All Things Whitman

I’ve been thinking of Walt Whitman lately…actually, I almost always think of Whitman around Easter – usually due to the connection with his great Lincoln elegy ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’. It always evokes Spring and Easter for me, given that the elegy is describing the poet’s (and the nation’s) collective grief over Lincoln’s assassination on Good Friday of 1865.

All Things Whitman - Ralph Vaughan Williams Dona nobis pacem, a cantata for soprano and baritone soli, chorus and orchestra
All Things Whitman

My first encounter with the great poet was with ‘Lilacs’ – the Boston Symphony and Tanglewood Festival Chorus were preparing Roger Sessions’ choral/orchestral setting and, I was hanging out at the chorus rehearsals tagging along with my grandmother, who sang in the chorus. At age 15, I must admit that I found the music rather impenetrable along with much of the poem – but there were sections that resonated…
Flash forward to my freshman year in college – I tested out of “Freshman English” (thanks to AP English in high school!) – and so, was allowed to take any course as an elective.  I ended up taking a course in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama; as well as an awesome course on Chaucer (all read in Middle English – fun!) – but one of the best elective English courses I took was “19th Century American Literature of the Sea”.

I read tons of Melville, Richard Henry Dana, Poe – and, of course, Walt Whitman. All those amazing poems, like ‘On the Beach at Night Alone’, ‘Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking’, ‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry’…all helped me appreciate the uniquely American (and specifically New York) voice of Whitman. Strangely enough, I didn’t read Whitman for a long time after that – and it may seem corny – but, as I graduated Curtis in 1989, out came a film that brought me back to Whitman: “Dead Poet’s Society”. I started re-reading ‘Lilacs’, the sea poetry, ‘Specimen Days’ – and then discovering and re-discovering the great musical settings of Whitman alongside reading the poems.

I had long known the Vaughan Williams “Dona Nobis Pacem”, but didn’t really appreciate it as a Whitman setting.  Then came “Towards the Unknown Region” and of course, the great “A Sea Symphony” – with which I closed my first season at NYCHORAL. For a number of years now, I’ve been exploring settings of Whitman – sometimes with NYCHORAL (we sang Hindemith’s amazing setting of ‘Lilacs’ in 2015), but sometimes just collecting pieces I’d like to someday perform. So, given my recent Whitman focus, today’s playlist is going to showcase some of this music, set to texts of Whitman  – rejoice Whitmaniacs!

We start with RVW’s “Dona nobis pacem” – a very moving 1936 anti-war cantata, which weaves three of Whitman’s war poems with the “Agnus Dei/Dona nobis pacem” closing section of the Christian mass and other anti-war texts. The added texts would surely have been sentiments of which Whitman would have approved. If you want to look up the Whitman poems, they are: ‘Beat! Beat! Drums!’, ‘Reconciliation’ and ‘Dirge for Two Veterans’.

Next we go to some unusual settings of Whitman – from Kurt Weill and Ned Rorem. Kurt Weill wrote his “Four Walt Whitman Songs” in 1942/47. the first three were written in the wake of Pearl Harbor: “Beat! Beat! Drums!”; “O Captain! My Captain!”;“Dirge for Two Veterans” – he revisited Whitman in 1947 and wrote a setting of “Come Up from the Fields, Father” which became the third of the four songs. It’s worth noting that Weill was given a copy of Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” shortly after emigrating from Nazi Germany and had this to say about Whitman: “Walt Whitman was the first truly original poetic talent to grow out of American soil.”

Rorem’s short a cappella work “Lead Kindly Light” comes from a much larger choral/orchestral work called “Goodbye, My Fancy” which is entirely based on Whitman texts. This isn’t actually a text by Whitman, rather it is quoted by Whitman in a section from “Specimen Days” where he is describing a church service. Rorem’s work was commissioned in 1990 for the Centennial of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra…and hasn’t ever been performed in New York…hmmmm!

Next up is a section from Bernstein’s Songfest – ’To what you said…’, the Whitman poem was nearly mistaken as an abandoned scribble, the poem was discovered on the verso of page 30 of the holograph manuscript of Whitman’s Democratic Vistas(1871) – it is one of Bernstein’s most intimate creations, a moving and tender song of longing. It is sung by our friend Nathaniel Sullivan, who you may remember from our performance of Finzi’s Requiem da camera in November 2018.

I follow this by three movements of Charles Fussell’s “Specimen Days”, which featured the Baritone for whom it was written, Sanford Sylvan – the great American baritone who passed just last year. Fussell’s work is a beautiful setting of sections of this prose work which is described by an article in the Walt Whitman Archive as: “The text is presented as a series of brief, titled fragments, almost like a scrapbook, and is divisible into five sections or “acts” framed by introductory and concluding remarks. The sections cover the author’s genealogy and early life, the Civil War, Whitman’s recuperation from a stroke during a few months spent on a farm near Philadelphia, a brief trip to Canada and then another trip west in 1879-1880, and finally the author’s thoughts about a variety of earlier authors such as Emerson, Carlyle, and Poe”.

It’s a beautiful work: I love that the end of the fourth movement also quotes Whitman’s ‘Reconciliation’  – an echo of  the Vaughan Williams…

WORD over all, beautiful as the sky! Beautiful that war, and all its deeds of carnage, must in time be utterly lost;That the hands of the sisters Death and Night, incessantly softly wash again, and ever again, this soil’d world:

…and Sandy Sylvan’s voice is glorious…I first heard him in Boston in the 70’s and 80’s – what a great artist! Strangely enough, Fussell’s cantata has never been performed in NYC either….hmmm

I follow this with our good friend Jennifer Higdon’s awesome setting of “Lilacs”…And – since we’re in ‘Lilacs’ mode – I thought I’d include the great choral fugue from Hindemith’s ‘Lilacs’ –

“…Lo! body and soul! this land! Mighty Manhattan, with spires, and the sparkling and hurrying tides, and the ships;”

you can either listen to the rest of Hindemith’s work (which is one of my favorite choral/orchestral works) – or skip ahead!

To conclude, I could end with any number of Whitman settings…but I can’t resist sending you off into the week with RVW’s “A Sea Symphony”…and verse 52 of Whitman’s “Song of Myself” – Whitman is best read aloud – so, sound your own ‘barbaric yawp’!!

‘Song of Myself’ (Verse 52)

The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab and my loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

The last scud of day holds back for me,
It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadow’d wilds,
It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.

I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

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