Selected Criticism

Music, Whitman's Influence on
Leathers, Lyman L.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Robert Faner's book, Walt Whitman & Opera, traces the poet's infatuation with works of the lyric stage. But the interest here is in the use that has been made by composers both at home and abroad of Walt Whitman's poetry, either as a specific text for a musical setting or as an inspiration for an orchestral work. Therefore, this entry will try to estimate the extent of and the reasons for the textual choices that have been made.

Michael Hovland lists 539 separate works which use Whitman's poems in one way or another. Contrast this with 1,223 entries for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. While he may exceed Whitman, most of those settings were made in the nineteenth century, whereas Whitman's attractiveness continues to grow. In Fredrick Berndt's more recent estimation, about five hundred composers have written about twelve hundred works rooted, in some way, in Whitman. What constitutes a "setting" may vary. For instance, probably the earliest and the first American use of Whitman was by Frederic Louis Ritter, "A dirge for two veterans," an 1880 composition for piano, to accompany a recitation of the poem (Wannamaker 27–28). In other settings, as will be seen, Whitman himself may be the subject of a musical composition, or a poem may inspire a purely orchestral work. But, by and large, interest here centers on the use made by composers of the texts of particular Whitman poems.

As with the poetry itself, early interest in setting the poems to music came in Britain. Before and after the turn of the century, composers of the "English Musical Renaissance" (Charles Wood, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Charles Villiers Stanford, Frederick Delius, Gustav Holst, Cyril Scott, Hamilton Harty, and Ralph Vaughan Williams) all made settings of Whitman poems. Stanford, Wood, and Scott, for instance, set, respectively, sections of "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" (hereafter "Lilacs"), "Ethiopia Saluting the Colors," and "O Captain! My Captain!" in the years 1884–1904. Gustav Holst produced a "Walt Whitman Overture" in 1899. But by far the most important early works were those of Frederick Delius, whose Sea-Drift, using lines from "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," was written in 1903–1904 and Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose "Sea Symphony" appeared in 1909. Vaughan Williams also used three poems from "Sea-Drift": "Song for All Seas, All Ships," "On the Beach at Night Alone," and "After the Sea-Ship." Words for the last movement were drawn from "Passage to India." Delius returned to Whitman at the end of his life, producing "Songs of Farewell" (1930) and Idyll, "I once passed through a populous city" (1932).

While there was some early interest in Whitman in the United States, major composers began to turn to him as early as the 1920s, with the greatest attention coming in the 1930s and 1940s. The range is impressive. Charles Ives's only setting of Whitman, a part of section 20 from "Song of Myself," was written in 1921 and appeared in Ives's 1933 Collection of 34 Songs. Howard Hanson drew on Whitman throughout his career: from "Songs from Drum Taps" (1935) to the Seventh Symphony, "A Sea Symphony" (1977). Merely to list a few of the more important composers and some selected works may give an idea of the scope: Otto Luening, lines from "A Song for Occupations" in an a cappella version (1966); William Schuman, "Pioneers!," an a cappella choral octet, based on "Pioneers! O Pioneers!" (1938); Norman Dello Joio, several choral works ranging from "Vigil Strange" for chorus and piano four hands (1941) to "As of a Dream," a modern masque for solo voices, chorus, narrator, dancers, and orchestra (1978); Vincent Persichetti, "Celebrations" (a choral work for wind ensemble), using a number of Whitman poems (1966); Philip Glass, three settings for chorus a cappella, included in the Contemporary Music Project for Creativity in Music Education under the auspices of the Music Educators National Conference in 1968. Four other composers, Hindemith, Sessions, Rorem, and Adams, may be examined in greater detail.

While both Roger Sessions (1896–1985) and Paul Hindemith (1896–1963) set "Lilacs," Hindemith's is probably the better known. It was done on a commission from Robert Shaw's Collegiate Chorale, first presented in 1946, and perceived at the time as an elegy for Franklin Roosevelt. The hour-long cantata has been most recently performed in January 1995, by Robert Shaw once again. Hindemith, a refugee from the Nazis, brought with him a Bachian formalism which results in something of a mismatch between Whitman's ecstatic poetic vision and the rather prosaic setting of the composer. For some, the stylistic disjunction makes it less successful than a work like Delius' Sea-Drift. But Ned Rorem says that it remained for composers from Europe like Hindemith and Kurt Weill to show the way toward a broader and more touching representation.

Sessions composed his cantata for chorus, with soprano, contralto, and baritone soloists and orchestra in 1970, at the age of seventy-four, and it was one of his more important successes. Sessions's style had always closely matched that of Whitman, and in "Lilacs" he followed the spontaneous, freeflowing rise and fall of the verse. That two such different composers as Hindemith and Sessions were attracted to the same work of Whitman perhaps suggests the breadth of Whitman's appeal and the infinite variety of response it inspires.

