Walt Whitman. We at The Cecilia Chorus of New York are far from alone this season in drawing attention to the life and achievements of this game-changer of American creatives, who celebrates his 200th birthday in 2019. As we looked into promotional channels for our concert, we came across the Walt Whitman Consortium, a likeminded group of at least 42 east-coast organizations presenting exhibits, performances, readings, lectures and much more in tribute to this unique voice. Surveying all that is on offer gives a vivid picture of the distinctly generative nature of Whitman’s artistry. In a characteristically “entrepreneurial” American way, he launched a movement, still vital today.
When we started to rehearse this program, I issued a wry caution: fasten your seatbelts, this is going to be an exhausting ride. Of course, I was speaking in jest, but not without a kernel of truth. Whitman is a force of nature, his energy a phenomenon, like a supernova. (Perhaps we Cecilians are drawn to such personalities; Dame Ethel Smyth, the British composer whose music we performed last year, had more than a dollop of Whitman’s athleticism and push. For that matter, so did Beethoven, whose Missa Solemnis we recall with equal measures of reverence and prostration!)
As we engage with Whitman, we feel alternately exhilarated and flattened by his teeming expressions of zestful appetite. He challenges us, like no other poet I can readily think of, to heave ourselves off the living room couch and stagger to meet him in the blazing outdoors, with a commensurately sizzling passion of our own. His unique syntax, rich and precise lexicon, and glorious musicality are on a permanent high boil. The only way to reckon with the verse is to take it deeply and wholly into our nervous system, to let it act as goad, guide, and tonic, transmuting us. Reading Whitman, thinking about and with Whitman, is deed, obliging us to a noble if not heroic labor. You have actually to become bigger, hardier and more capacious, to stretch and muscle up. This outing is no everyday stroll. To the contrary, metabolizing Whitman entails a spiritual triathlon: “self-help” of the most vigorous and exacting kind.
Both Jorge Martín and Vincent Persichetti do Whitman – and us – a great service. Bending a composer’s alert ear to the specific intentions and rhythms of the poetry, they have made Whitman’s craggy, complex meanings audible, indeed tangible. I did not understand these verses so well before this music showed me their core, and I’m eternally grateful. Whitman has affected these two composers in the same way that he transforms his duller readers, and both have embraced his sinewy dare. Each composer brings to the task a luminous innate talent – by which I mean that ineffable instinct for songful melody, sensuous harmony, captivating rhythm – sculpted and honed by consummate technical mastery, imparting to their music the dual triumph of sophistication and naturalness.
In many periods of cultural history, music has, touchingly, a way of bringing up the rear. Innovation emerges first in, say, poetry or painting, with music initially (and not, given its often weighty institutional responsibilities, necessarily wrongheadedly) clinging to tradition, and only later plunging headlong into the newly discovered waters. To contextualize Whitman and our recent composers, we have programmed excerpts from the Mass in D, opus 10, by the Boston composer John Knowles Paine (its Kyrie, and much, though not all, of its Gloria, with some reorganizing to maintain musical flow). Without gainsaying Paine’s own excellence, it is fair to note that his sprawling youthful Mass – composed within five years of Whitman’s seminal Leaves of Grass – is a more conventional effort. Unlike Whitman, Paine is not so much trying to blow up the world as to establish his credentials and stake his claim to succeed mightily within it, if not to dominate it. Its quasi-Wagnerian length – nearly two hours – is a feat in and of itself (though you will have to take our word for it). Its conservatism notwithstanding, it has a largeness of heart and vastness of landscape that resonate beautifully with, and are the perfect foil for, Whitman’s timeless magnificence.
© Mark Shapiro 2019