American Composers Orchestra


about the concert

related articles:
Whitman's Musical Legacy by Jack Sullivan

I hear America singing: Whitman & the music of his time by David S. Reynolds


aco homepage

concert schedule






Saturday, May 15 1999 at 2pm
New York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West
Walt Whitman & Music—A Performance/Discussion

Maire O'Brien, soprano
David Blackburn, tenor
James Martin, baritone
Kevin Gallagher, guitar
Colette Valentine, piano
Commentary by David Reynolds, Paul Sperry, and Jack Sullivan
Joseph Horowitz, host

KURT WEILL: Four Whitman Songs (1941-47)
LARRY ALAN SMITH: Come Up from the Fields, Father (1984)
NED ROREM: War Scenes (1969)
RALPH VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Three Whitman Songs (1925)
LEE HOIBY: A Clear Midnight; Joy, Shipmate (1988)
RUTH SCHONTHAL: By the Roadside (1975)
LEONARD BERNSTEIN: To What You Said (1976)
CHARLES NAGINSKI: The Ship Starting (ca. 1940)
NORMAN MATHEWS: Grand is the Seen (1993)
NED ROREM: Full of Life Now (1989)

Discussion: Joseph Horowitz, David Reynolds, Paul Sperry, Jack Sullivan

Free with a five-dollar admission to the Historical Society.
A limited number of advance reservations at 212-977-8495.

about the program

By Joseph Horowitz

According to Michael Hovland's Musical Settings of American Poets, the poetry of Walt Whitman has been set to music 539 times - more than that of any other American poet with the exceptions of Emily Dickinson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Confronted with the interesting challenge of assembling a program of sung Whitman for Saturday afternoon's "Whitman and Music" event at the New York Historical Society, I consulted Paul Sperry, who in addition to being chairman of the American Composer's Orchestra is of course an eminent champion of the American art song. Paul gave me enough music for half a dozen Whitman programs.

My initial strategy was simple but inadequate: I intended to program the Four Walt Whitman Songs of Kurt Weill (1900-1950) - because they are wonderful and little-known. And they are startling. "Oh Captain! My Captain!", Whitman's famous cry of anguish at the assassination of Lincoln, becomes a breezy Broadway ballad. This estrangement of text from music is virtually Brechtian - although Brecht would have retched at the patriotic fervor that drew Weill to Whitman. An American from the day he set foot in New York in 1935, Weill embraced American popular culture and believed in its future. A composer who always composed for an audience, he felt inspired by the egalitarianism, informality, and decency of American ways.

Weill turned to Whitman's Leaves of Grass shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941. He completed "Oh Captain!" by the end of the year. He next composed "Dirge for Two Veterans" and "Beat! Beat! Drums!" The latter was performed as a "spoken song" by Helen Hayes on an RCA Victor benefit recording for the American Theatre Wing War Service. Weill looked forward to performances of his Whitman songs by Paul Robeson or Lawrence Tibbett or John Charles Thomas - but it never happened. He added "Come Up from the Fields Father" after returning from his only trip back to Europe, in 1947. "Coming home to this country had some of the same emotion as arriving here 12 years ago," he wrote. (Weill orchestrated three of the Whitman songs; the fourth was orchestrated with the same instrumentation by Carlos Surinach - a cycle American orchestras should perform.)

The America Weill had discovered in 1935 was a world removed from Weimar politics, Weimar culture, Weimar audiences. The United States premiere of The Threepenny Opera, in 1933, had failed dismally. Determined to adapt, and to leave Dreigroschenoper behind, Weill surrounded himself with the best American dramatists he could find. For Broadway, he turned out a string of box office hits, including Lady in the Dark and One Touch of Venus. Though he dreamed of mediating between opera and Broadway, he had essentially transformed himself into a more popular composer than he had ever been in Europe - one whose concept of New World art songs is embodied in the Whitman settings. Whitman himself spurned elitist culture - which makes the Broadway feel of the Weill Whitman songs the less incongruous. In fact, however savory and tuneful these settings may be, their insouciant veneer does not preclude high feeling.