Two other stylistically different composers, Ned Rorem (1923– ) and John Adams (1947– ), have also been inspired by Whitman. Like other composers, Rorem has been attracted to Whitman throughout his life. Single songs, written in 1957, were later collected into "Five Poems of Walt Whitman" in 1970. In 1971 he published another song cycle, "War Scenes," and in 1982, "Three Calamus Poems." In addition, he used Whitman's "The Dalliance of the Eagles" as a "program" for his brief but powerful orchestral piece "Eagles," premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1958. Like Rorem, John Adams was attracted to Whitman's poems about the Civil War, and he uses Whitman's "The Wound-Dresser" as the basis of a piece for solo voice and orchestra. While he was writing the piece, Adams says, his father was dying of Alzheimer's disease and his mother was nursing him. The theme of caring for the sick has an immediate application (noted by several critics) in the age of AIDS.

In a more direct relationship to the AIDS crisis, Whitman is used symbolically by Perry Brass, whose poem "Walt Whitman in 1989" is the basis of a brief song set by composer Chris DeBlasio. The work is included in "The AIDS Quilt Song Book" recording and follows the recitative and aria form. Once again, as in the Adams work, Whitman's role as nurse is exploited. However, the war in this case is that against bigotry and hatred.

Whitman's attraction for composers may well be due to his own fluidity and musicality. He called many of his poems "Songs" and developed his poetic ideas thematically, almost symphonically, with repetitions calculated as a composer might. For instance, in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" Whitman's images of the gulls, the waves, and the flow of the river—contrasted with the crossing of the ferryboat—develop in their repetition and recurrence a fitting poetic setting of the poignant themes of time and timelessness. The poem as set by Virgil Thomson in 1960 for chorus and piano represents his only use of Whitman.

Perhaps the most ambitious setting of all is a fairly complete version of "Song of Myself" for "Narrator, Soprano, chorus and a brass/percussion ensemble" by Robert L. Sanders. This work has had at least one performance, lasting nearly three hours on 19 April 1970. While it may not seem so, Sanders, as do many composers, takes from the poem what he can use, adapting the text rather than following it slavishly. Ned Rorem attributes Whitman's popularity among composers to his immediacy, the involvement that Whitman demands of his reader. Rorem also notes that part of the importance of Whitman for composers in the 1930s and 1940s was his very Americanness. Certainly, the most prominent representative of that nationalistic idiom was Roy Harris (1898–1979). Like Aaron Copland, Harris drew on folk tunes and popular dance rhythms, as well as using a national figure like Abraham Lincoln. But unlike Copland, Harris was attracted to Whitman. He used Whitman poems as early as his "Song Cycle on words of Walt Whitman," for women's voices and two pianos (1927), and continued to use them in compositions such as "Symphony for Voices" (1935), "The Walt Whitman Tryptich" (1940), and the cantata for baritone and orchestra, "Give me the Splendid, Silent Sun" (1955). In all, Harris used Whitman in at least nine separate works, most of which reflect his devotion to American ideals.

At present, there are no major books which deal definitively with the topic. Michael Hovland's Musical Settings of American Poetry is a bibliography which lists the writings of ninety-nine American authors, including approximately fifty-eight hundred settings, twenty-one hundred composers, and twenty-four hundred titles of literary works. A work of such scope may perhaps be forgiven for lapses here and there in the Whitman section. John Samuel Wannamaker's unpublished doctoral dissertation is another extensive work and a mine of information. Brooks Toliver's article on Debussy and Whitman raises some intriguing questions without providing definitive answers. Two forthcoming works offer promise. One is Fredrick Berndt's "Most Jubilant Song" (still in manuscript), which no doubt will reflect the author's many years of interest in the relationship between music and Whitman. The other is a recording by baritone Thomas Hampson of hitherto unknown or forgotten songs using Whitman texts. Such a project bespeaks the continuing interest in Whitman and the music he has inspired.


Berndt, Fredrick, ed. The Bulletin of the Walt Whitman Music Library. San Francisco: Walt Whitman Music Library, 1993.

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

Hitchcock, H. Wiley, and Stanley Sadie. New Grove Dictionary of American Music. London: Macmillan, 1986.

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

Miller, Edwin Haviland, ed. The Artistic Legacy of Walt Whitman. New York: New York UP, 1970.

Neilson, Kenneth P. The World of Walt Whitman Music: A Bibliographical Study. Hollis, N.Y.: Kenneth P. Neilson, 1963.

Taruskin, Richard. "In Search of the 'Good' Hindemith Legacy." New York Times 8 Jan. 1995: H–25, 30, 31.

Toliver, Brooks. "Leaves of Grass in Claude Debussy's Prose." Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 11 (1993): 67–81.

Wannamaker, John Samuel. "The Musical Settings of the Poetry of Walt Whitman: A Study of Theme, Structure, and Prosody." Diss. U of Minnesota, 1972.


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