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related article:
Whitman's Musical Legacy by Jack Sullivan

May 15 recital & discussion at NY Historical Society


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"I Hear America Singing"
Whitman and the Music of his Time

by David S. Reynolds

Recalling the entertainment experiences of his young manhood, Whitman wrote, "Perhaps my dearest amusement reminiscences are those musical ones." Music was such a powerful force on him that he saw himself less as a poet than as a singer or bard. "My younger life," he recalled in old age, "was so saturated with the emotions, raptures, up- lifts of such musical experiences that it would be surprising indeed if all my future work had not been colored by them."

Whitman regarded music as a prime agent for unity and uplift in a nation whose tendencies to fragmentation and political corruption he saw clearly. For all the downward tendencies he perceived in society, he took confidence in Americans' shared love of music. In the 1855 preface to Leaves of Grass he mentioned specifically "their delight in music, the sure symptoms of manly tenderness and native elegance of soul." As he explained in a magazine article: "A taste for music, when widely distributed among a people, is one of the surest indications of their moral purity, amiability, and refinement. It promotes sociality, represses the grosser manifestations of the passions, and substitutes in their place all that is beautiful and artistic." By becoming himself a "bard" singing poetic "songs" he hoped to tap the potential for aesthetic appreciation he saw in Americans' positive responses to their shared musical culture.

Whitman's immersion into his contemporary musical culture followed distinct phases. An invasion of foreign virtuosos in the early forties piqued his interest in music but, at the same time, drove him to embrace the simpler, more heart-felt indigenous music of the American families and minstrel troupes. His appreciation of these popular forms, in turn, opened the way to Italian opera, which in the fifties actually came close to being a popular art.

He was then writing for the strongly nationalistic Democratic Review, and his nativist politics seemed to have prevented him from fully embracing the foreign musical masters. What he sought was music that sprang from indigenous soil and embodied the idioms and concerns of average Americans.

He discovered such music in the family singers and minstrel troupes that became immensely popular in the mid-forties. In a series of newspaper articles written from 1845 to 1847 he rejoiced over what he saw as the distinctly American qualities of the new family groups. The Cheneys, a quartet of three brothers and a sister from New Hampshire, thrilled him when he first heard them in November 1845 at Niblo's Theatre. In an article for the Brooklyn Star he raved: "For the first time we, on Monday night, heard something in the way of American music, which overpowered us with delightful amazement." He declared that they "excel all the much vaunted foreign artists, not excepting Templeton, whom we saw there." He revised and expanded the article four times to include other singing families, particularly the famous Hutchinsons. In all its versions, the message was the same: what he termed the "art music" of the foreign musicians was overly elaborate and fundamentally aristocratic, while the "heart music" of the American families was natural and democratic. As he wrote: "Simple, fresh, and beautiful, we hope no spirit of imitation will ever induce them to engraft any 'foreign airs' upon their 'native graces.' "

It is worthwhile to look especially at his favorite singing family, the Hutchinsons, whom he singled out for praise in his articles on music. The most popular family group before the Civil War, the Hutchinson singers consisted of three brothers--Judson, John, Asa--and their younger sister Abby, part of a talented family of thirteen boys and girls from New Hampshire. Naturally gifted vocalists who accompanied themselves with string instruments, they gave their first public concert in 1839, and, with additions and substitutions of different family members, they remained popular for nearly four decades. They became international celebrities and played to packed houses everywhere. They were invited to perform at the White House by President Tyler, and their circle of friends included Frederick Douglass, Edwin Forrest, Longfellow, and, eventually, Lincoln. Their catchy songs ran the gamut of popular idioms, from the sentimental to the sensational, and promoted a variety of reforms, particularly temperance and antislavery.

