“Poems bridging the way from Life to Death, vaguely wafted in the night air, uncaught, unwritten which let us go forth in the bold day and write,” sang Walt Whitman in Proud Music of the Storm, struggling to articulate the poet's relation ship to unseen mystical sources and his role as a conduit of the soul - a shaper of spirit into flesh, a fashioner of earthy images transfigured ultimately by the energy and elation of his verse into the ecstasy of mystical truth. As a poet, Whitman blended science, rationalism, philosophy, and fantasy; as a visionary he stood abreast of the great mystics of the past Blake, Swedenborg, Rumi, Lao Tsu; as a contemporary creature he shared the transcendental vision of Emerson, Bryant, Thoreau; as a prophet his words resonated into world literature with a
spontaneity and tenacity that make him one of the most monumental cultural influences of all time. Baudelaire, Verlaine, Mallarmé, Claudel!, Apollinaire, Schwab, Rilke, and Werfel were among the bard's direct "disciples;" Lawrence, Woolf, Eliot, Joyce, Pound, and Beckett are only a few of those who stand decidedly in his debt, as do countless other writers from every comer of the globe.
Born on May 31, 1819, on Long Island to a large farm family of Dutch-English Quaker heritage, Walter Whitman spent much of his childhood and early adulthood in Brooklyn, where he worked as a printer and editor of various dailies, among them the Brooklyn Eagle, for which he wrote hard news, fiction, poetry, editorials, and arts criticism. A familiar face at the print shops, pubs, baths, theatres and docks of his beloved Mannahatta, the lanky, rough-hewn, workman garbed Walt (as he later styled himself) spent his twenties and thirties as a professional observer "- leaning and loafing at ease - " honing his literary voice, crafting his image, and nurturing his poetic gift. When a small, virtually anonymous volume of verse appeared on July 4, 1855, bearing the poet's image on the frontispiece and burying his name in the small print
of the copyright notice, few took immediate note. But by the following year when the second volume of Leaves of Grass appeared in an enlarged 400-page version carrying a complimentary advertisement by none other than Emerson, literary America began to pay attention.
Leaves of Grass, which began its existence in a self published, self-promoted edition - (Whitman anonymously penned his own reviews and publicity and hawked the book through subscription), seemed a phenomenon as organic as its central metaphor: a collection of poems which grew with the poet's own experiences, blossoming into nine editions. Each contained new material that traced the poet's odyssey from journalist to Civil War nurse to government clerk to the solitary sage of Camden, who spent his last decades partially paralyzed but mentally alert, composing verse until the end, actively shepherding to publication new volumes of his works, presiding as a caretaker of his own legend, and ever seeking not only to come to terms with the mystic embrace of death, but also to celebrate, even in the waning light of life, an unquenchable thirst for love.
In 2019, his 200th birthday, majestic cadences of Whitman's voice seem to sound with more authority than ever, his dynamics, rhythms, passionate rhetoric, and untrammeled freedom of thought capturing precisely the heartbeat of the human experience. Poetry for Whitman was inseparable from song, and he not only strove to fashion a new linguistic syntax, but he also mandated a new music to meet it. “ I say no land or people or circumstances ever existed so needing a race of singers and poems different from all others,” he wrote in A Backward Glance Over Traveled Roads. Whitman envisioned poetry as song and the poet as singer. The concern for the perfect synthesis of word and sound is evident not only in the musical properties of Whitman's own verse - in the color, assonance, alliteration, and image painting that
lend themselves to aural incantation - but also in the way his works reverberate with references to song. He hears "America singing"; he "sing[s] the body electric"; he titles his poems "Song of Myself," "Song of Occupations," "Songs of Parting," "Drum Taps." Throughout his travels he articulates his observations in musical terms: "choruses of workers, of Negroes" or of " the strong baritones of the longshoremen" all singing, for indeed, to Whitman song is a metaphor for self-expression, and the "bard is the holiest and first among singers."
