Whitman's Musical Legacy
by Jack Sullivan
For a poet so often accused of being unmusical, Walt Whitman has inspired an enormous amount of music. Whitman settings span both sides of the Atlantic and take in an astonishing variety of musical styles, from Hubert Parry to to William Bolcom to George Walker.
Just why Whitman is so attractive to composers is one of the more tantalizing mysteries of American culture. Is it because of the flexibility of Whitman's free verse, the intimate first-person voice, the universality of Whitman's content? Composers most profoundly shaped by Whitman speak of his connection to music as if it were self-evident, dwelling on spiritual issues rather than purely musical ones. Clearly, the resonance is fundamental, direct, and deeply personal, going beyond technical considerations -- an electric current flowing from one art to another.
Two Whitman attributes frequently cited by musicians are variety and timelessness. It is hard to think of another poet who is able to combine universality and intimacy in such an array of scenarios--a vision of the cosmos in Holst's Ode to Death, a Brooklyn neighborhood of the 1930s in Weill's Street Scene, a show business scenario of the 1980s in the movie Fame, a passionate heterosexual love scene in Delius's Idyll, a passionate homosexual love scene in Michael Tilson Thomas's "We Two Boys Together Clinging"--and be appropriate in every case.
Composers also feel a powerful link with Whitman's method of composition, his gradual accretion of minutia into a grand design. The late Michael Tippett attributed his first encounter with America, "my dream country," to his early reading of Whitman in the 1920s, which continued into his old age: "Whitman still fascinates me: and I certainly identify with his habit of carrying everywhere a trunk full of notes and jottings, which he then proceeded to fuse together into The Leaves of Grass. My mind is rather like Whitman's trunk." Certainly Whitman himself assumed his musical connection to be self-evident. As an opera critic for the Brooklyn Eagle during the 1840s and 1850s, he had an intuitive insight into music. His poems are full of musical references: from the first "Inscription" he defines his work as "varied carols" of "America Singing." For Whitman, music was the "truest," most organic, and most inspiring art.
Some of the earliest and most cultish musical Whitmanians were Europeans-- first the British, then the Hindemith generation in Germany and Vienna. The attitude of European Whitmanians was eloquently summarized in a statement made by Hubert Parry in 1883: "It is the democratic tinge that fetches me in him, and the way in which he faces our human problems and speaks ruggedly himself -- and such a strange, wild, at the same time hopeful self." According to novelist Anthony Burgess, Whitman's vision of democracy was crucial: "[H]e was democratic, even sweaty, and the right musical librettist for a musical renaissance that turned against the Mendelssohnian salons and went to the sempiternal soil."
Europe's embrace of Whitman came after half a century of censure by Sydney Lanier, John Greenleaf Whittier, and other Americans who accused Whitman of sexual immorality and blasphemy. For European liberals, these outraged denunciations by what they regarded as American puritans acted as a powerful aphrodisiac. Whitman's celebration of free speech, free love, and free exchange among nations was seen as a blow against Victorian prudery, jingoism, and repressiveness. Whitman became a continuing source of optimism and renewal bordering on a kind of primitive religion. John Updike's shrewd characterization of Whitman as America's "happy pagan" captures what was permanent about Whitman's appeal to European intellectuals.
The most original art to emerge from the Whitman renaissance was the music of Frederick Delius, whose pantheism and rejection of conventional Christianity echoed Whitman's, and whose musical style blended with Whitman's prosody in ways that seem uncannily organic. Delius' artistic personality was forged in the New World, where his dramatic early encounter with African-American spirituals made a lasting impression. The other New World influence was Whitman, the catalyst for Delius's memories of America after he returned to England. Sea Drift, Delius's 1904 Whitman setting, inaugurates the sumptuous harmonic experiments that defined his musical style. Idyll, an ecstatic reminiscence of sexual love based on Whitman fragments, and Songs of Farewell for chorus and orchestra, were written when Delius was blinded and paralyzed by syphilis. Monuments to the human spirit, they are among Delius's most moving works.
Several of Delius's countrymen were also passionate Whitmanians. In Ralph Vaughan Williams' free-form Sea Symphony and Toward the Unknown Region, Whitman's call to sail toward the "limitless" and "steer for the deep waters only" became the composer's guidepost; Dona Nobis Pacem, an anti-war cantata incorporating Civil War poems, is an eloquent late work. Gustav Holst wrote a "Whitman" Overture to a new century in 1899 and "The Mystic Trumpeter" after Whitman's poem of the same title in 1904. His most sublime Whitman work, the Ode to Death, is a 1919, a setting of "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" memorializing friends killed in the Great War, much as Hindemith's setting of "Lilacs" 27 years later was a requiem for victims of World War II.
Following the Great War, American settings of Whitman by Howard Hanson, Roy Harris, Virgil Thomson, and others proliferated, but many of the most original settings continued to come from Europeans. During the Second World War, Whitman became a potent force for composers in flight from the Nazis. For Kurt Weill and Paul Hindemith in particular, Whitman was a means of forging a new American identity. He was still regarded as a "bohemian" artist, American precisely in his otherness and eccentricity. He was thus an ideal American icon for expatriates denounced by the Nazis as practitioners of "Entartete Musik," a "decadent" modernism spawned in impure, egalitarian places like America. Whitman's poetry explicitly rejected racism and nativism, openly embracing immigrants from all nations. And his Civil War poems could, without too much stretching, be yoked to the American war effort.
Holst and Vaughan Williams had shown that these poems made powerful vehicles for ruminating on the nightmare of the First World War; now they were dusted off again, this time as patriotic gestures. A year after Hindemith composed his Lilacs Requiem, Hans Werner Henze wrote another setting of late Whitman, the delicate and sensuous Whispers from Heavenly Death. Several other Austro-German composers, mostly enemies of the Third Reich, wrote Whitman pieces, including Friedrich Wildgans, who composed his Mystic Trumpeter the same year as the Lilacs Requiem; Franz Schreker, who enhanced his fatal "decadence" credentials with the Whitman settings Vom Ewigen Leben and Zwei Lyrische Gesange; and Karl Amadeus Hartmann, who wrote a Whitman-inspired First Symphony shortly before disappearing from German musical life during the Nazi regime. Whether in the stately church modes of Vaughan Williams, the panoramic polyphony of Hindemith, or the supple cabaret style of Weill, it is Whitman's American optimism and ampleness that continue to ignite the musical imagination.
--copyright, 1999, Jack Sullivan
Portions of this article appear in New World Symphonies: How American Culture Changed European Music,
Yale University Press, 1999.