Balancing the Weill songs--at 20 minutes, the longest segment of our program--is a 10-minute suite of Whitman war poems as direct, visceral, and declamatory as Weill's style is deflective and lyric. War Scenes by Ned Rorem (b. 1923), is dedicated "to those who died in Vietnam, both sides, during the composition; 20-30 June 1969." The five texts are freely extracted from the prose of Whitman's Civil War diary, Specimen Days.

The opening song in Rorem's set - "A Night Battle," surveying the wounded and dead - is marked "Frantic" and, in the piano, ffff. Equally informative are Rorem's instructions for "An Incident" - "Poignant but vicious, fast - the voice = uninvolved, like a reporter. The piano = subjective, neurotic, illustrative." War Scenes is dedicated to Gerard Souzay, who gave the first performance, with Dalton Baldwin, in Constitution Hall, Washington, D.C. There is a recording by Donald Gramm and Eugene Istomin.

"Come Home from the Fields Father" by Larry Alan Smith (b. 1955), completing the first half of Saturday's program, offers a much different musical perspective than Weill's version of the same poem - or than William Bolcom's, in the Whitman Triptych we hear Sunday afternoon. Smith's setting is less a song than a multifaceted scena. What makes this piece special, however, is its accompaniment - not a piano, but a guitar. The guitar is here many things: a narrator, a voice in duet with the singer, the heartbeat of a stricken mother. And it imparts a naked intimacy to Whitman's tale of a son slain.

Elsewhere on these pages, Jack Sullivan describes the special fascination Whitman has exerted on European composers - in particular, the Englishmen Delius, Vaughan Williams, and Holst. Delius and Holst left no Whitman settings for voice and piano, but Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) did. His Three Poems by Walt Whitman, which opens the second half of our recital, assembles three existential/philosophical texts. All three settings superimpose a repeating ground bass: a metaphysical musical grid, intimating a grand scheme, a lofty purpose, a divinity. The cumulative grandeur of this mini-cycle transcends its moderst duration. The first song, "Nocturne," less sung than chanted, achieves a memorably hypnotic symbiosis of text and words and music.

Vaughan Williams' other two Whitman poems - "A Clear Midnight" and "Joy, Shipmate" - were also set by the American Lee Hoiby (b. 1926). Vaughan William uses a frosty modal idiom to evoke the transcendental ether; Hoiby's version of Whitmanesque harmony is clinched by succulent tonal cadences.

A different side of Whitman -- his gentleness and charm -- is beautifully evoked in the six pithy vignettes comprising By the Roadside by Ruth Schontal (b. 1924). Gentleness and intimacy are also keynotes of "To What You Said" - a fragment recently discovered, and unpublished in Whitman's lifetime, disclosing the poet's homosexuality. The setting by Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), from Bernstein's Songfest, is a haunting and heartfelt valedictory - and, like Weill's "Oh Captain!," an unabashed song by a gifted melodist. (At our performance, the orchestral accompaniment is reduced for piano.)

Charles Naginsky (1909-1940), who drowned in a Tanglewood lake at the age of 31, produced a Whitman setting - "The Ship Starting" - so unusual that description or appreciation could only blunt its impact. Catching the euphoric note of the Naginsky, we close with a couple of waltzes awhirl with wellbeing: "Grand is the Seen," from the Whitman cycle Songs of the Poet by Norman Mathews (b. 1942), and Ned Rorem's "Full of Life Now."

This performance is funded in part by the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music, Inc. 7 East 20th Street, New York, NY 10003. The Kurt Weill Foundation for Music, Inc, is a not-for-profit, private foundation chartered to preserve ant perpetuate the legacies of Kurt Weill (1900-1950) and Lotte Lenya (1898-1981). In pursuit of these goals, the Foundation maintains the Weill-Lenya Research Center to serve scholars and performers, awards grants to support excellence in research and performance, administers Weill's copyrights, and publishes (in association with European American Music Corp.) the Kurt Weill Edition. For more information on the worldwide centenary celebration of the birth of Kurt Weill (2000), contact the Foudnation at (212) 505-5240 or visit its website at

aco homepage

concert schedule