Whitman possessed a thorough working knowledge of formal music, though his journalism reveals the poet's progress from instinctive and untutored amateur to savvy reviewer. Beginning as a genuine naif whose early essay, Art Song and Heart Singing, took the world of classical music to task for its conventions, Whitman gradually evolved into a passionate proponent of opera, trained voices, and art music. From his press days at the Academy of Music and Castle Garden, Whitman fell in love with the melodies of Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti and the voices of Grisi, Albioni, and Mario. As a septuagenarian he acknowledged that "I could never have written Leaves of Grass without the opera," and he argued passionately that "only a trained voice could express what is most beautiful."
In light of the metrics of his own poetry, this "conversion" and his expanded listening horizons were hardly unexpected. What had actualIy deterred Whitman initially had not been the essential language of classical music, but rather the artificiality of some of its interpreters. He complained of Jenny Lind's artifices, and he argued in his critical prose that songs had to be a fusion of text and music that heightened the aesthetic experience. "There is something in song that goes deeper, isn't there?" Whitman pleaded.
Hundreds of Whitman texts have been set to music in the last 100 years by composers of diverse national origins and idiomatic bents. The examples that follow are personal choices from my extensive research for a project with the baritone Thomas Hampson in the late 1990s that resulted in a beautiful recording entitled, To the Soul.
“Joy, Shipmate, Joy! “and “A Clear Midnight” are luminous settings by British composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams. Whitman was a looming presence in the creative thought of Vaughan Williams. According to his widow Ursula, from 1903 onward the composer carried a copy of Whitman's poetry with him as a constant companion. In a sense the spiritual kinship of the two artists was predestined. The composer, who was born one year before Whitman suffered his stroke and was remanded to Camden, had naturally encountered the Good Gray Poet at university, but he had also found his interest awakened by his composition teacher, Charles Wood, who had previously set some Whitman texts. The prime-motivating factor for the identification, however, was Vaughan Williams' serious inquiry into folk song which
began in 1904. "A compositional style must be ultimately personal, but an individual is a member of a nation, and the greatest and most widely known artists have been the most strongly national - Bach, Shakespeare, Verdi, Reynolds, Whitman," the composer was later to explain. Shortly before his death in a letter to Michael Kennedy, Vaughan Williams went on to list Whitman together with Brahms and General Booth as three of the greatest men of his lifetime. In 1905, Vaughan Williams set his first Whitman texts from Whispers of Heavenly Death and began sketching his Sea Symphony, and the composer returned to Whitman as the inspiration for his 1936 Dona Nobis Pacem, in which (foreshadowing Britten) he interspersed Whitman poems with the text of the Latin Mass, and again n 1945 with a setting of When Lilacs Last as an elegy for Bartok.
Three Songs by Walt Whitman of which "Joy; Shipmate, Joy!" and "A Clear Midnight" are respectively the third and second, were written in 1925 and premiered by John Elwes in 1927. Vaughan Williams was attracted to these texts, taken from the poet's 1871 Songs of Parting and 1881 From Noon to Starry Night respectively; not only because of their unstructured meters which permitted the composer to free himself of a rigid piano accompaniment, but also because of the combination of veiled spirituality and earthy tangibility in the verse. The composer shared with the poet a love of nature and a Romantic agnosticism that make their merged voices especially compelling. In "Joy; Shipmate, Joy!," his hymn to the liberating experience of death, Whitman ecstatically sings, "Our life is closed, our life begins."
Reprising some of his favorite captain/ ship/ voyage imagery as metaphors for the final, cease less journey; the poet addresses his shipmate, the soul, in short, affirmative phrases. Vaughan Williams' setting captures the positive authority of Whitman's text with his choice of the allegro pesante tempo, with the ever rising vocal tessitura that culminates in upper register notes on the final two exclamations of "Joy!" and finally in the piano postlude which concludes on a very determined fff.
