Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Music, Whitman and
Author:
Strassburg, Robert
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Few poets have surpassed Whitman in his use of music as a primary source of inspiration. His love of music and the expressive power of the human voice began in the cradle. His mother, Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, of Dutch descent and Quaker faith, was fond of singing folk songs and telling stories to her large family. Thus little Walt, who was her favorite, the second of nine children, was bonded to music early in life.

By the time he had written the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855, he was acquainted not only with the sentimental ballads, folk songs, and hymns popular in his time, but with the music of Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi, Auber, Meyerbeer, Weber, Mendelssohn, and Gounod as well. Musical terms are used in abundance throughout his poetry. The larger forms of opera, oratorio, symphony, chamber and instrumental music, as well as solo arias, influence the structure, style, and design of the longer as well as some of the shorter poems. His orchestral "Proud Music of the Storm" celebrates all the passionate chants of life.

His reviews of the music that he heard in the concert halls and theaters in New York and Brooklyn provide much information about the history of American music during the middle of the nineteenth century. As a journalist during the early 1840s he listened to Mendelssohn's oratorio St. Paul, and experienced the virtuoso playing of the French violinist Henry Vieuxtemps and the Norwegian violinist Ole Bull. But he was mainly attracted to the simple "heart-music," sung by the family trios and quartets of groups like the Hutchinson family of New Hampshire, the Cheney children from Vermont, the Alleghenians, the Harmoneons, and Father Kemp's Old Folks. He preferred sentimental ballads like "My Mother's Bible," "The Soldier's Farewell," and the "Lament of the Irish Emigrant," with their easy unison melodies and simple harmonies.

When he first attended the operas of Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdi, he complained about "the trills, the agonized squalls, the lackadaisical drawlings, the sharp ear-piercing shrieks, the gurgling death-rattles" (qtd. in Brasher 109). He was slow to appreciate grand opera, but when he did, he became passionately fond of it. He was to maintain, later in life, that the dramatic overtures, the passionate cantabile arias, the eloquent sobbing recitatives, were among the shaping forces of his free-verse style of poetry. From the middle 1840s on, whenever opera companies from London, Paris, Milan, Havana, and New Orleans appeared in the New York theaters, Whitman was present. His love for "heart-singing" gave way to his love for "art-singing": "I hear the chorus, it is grand opera, / Ah this indeed is music—this suits me ("Song of Myself," section 26).

As a journalist and "music critic" of twenty-eight, he wrote about opera singers with considerable sensitivity. He describes the singing of the English soprano Anna Bishop, in Donizetti's Linda di Chamounix, in a most enthusiastic manner. He assures his readers of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle that her performance on 5 August 1847 was exceptional:

Her voice is the purest soprano—and of as silvery clearness as ever came from the human throat—rich but not massive—and of such flexibility that one is almost appalled at the way the most difficult passages are not only gone over with ease, but actually dallied with, and their difficulty redoubled. They put one in mind of the gyrations of a bird in the air. (Gathering 2:351–352)

He was even more effusive where the Italian contralto Marietta Alboni was concerned. During the 1852–1853 season the Italian prima donna gave a dozen concerts, including a performance of Rossini's Stabat Mater. Her singing gave Whitman "indescribable delight," for he considered her to be "the greatest of them all . . . Her singing, her method, gave the foundation, the start . . . to all my poetic literary efforts" (Prose Works 1:235n). Were it not for opera, he maintained, "I could never have written Leaves of Grass" (qtd. in Trowbridge 166).

A list of the vocal compositions heard by the poet-journalist between 1840 and 1860 is impressive. It includes twenty-five operas and three oratorios, plus Rossini's Stabat Mater. His poem "Proud Music of the Storm" makes mention of Haydn's and Beethoven's symphonies, as well as music by Handel and a hymn by Martin Luther. He singles out scenes from numerous operas for inclusion in his poems. Most of the music known to Whitman continues to be performed in the opera houses and concert halls of the world. According to Robert D. Faner, Whitman's favorite operas appear to have been "Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia and La Favorita; Bellini's Norma; and Verdi's Ernani" (49). The human voice, Whitman felt, was a divine instrument and music itself the great "combiner, nothing more spiritual, nothing more sensuous, a god, yet completely human" (Prose Works 2:367).

Although Whitman was not a composer, he dreamed of writing an American opera. His notes to himself about doing so are somewhat humorous and simplistic, but they move in the direction of the musical theater in the twentieth century:

American Opera—put three banjos (or more?) in the orchestra—and let them accompany (at times exclusively), the songs of the baritone or tenor—Let a considerable part of the performance be instrumental—by the orchestra only—Let a few words go a great ways—the plot not complicated but simple—Always one leading idea—as Friendship, Courage, Gratitude, Love,—always a distinct meaning. . . . In the American opera the story and libretto must be the body of the performance. (Workshop 201–202)

Music for Whitman was possessed of mystical and spiritual powers. As Charmenz S. Lenhart has observed, it "was the only art Whitman acknowledged to be greater than poetry" (168–169). In his poem "Poets to Come" Whitman calls for a new brood of musicians, "greater than before known." Had he lived beyond his century, he would have encountered the new brood, perhaps not greater than before, but certainly inspired by his poetry to create hundreds of songs, choral compositions, cantatas, oratorios, symphonies, and chamber music of significance. Among twentieth-century composers inspired by his rhapsodic word-music are Ralph Vaughan Williams, Frederick Delius, Gustav Holst, Paul Hindemith, Roger Sessions, Ernest Bloch, Charles Ives, Roy Harris, William Schuman, Carl Ruggles, and George Kleinsinger. Within the past several years, compositions by Lukas Foss, John Adams, and Robert Strassburg have increased the repertoire of Whitman music. As of January 1994, over five hundred composers have made settings of Leaves of Grass.

Bibliography

Berndt, Frederick. A List of Composers of "Whitman Music." 7th ed. San Francisco: Walt Whitman Music Library, 1991.

Brasher, Thomas L. "Whitman's Conversion to Opera." Walt Whitman Newsletter 4 (1958): 109–110.

Faner, Robert D. Walt Whitman & Opera. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1951.

Hovland, Michael. Musical Settings of American Poetry: A Bibliography. New York: Greenwood, 1986.

Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980.

Lenhart, Charmenz S. Musical Influence on American Poetry. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1956.

Strassburg, Robert. Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass": An Introduction to the Poetry and Word-Music of America's Poet of Hope. Los Angeles: University Square, 1992.

Trowbridge, John Townsend. "Reminiscences of Walt Whitman." Atlantic Monthly 89 (1902): 163–175.

Whitman, Walt. The Gathering of the Forces. Ed. Cleveland Rodgers and John Black. 2 vols. New York: Putnam, 1920.

____. Leaves of Grass. Ed. Sculley Bradley and Harold W. Blodgett. Norton Critical Edition. New York: Norton, 1973.

____. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. 2 vols. New York: New York UP, 1963–1964.

____. Walt Whitman's Workshop: A Collection of Unpublished Manuscripts. Ed. Clifton Joseph Furness. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1928.


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