Whitman found in the Hutchinsons a winning artlessness. "Elegant simplicity in manner," he wrote of them, "is more judicious than the dancing school bows and curtsies, and inane smiles, and kissing of the tips of a kid glove a la [Rosina] Pico."Like them, in his poetry he would strive for naturalness and what he called "a perfectly transparent, plate-glassy style, artless," characterized by "clearness, simplicity, no twistified or foggy sentences."

He also valued the fact that the Hutchinsons sang about common American experience and the ordinary lives of average individuals. In the Eagle he noted that they "are true sons of the Old Granite State [New Hampshire]; they are democrats." Their signature song, "The Old Granite State," gave all thirteen siblings' names along with their convictions and political views. The premiere song of Whitman's favorite group, then, made singing oneself and "singing America" commonplace in the public arena. Whitman, comparably, wove autobiographical details into his poems: "Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos."

The Hutchinsons also developed the stylistic device of solo and group singing-- male and female solos by each of the four singers, for the verses, were interspersed with choral refrains. Judson, a high second tenor, often took the melody line. John, a versatile baritone, glided easily into a falsetto, while Abby sang a rich contralto and Asa a resonant bass. Whitman was powerfully stirred by the rich vocal mixtures the singing families introduced, capturing them in his poem "That Music Always Round Me":

[N]ow the chorus I hear and am elated,
A tenor, strong, ascending with power and health, with glad notes of daybreak I hear,
A soprano at intervals sailing buoyantly over the tops of immense waves,
A transparent base shuddering lusciously under and through the universe, [...]
I hear not the volumes of sound merely, I am moved by the exquisite meanings,
I listen to the different voices winding in and out, striving, contending with fiery vehemence to excel each other in emotion[.]

Another form of American music that appealed to Whitman was the minstrel song. Minstrel troupes were generally white performers in blackface who gave caricatured versions of African American customs and dialects. For decades America was inundated by touring groups with names like the Sable Minstrels and the Virginia Harmonists.

Whitman took avid interest in the minstrel troupes that proliferated in the mid- forties. In an 1846 article, "True American Singing," he praised a minstrel group called the Harmoneons: "Indeed, their negro singing altogether proves how shiningly golden talent can be spread over a subject generally considered 'low.' Singing with them is a subject from obscure life in the hands of a divine painter: rags, patches, and coarseness are imbued with the great genius of the artist, and there exists something really great about them."

Particularly intriguing is the possible relationship between Whitman and the leading minstrel songwriter, Stephen Foster. Whitman once commented that songs like Foster's "Old Folks at Home" were "our best work so far" in native music. The first American to earn a living from songwriting, Foster first gained wide popular success in 1847 with "Oh! Susanna," followed in the next five years with "My Old Kentucky Home," "Beautiful Dreamer," "Old Dog Tray," and many others.

Foster broke with the almost uniformly racist tone of previous minstrel fare, portraying African Americans as capable of sorrow, fear, hope, pain, and nostalgia. This gesture toward the humanization of blacks is also visible in Whitman's verse, when he wrote in "I Sing the Body Electric" of the "passions, desires, reachings, aspirations" of the auctioned slave.

With the rise of Foster, American music became popular and participatory to an unprecedented degree. In the days before such passive entertainments as radio and television, musical culture was shared in ways that are sometimes forgotten. People would hear melodies and sing them constantly aloud to themselves, creating, as it were, their own musical programs. Whitman himself did this. Often when alone he sang popular ballads or martial songs in a low undertone, and while sauntering he hummed snatches of popular songs or operas. In this sense he was little different than most of his contemporaries. Foster's music sprang naturally from American's lips in the early 1850s. The song Whitman especially liked, "Old Folks at Home" (with the famous lyrics, "Way down upon the Swanee River"), became the national favorite of 1852, sung by virtually everyone.

There was historical justification, then, for Whitman's confidence that music was commonly loved and even performed by many Americans. "I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,/Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong"--and so forth, as he goes on to describe the singing of the mason, the boatman, the shoemaker, the wood-cutter, the wife, all "singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs."

