: “Night brings its wetness to beaches in your soul.” We all have the need to be loved, and no matter if it comes from ourselves or from others, it quenches a thirst and gives us the capacity to radiate that love outwards.

© 2014 Katie Kilig


Rebekah M from USA on November 16, 2014:

Great, deep analysis of a beautiful work, both the song and the poem. Well done, very interesting!

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