"Away from books, away from art, the day erased," Whitman declares in "A Clear Midnight," chanting his familiar theme of nature as a teacher and guide on the voyage of discovery that embraces all experiences, even the midnight-clear hour of death upon which the traveler embarks into life. Vaughan Williams begins and ends his setting with p markings that encase a crescendo on the line "thee fully emerging" to dramatize the sense of spiritual release. The final notes of the vocal line on the words "night, sleep, death, and the stars" fade gently into a breathtakingly soft, sustained syllable that conveys the painless bliss of passing.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, William Neidlinger worked as an organist until his thirty-third year when he departed for London and Paris on a traditional Bildungsreise and then ultimately returned to Chicago and New Jersey to teach voice and compose secular and religious music. Neidlinger was well acquainted with the Whitman legend and legacy, and he chose to set portions of three poems from Whitman's cycle, Memories of Lincoln. Neidlinger’s composition is a cantata in miniature with powerfully contrasting sections that chronicle the composer and poet's shock and despair at the loss of Abraham Lincoln. "He has the face of a Hoosier Michelangelo," wrote Whitman, then working in Washington, D.C., of Lincoln. "He has shown an almost supernatural tact in keeping the ship afloat...with head steady...with proud resolute
spirit. I say never captain had such a perplexing dangerous task." The crystallization of the ship imagery in this letter to his brother Tom no doubt recurred to Whitman in 1865 when, suffering the after shocks of the national assassination trauma, he composed his four-poem sequence.
Neidlinger’s expansive, Romantic idiom is well suited to the heroic and elevated sentiments of Whitman’s texts, while his proficiency as an organist can be heard in the majestic vocal and piano lines and in the combination of solemnity and impassioned drama which shape the song. "Beat Drums, Beat" begins with an eerie hush in both the voice and ominous martial bass ostinato of the accompaniment, then rises to a hammering heartbeat of sound that suggests the cacophony of brass and percussion. The emotional explosiveness of the first section modulates into the slower tempo and soothing legato of "When Lilacs Last," which finishes in a moment of reverential silence before launching into the culminating poem of this extended elegy: "O Captain, my Captain" - ironically the poet's most popular and, in its strophic
form, his least representative work. Annoyed by repeated requests to recite it or anthologize it separately from the rest of the opus, Whitman once exploded, saying he wished he had never written the poem. Nonetheless, the haunting melancholy and cold brutality of the images make a poignant requiem for the President whom Whitman idolized.
"The real war will never get in the books," Whitman lamented in his autobiography, Specimen Days, reacting to the trauma of his experiences as a nurse in the field hospitals outside Washington, D.C. during the Civil War. "The whole land North and South is one vast hospital," the poet wrote to his family. Though a staunch Union supporter and brother of a Union soldier, Whitman with his Quaker ancestry and natural humanitarianism could not help but decry the carnage: "Think how much and of importance will be - has already been - buried in the grave," he protested early in the conflict. The war years drained the poet emotionally and cast a pall over his last decades. His health lost through the exertions of his nursing, much of the poet's own vigor and emotional life lay buried with the war dead, and Whitman carried the scars with him to his grave.
Ned Rorem captures the essence of Whitman’s war experience in his setting of “Look Down, Fair Moon.” Taken from the 1865 Drum Taps collection, the poet invokes the horrifyingly pale lunar body to rain down its light as a spectral requiem for the battle slaughtered. The nimbus which illuminates faces ghastly purple intensifies the nightmare before Whitman's verse and its musical setting slowly transform strife into gentle reconciliation.
When in 1957 at Hyeres, Ned Rorem selected this and several other provocative Whitman texts to set, he was living the life of an expatriate, deeply immersed in the cultural milieu of France and associated with the capital city's foremost artists like Honegger, Poulenc, Boulanger, and Cocteau. While his diaries of the period record his fascination with the European avant garde, it is interesting to note that the creative inspirations for many of his songs then and later frequently harked back to his American roots. Again and again in the fifties and sixties at the height of the American social and sexual revolutions, Rorem mined Whitman's verse for forward-thinking, sympathetic song texts, and he has continued to return to the poet especially in times of personal and historical crisis as in his 1969 War Scenes dedicated to the dead in
Vietnam on both sides or his 1982 Calamus settings, rendered more poignant by the AIDS trauma at its height. The luminescence of Rorem's hushed vocal line in "Look Down Fair Moon" is offset sharply by the elegiac lento tempo with which the song begins. As the piano advances solemnly in a grim march, the voice crescendos on the images of the swollen limbed, purple faces limned in pale moonlight before diminishing into a reverential tone that foretells the conciliatory powers of nature.
