Dennis Russell Davies, conductor
WILLIAM BOLCOM: A Whitman Triptych (NY Premiere)
A pre-concert discussion-recital takes place on the Carnegie Hall stage at 1:45 and is free to ticket-holders. The pre-concert activities juxtapose settings by Kurt Weill and Larry Alan Smith of Whitman's "Come Up from the Fields Father," which is also one of the three Whitman poems set by William Bolcom in his Whitman Triptych. Mr. Bolcom will participate, as will Jack Sullivan, author of a new book, New World Symphonies.
Born May 26, 1938, Seattle, Washington
A Whitman Triptych is scored for three flutes (one doubling on piccolo), three oboes (one doubling on English horn), three clarinets (one doubling on bass clarinet), three bassoons (one doubling on contrabassoon), four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, one tuba, one timpanist, two percussionists (glockenspiel, cymbals, crotales, two gongs, tenor and bass drums, tambourine), harp, piano/celesta, and strings.
At a time of great pessimism about the world, Walt Whitman's optimism, particularly in the light of his involvement in the most murderous war in our history, heals the soul better than almost any other poet I know of. His transcendent, sympathetic love bestowed on that war's dying and wounded and their families; his embrace of the spiritual unity of love, creativity, and death, and his amazing prophecy of our current century's plight and promise--these three aspects led me to choose the poems that make up A Whitman Triptych.
Come Up From the Fields Father, from Drumtaps (these are collections within the total Leaves of Grass), tells with great restraint of a family's receiving news of their son's wounding in battle, and their hope for his still being alive--vain, as the narrator knows. (This is one of Whitman's most perfect poems, and I have made no cuts; some have been taken in the other two.)
In the philosophical poem Scented Herbage of My Breast, from Calamus, Whitman sees how his own creativity (the "scented herbage" that makes up the grass-leaves of his poems) is inextricably bound in the center of its soul to love and death; understanding this brings him resolution and serenity.
No Nostradamus has been more accurate in projecting the future than Years of the Modern, written at the end of the Civil War, Whitman foresees the turbulent history of our time with terrifying clarity, and his question, "Are all nations communing? Is there to be but one heart to the globe?" is the mandate of the United Nations. For, willy-nilly, despite enormous resistance on all sides, that single heartbeat from Earth's core becomes more and more powerful, more and more blessedly able to "advance, advance upon" us.
Born November 16, 1895, Hanau, Germany
Hindemith's epic setting of When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd was commissioned in 1946 by the late Robert Shaw at a time when the composer was searching for ways to express gratitude for his newly adopted country. Subtitled "Requiem for Those We Love," the Lilacs Requiem is Hindemith's most thoroughly American work. According to Shaw, in a 1995 interview, Hindemith was "extraordinarily moved by this piece." The occasion of Shaw's commission was the death of Franklin Roosevelt, whose New Deal represented an egalitarian vision close to Whitman's.
Whitman's poem is a threnody for another visionary American president, Abraham Lincoln, who had fallen eighty years before Roosevelt, almost to the day. In Hindemith's setting, the poem also became a requiem for Americans killed in World War II. On a personal level, it became a metaphor for Hindemith's loss of his own friends, many of whom by 1945 were gone or dead. In the words of Shaw, the Requiem is the testament of "a lonely, broken heart." Yet it is by no means sentimental or crowd pleasing. "No one heard this work at first," recalls Shaw. "It is too gray-brown, like the bird in the poem, too thoughtful. Hindemith wrote it for Lincoln, for his Yale students, and for those who perished in the Holocaust." It is "not public mourning," and despite its deeply patriotic gesture, it is "not a goddamn political speech."
This "gray-brown" seriousness was a problem for the piece during its early exposure. Its tepid reception was a painful disappointment for Hindemith, who complained that he was never really accepted as an American, but continued to be regarded as an outsider. In 1953, he remarked sadly, "Nobody ever bothered to call me an American musician. I always remained for them a foreigner." Only in the 1990s, when major performers besides Shaw finally began performing and recording the Requiem, did it begin to enjoy a genuine revival. Now it can be seen for what it is, an American masterpiece with the freshness of a European perspective.
Hindemith approached the Requiem with reverence. Condemned by Goebbels's propaganda machine for associating with Jews and for creating "degenerate and decadent" art, he regarded Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Whitman as heroic healers and unifiers. Furthermore, Whitman's poem manifests the kind of transcendental unity--a mystical triumph over ugliness and evil--that Hindemith constantly strove to translate into his later music, especially the works he wrote in the 1940s in America such as Harmonie der Welt. Like Holst and Vaughan Williams in their Whitman Civil War settings, Hindemith saw music as a mystical healing force.
