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Thomas Hampson on Whitman's compassion
|Whitman from an 1840's daguerrotype.|
In the BROADWAY JOURNAL of November 29, 1845, Whitman wrote his now-famous essay, ART-SINGING AND HEART-SINGING in which he denounced as decadent the stale, second-hand foreign method with its flourishes, its ridiculous sentimentality, its anti-republican spirit and its sycophantic influence, tainting the young taste of the Republic. The poet claimed he prefered untutored voices and folk groups like the Hutchinsons and the Cheney sisters to trained songbirds like Jenny Lind, whom he found too showy. His initial objections stemmed from the same wary reserve he applied to all imported forms of culture, insisting America needed to create its own new frontier voice, vigorous and free.
"I say no land or people or circumstances ever existed so needing a race of singers and poems differing from all others," Whitman wrote in A BACKWARD GLANCE O'ER TRAVEL'D ROADS. Yet despite his Emersonian insistence on "ignoring the courtly Muses of Europe," it was only by exposure to European opera and art song that Whitman began to discover the essentiality and universality of classical music's language. That exposure came during the 1840's and 1850's when the poet served as a member of New York City's working press, reviewing musical performances at Castle Garden, Palmo's Opera House, the Astor Place Theatre, and the Academy of Music. After enjoying a year of press seats for the BROOKLYN EAGLE, Whitman admitted that foreign music was exercising an elevating influence on American taste. From the late 1840's onward his critical posture gradually shifted from a stance of tolerance to one of sophisticated pleasure and finally to one of total passion for classical music, especially for opera.
|Whitman in a 1854 daguerrotype|
Indeed, it was passion that became not only the key to Whitman's appreciation of and response to singing but also became the hallmark of his emerging style as a journalist and ultimately as a poet. His vocabulary had an unabashed enthusiasm that is woefully lacking in today's criticism. For example, in describing tenor Geremia Bettini in LA FAVORITA at Castle Garden on August 11, 1851, he rhapsodized:
"His voice has often affected me to tears. Its clear, firm, wonderfully exalting notes, filling and expanding away; dwelling like a poised lark up in heaven; have made my very soul tremble."Though he never learned (nor perhaps never cared to learn) a formal musical vocabulary--he referred to orchestras as "bands," for example, throughout his writings--he replaced formula with freshness, as his language in describing music became increasingly metaphysical:
"...a sublime orchestra of myriad orchestras--a colossal volume of harmony, in which the thunder might roll in its proper place; and above it the vast, pure Tenor--identity of the Creative Power itself --rising through the universe, until the boundless and unspeakable capacities of that mystery, the human soul, should be filled to the uttermost, and the problem of human cravingness be satisfied and destroyed? Of this sort are the promptings of good music upon me.""But for opera I would never have written LEAVES OF GRASS," Whitman acknowledged in his waning years. Indeed, the poet's experience as a music journalist was a significant prelude to discovering and shaping the themes and style that were to become his mature voice when the first edition of his life's work appeared in 1855.
|Whitman depicted in a photograph from the early 1870's.|
Given the musicality of the poetry itself, it is a small wonder that over 1200 settings--(in preparation for performances and a recording Thomas Hampson unearthed over 400 settings for voice and piano alone)-- of Whitman's texts exist. As Ned Rorem asserts, "Whitman is content... A poet's content in a musician's form." The earliest settings appeared in the last decade of the poet's life, though the first major surge of compositional activity coincided with the 1919 centennial of Whitman's birth. The range of styles, nationalities, and languages represented by these settings is as far-reaching as was Whitman's influence on world literature. While there are songs to be found in German, Italian, French, Dutch, Norwegian, Danish, and Russian, the greater number are English-language songs.
In England, where Whitman already had a strong coterie of literary supporters (among them William Rossetti, Anne Gilchrist, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and John Addington Symonds), composer Charles Villiers Stanford, whose influence over several generations of famous pupils, made Whitman the poet of choice for the likes of Vaughan Williams, Boughton, Bridge, Dougherty, Holst, & Wood.
Among American composers of art songs, many were born while Whitman was still alive; most were nursed on his verse as one of the shaping forces of American thought; and all who moved in the small communal circles of American music inspired each other in choice of texts and style of setting. To cite but two examples of the interconnected chain of inspiration: William Neidlinger worked in choral societies where David Bispham sang, while Whitman was a familiar presence in Bispham's Philadelphia boyhood; Charles Naginski, Charles Ives, and Leonard Bernstein all studied and worked at Tanglewood, while contemporary composers like Gerald Busby and Michael Tilson Thomas, and Craig Urquhart have been moved by Bernstein to create their own Whitman settings.
Other composers like Ives, Burleigh, Strassburg (and again Vaughan Williams) were attracted to the folk idiom of Whitman's verse--the vox popoli with all its individuality and universality. Burleigh's ability to capture the voices of the downcast African-American in ETHIOPIA SALUTING THE COLORS, Ives' skill in replicating the poet's plain-spokenness in WALT WHITMAN, and Strassburg's cantorial rhythms and melodies in PRAYER OF COLUMBUS are but three examples of this genre.
|In a studio photograph taken by Phillips & Taylor in the early 1880's, Whitman poses with a prop butterfly.|
Contemporary composers continue to return to the great Bard, finding relevant chords in both his thought and his form. Rorem (AS ADAM EARLY IN THE MORNING, THAT SHADOW MY LIKENESS, SOMETIMES WITH ONE I LOVE) Urquhart (AMONG THE MULTITUDE), Busby (BEHOLD THIS SWARTHY FACE), Tilson Thomas (WE TWO BOYS TOGETHER CLINGING) and Bernstein have all immersed themselves in the poet's liberated thought and in his passionate intellectual and emotional message. One of the most moving examples of this is found in TO WHAT YOU SAID, Bernstein's setting of an unpublished Whitman fragment--what may have been a private musing or unsent letter to his friend Anne Gilchrist. With its combination of delicacy and militantism the song is at once an assertion of freedom and responsibility--a statement that the love of comrades is the highest human good and that such love may express itself in any infinite number of couplings--man to man, wife to husband, friend to friend, individual to society, and poet to democracy.
Quicktime video, 1 MB|
Thomas Hampson on Whitman's democratic voice