The popularity of the singing families opened the door to an appreciation for the opera. Unlike today, when most popular music is rooted in soul, jazz, or country forms, the music of the family singers was closely linked to the opera. By the same token, most "elite" musicians gave adventurously varied programs.

Nothing revealed the mixture of elite and popular cultural levels as vividly as the American tour of the Swedish singer Jenny Lind in the early 1850s. The "Swedish Nightingale" was a dexterous, classically trained vocalist who gave a varied program that juxtaposed high arias with a grab bag of popular ballads, comic songs, folk tunes, and patriotic numbers. Her two-year tour of America that started in New York in 1850 in was a combination of craftsmanship and hype unequalled in American musical history, orchestrated by the master showman P. T. Barnum. The darling of the public, Jenny Lind did not fare as well with reviewers, among them Whitman, who caught her last New York concert. "The Swedish Swan," he wrote, "with all her blandishments, never touched my heart in the least." Although he conceded she had "vocal dexterity," he found her "scientific" style a frigid failure.

What Whitman wanted was music that was at once sophisticated and soulful, that had both "art" and "heart." He found such music in the great opera singers who came to America in the early fifties. New York was graced by a succession of touring opera stars. Whitman enjoyed the musical quickening. Once averse to the opera, in 1847 he declared in the Eagle that "the Italian opera deserves a good degree of encouragement from us." He heard at least sixteen of the major singers who made their New York debuts in the next eight years.

Among the male singers, the ones he most admired were the Italian baritone Cesare Badiali and the tenor Allesandro Bettini. The large, broad-chested Badiali, who first appeared in New York in 1850, Whitman called "the superbest of all the superb baritones in my time." Bettini made it clear to him that art music need not be distinct from heart music. "The fresh, vigorous tones of Bettini!" Whitman wrote in 1851. "His voice has often affected me to tears. Its clear, firm, wonderfully exalting notes....[T]he singing of this man has breathing blood within it; the living soul, of which the lower stage they call art, is but the shell and sham." It was almost certainly Bettini to whom he paid tribute in this passage in "Song of Myself": "A tenor large and fresh as the creation fills me,/The orbic flex of his mouth is pouring and filling me full." Another tenor he heard in the early fifties, Pasquale Bignole, remained so vivid a memory that upon Bignole's death in 1884 he wrote a eulogistic poem, "The Dead Tenor," reviewing by name his major operatic roles and recreating the effect of his singing:

How much from thee! the revelation of the singing voice from thee!
(So firm--so liquid-soft--again that tremulous, manly timbre!
The perfect singing voice--deepest of all to me the lesson:--trial and test of all) [...]
Fernando's heart, Manrico's passionate call, Ernani's, sweet Gennaro's,
I fold thenceforth, or seek to fold, within my chants transmuting.

Among all the opera stars, the one that shone brightest for him was Marietta Alboni, the great contralto who also sang soprano roles. "For me," he said, "out of the whole list of stage deities of that period, no one meant so much to me as Alboni." A short, plump woman with a low forehead and black hair, Alboni , after several European tours, arrived in New York in the summer of 1852. Her opening on a sweltering June 23 at Metropolitan Hall was a complete triumph. She had sung only two lines when shouts of "bravo, bravo" swelled from the audience as her strong, sumptuous tones filled the air. At the end, she laughed giddily at the long, tumultuous cheering and waving of hats and handkerchiefs. "There was never a more successful concert," raved the next day's Herald. "[Her voice has] the finest, softest, and richest texture, depth and great purity, with a most remarkable sympathetic touching quality." In the months that followed the triumph continued. Between that summer and the next spring in Manhattan she appeared in ten operas and gave twelve concerts of operatic selections. She also toured other cities and states. Whitman later wrote that he heard her "every time she sang in New York and vicinity." "She used to sweep me away as with whirlwinds," he said.