Shaw answers the cliche that Hindemith was "all craft and no heart" by pointing out that for this composer, craft was heart: "For Hindemith, structure and symmetry were mystical and communicative; they were transfusions of truth, the juice of a piece. The spirit is in the letter: getting a chord in tune means the truth is at stake." Given Hindemith's fondness for symmetry and structural complexity, it is not surprising that he was drawn to Whitman's poem, which emphasizes craft, a repeating trinity of symbols, a formal voice (unusual for Whitman), and an intricate structure.
The Requiem was not the first time Hindemith had worked with When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd. Twenty-seven years earlier, Hindemith had composed three Whitman settings, including "Sing On There, in the Swamp," the beautiful mezzo solo that became the fifth part in the Requiem. Shaw initially took this single song to Hindemith, who had reworked it in 1943, with the proposal that it be used as a memorial to Roosevelt. Hindemith's admiration for both President and poet was so great, however, that he responded, "No, we should do the whole thing." A two-minute song became an hour-long New World Requiem, an American epic set to European forms, including a sinfonia, a chorale, marches with trios, double fugues, arias, choruses, motets, fanfares, and much else.
The first thing one notices about the Requiem is its astonishing formal scope and variety, as if the relief of being in the New World, free from Nazi censorship, paradoxically enabled Hindemith to bring to bear an array of Old World techniques--the European academicism of which he is so often accused--in a fresh context.
Unlike Weill, Hindemith chose not to simplify Whitman with an American pop vernacular but to set one of Whitman's most lengthy and uncompromising poems--all of it, without cuts--in his own most dense and uncompromising musical language. The result is a work that impresses with its purity and granitelike integrity. It comes closest to embodying Whitman's determination to deglamorize poetry, to celebrate the grittiness of ordinary life.
Hindemith was an astute, utterly unsentimental reader of When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd; the poem emerges as a drama of personal and cultural recovery from trauma and death. Light shines into Hindemith's thick, dark textures only gradually, after it is earned. The music moves from the grim orchestral prelude--a terrifying depiction of despair in Hindemith's starkest expressionist style--through stages of mourning captured in delicate arias, recitatives, and choruses, toward a quiet acceptance of death.
The final stage of equanimity is depicted in a rapt chorale, "Come, Lovely and Soothing Death," the austerity of which contrasts strikingly with the voluptuousness of Holst's setting. Hindemith's love of medieval and Renaissance plainchant is glowingly apparent in the a capella sections, while the strict passacaglia woven by the orchestra exemplifies his continued attachment to neo-baroque structures. The purity of Whitman's late verse is curiously compatible with these Old World techniques, making this one of the most subtle unions of Old and New World art.
But subtlety is by no means the whole story. Embedded in the poem is a majestic celebration of the American landscape, the "miracle spreading," an occasion for one of Hindemith's most complex double fugues. (According to Shaw, Hindemith, an astonishingly fast worker, wrote this fugue on a train.) The complexity of Hindemith's polyphony again seems an appropriate musical form for Whitman's vast panorama of people and places, the "varied and ample land" of America. Each fugal voice becomes the embodiment of a different place:
The South and North in the light
All voices interact with a simultaneity not possible on the printed page. Here is an instance where music, because of its ability to combine a multitude of voices, genuinely enhances a poetic text by going beyond the boundaries of literature.
The prosody of When Lilacs Last in Dooryard Bloom'd has a freedom that makes it suitable for musical manipulation, yet the relatively formal structures--the recurring symbols, the allegorical journey of Lincoln's coffin, the dignified march cadences and funeral dirges--fit the formality of Hindemith's musical style.
Most important, the passionate calm at the center of Whitman's poem is an ideal sounding board for Hindemith's mature aesthetic. Glenn Gould, one of Hindemith's most astute advocates, once characterized Hindemith's style, "when properly adduced," as the "true amalgam of ecstasy and reason: repose." Hindemithian repose found its happiest counterpart in Whitman's poetry.
--Copyright, 1999, Jack Sullivan
Major support of the American Composers Orchestra is from Alliance Capital Management L.P., Mr. Thomas Buckner, the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust, Booth Ferris Foundation, The Aaron Copland Fund for Music, Geraldine C. and Emory M. Ford Foundation, Mr. Francis Goelet, the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, J.P. Morgan & Co., the Virgil Thomson Foundation, and the Helen F. Whitaker Fund. This concert is also made possible with public funds from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council on the Arts, a state agency, and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.