Another haunting Whitman setting by Leonard Bernstein is taken from an unpublished poem, “To What You Said,” which the bard scrawled on the back of some scrap paper. Throughout his career as a composer, conductor, and teacher, Bernstein sought not only to serve as an exponent and champion of the late Romantic composers, but also to incorporate into his own work the emotional intensity and melodic-harmonic lessons of their legacy; at the same time he strove to create, especially in his vocal and theatrical music, an uniquely American idiom, to absorb from the democratic melting pot an eclecticism that he could then transform into a truly personal voice. In this he was very like Walt Whitman, who, unfettered by categories, labels, or conventions in his poetry, did not fear to combine with breathtaking audacity an astonishing array of thematic and stylistic contrasts.
Drawn to the exquisitely humble, touchingly exposed honesty of Whitman's love lyrics, Bernstein chose this poem found among the bard's posthumous papers to include in Songfest, composed for the American Bicentennial and premiered at the Kennedy Center in 1977. The twelve-song cycle composed to texts by Americans take LB's familiar humanistic and politically liberal perspective on the themes of love, marriage, personal aspiration, and social justice in the multicultural framework of America's melting pot. In its original incarnation the purposefully and exuberantly eclectic score called for six singers and an orchestra of traditional and electronic instruments, while the subsequent version was arranged in the more intimate piano-vocal format.
"To What You Said" is one of those rare poems which Whitman, himself, considered too private for publication. Though the manuscript is undated, it is clearly a product of his Camden years and is very likely addressed to Anne Gilchrist, the plucky, intelligent, literary English woman and widow of Blake's biographer who fell in love with the poet via his poems, published the first feminist defense of his writings, and followed him to Philadelphia in 1876 in the hopes of marrying him. Most assuredly gay, Whitman gently fended off her romantic advances, though he cherished her friendship long after her return to England, and following her death he remained close to her son Herbert. That Whitman never sent the poem or circulated it speaks for the confessional nature of its contents, whispered with such delicacy yet uncompromising truthfulness: "I am he who kisses his comrade lightly
on the lips and am one who is kissed in return." The song opens with a bold introduction that modulates into a sweeter, softer deployment of the strings, which serve as an apt accompaniment to the poet's gentle explanation of his sexual preference and his affirmation of the beauty and nobility inherent in this mode of love. The C major prelude transforms itself into F# dissonance to signal the startling revelation, while the ostinato on low C maintains a confident sense of equilibrium before resolving itself into the final transcendent ppp cadence.
"To What You Said" offers one of those quintessential moments in contemporary song: a collaboration of America's foremost poet with one of her late, great musical souls. In a voice wrenched from the heart, in a language daring to speak the unspeakable, in an idiom derived from the groundbreaking voices of 19th century Romanticism, but transformed through its transatlantic voyage into a particularly American brand of self-affirmation, Walt Whitman and Leonard Bernstein invite the listener to embark on a psychological, spiritual, and ultimately universal voyage in which matter is transformed into fleshy spirit, experience into art, and stasis into flux.
“If you want me again, look for me under your boot soles," writes Whitman at the end of Song of Myself. "Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged/Missing me one place search another /I stop somewhere waiting for you." And so the Bard beckons. In the last one hundred years composers and singers have responded in such generous measure that Walt Whitman would, no doubt, be pleased at the tenaciousness of his roots and the prolific offshoots of his inspiration. With that inimitable voice of ego and humility, with the lèse-majesté of the democratic poet, Whitman paid his own tribute to the music in his head and his heart and ultimately his pen:
- Composers! Mighty maestros!
And you, sweet singers of old lands, soprani, tenori, bassi!
To you a new bard is caroling in the West,
Obeisant sends his love.