It was not Alboni's talent alone that stood out. What made her special were her combined artistry, soulfulness, and egalitarianism. A consummate artist, she was nonetheless down-to-earth and thoroughly human in her delivery. Whitman never forgot the way she got so caught up in her roles that real tears poured down her cheeks.

The rapture Alboni inspired in him had more direct poetic consequences as well. "I hear the trained soprano (what work with hers is this?)," he writes in "Song of Myself." "The orchestra whirls me wider than Uranus flies,/It wrenches such ardors from me I did not know I possess'd them." Although he included in his poems the names of several operas, opera characters, and classical composers, he named just one singer: "(The teeming lady comes,/The lustrous orb, Venus contralto, the blooming mother,/Sister of the loftiest gods, Alboni's self I hear.)"

He was intrigued by Alboni's appeal to all classes. He had long sought a music that was at once sophisticated and populist, and he found it at last in Alboni. "All persons appreciated Alboni," he noted, "the common crowd as well as the connoisseurs." He was fascinated to see the upper tier of theaters "packed full of New York young men, mechanics, 'roughs,' etc., entirely oblivious of all except Alboni."

Opera was now his chosen preference in music, and he did what he could to enhance its appeal for the general public. In his article "The Opera" published in 1855 in Life Illustrated he tried to instill in the unsophisticated a love for opera. He warned the uninitiated that the opera was "very far different from what you were used to--the church choir, or the songs and playing on the piano...or any performances of the Ethiopian minstrels, or the concerts of the different 'families.'" Then, finally, he got to the music itself: "A new world--a liquid world--rushes like a torrent through you. " He ended the piece by calling for an American music that might rival Europe's: "This is art! You envy Italy, and almost become an enthusiast; you wish an equal art here, and an equal science and style, underlain by a perfect understanding of American realities, and the appropriateness of our national spirit and body also."

In light of the new musical vistas opened up by the opera, he knew he would have to forge a new kind of singing, one that highlighted American themes but also integrated operatic techniques. "Walt Whitman's method in the construction of his songs is strictly the method of the Italian Opera," he would write in 1860, and to a friend he confided, "But for the opera I could not have written Leaves of Grass." Opera devices indeed run through his poetry. Many of the emotionally expressive, melodic passages, such as the bird's song in "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" or the death hymn in "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," evoke the style of the aria. The more expansive, conversational passages in his poetry suggest operatic recitative.

Whitman's poetry, then, was most profoundly influenced by what he called "the great, overwhelming, touching human voice—its throbbing, flowing, pulsating qualities." Of the 206 musical words in his poems, 123 relate specifically to vocal music, and some are used many times. "Song" appears 154 times, "sing" 117, and "singing" an "singers" over 30 times each.	In his poems, too, he mentions no fewer than 25 musical instruments, including the violin, the piano, the oboe, and the drums. One senses a musical influence in his poem "Song of Myself," which, like a symphony, shifts between pianissimo passages and torrential, fervent ones. Perhaps particularly apt to compare with Whitman is Anthony Phillip Heinrich, one of America's leading classical composers before the Civil War. Rebelling against the symmetries of Mozart and Haydn, Heinrich, known as "the log-house composer of Kentucky," imported into his music indigenous American idioms and a rambling form linked stylistically to frontier humor and the tall tale. His joyous, egalitarian brand of music mixed the classical with the vernacular, as Whitman did in his poems. In the early fifties, Heinrich wrote an intriguing composition, Barbecue Divertimento, containing a section called "The Banjo," a free-form extravaganza that juxtaposes staid European-based passages with snatches from "Turkey in the Straw" and "Yankee Doodle." That Whitman envisaged strikingly similar mixtures of "high" European music and vernacular American music is shown in this note: "American opera.--put three banjos, (or more?) in the orchestra--and let them accompany (at times exclusively,) the songs of the baritone or tenor--." In this regard, both Heinrich and Whitman were precursors of Charles Ives.

--copyright 1999, David S. Reynolds


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