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CD Review

To the Soul

Songs on the Poetry of Walt Whitman

  • Ned Rorem:
  • As Adam Early in the Morning
  • Sometimes with One I Love
  • That Shadow, My Likeness
  • Look Down Fair Moon
  • Frank Bridge: The Last Invocation
  • Charles Villiers Stanford: To the Soul
  • Ralph Vaughan Williams:
  • A Clear Midnight
  • Joy, shipmate, joy
  • Robert Strassburg: Prayer of Columbus
  • Ernst Bacon: One Thought Ever at the Fore
  • Philip Dalmas: As I Watch'd the Ploughman Ploughing
  • Paul Hindemith: English Song #8 "Sing On There In The Swamp"
  • Charles Naginski: Look Down Fair Moon
  • William H. Neidlinger: Memories of Lincoln
  • Harry T. Burleigh: Ethiopia Saluting the Colors
  • Hermann Finck: In the Shadows
  • Charles Ives: Walt Whitman
  • Gerald Busby: Behold This Swarthy Face
  • Elinor Remick Warren: We Two
  • Craig Urquhart: Among the Multitude
  • Michael Tilson Thomas: We Two Boys Together Clinging
  • Leonard Bernstein: To What You Said
Thomas Hampson, baritone
Craig Rutenberg, piano
EMI 55028 74:49
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I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume, you shall assume
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

As everything now has some kind of warning on it, I should provide one. As I write these words, I am sitting here wearing my T-shirt with a caricature of Walt Whitman on it. If you haven't clicked off by now, I also assume you know that Walt Whitman didn't write any songs, only Leaves of Grass a book he kept revising and expanding over the course of his life.

Given that, what do Ned Rorem, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Paul Hindemith, Kurt Weill, Charles Ives, Michael Tilson Thomas and Leonard Bernstein have in common? All have written music using the poetry of Walt Whitman. Whitman is America's greatest poet, his "Song of Myself" is the essence of 19th Century America and speaks as well today. Who else could have written poetry to Lincoln and "To a Common Prostitute"? I have loved his poetry for years and even took special studies classes in it in undergraduate school. (Where I wrote an essay arguing that Emerson had little, if any influence on Whitman…at that time a heretical notion) When I saw that this disc was available for review, I immediately requested it.

It arrived and I was filled with mixed emotions. How would Hampson handle the music/poetry? Would he warble it to death with operatic vibrato? Would it have the emotional impact I read into the words? I put the disc on and listened first to the opening and closing pieces, spoken. I breathed a sigh of relief. At least in these pieces Hampson does the works proud. No emoting, just a fine delivery of these wonderful verses.

Back in the 60s I wrote some music. Now, I do not read music, per se, but at one time I could play the guitar and compose folk songs. Anyway, what is important is that I learned the process of composing a song sometimes would flow from the music to the words and other times from the words to the music. That is, if you start with the words, as in Whitman's poetry, then the music that results should flow from it instead of being imposed on it. Listening to these "songs" I find some more successful than others for the reason cited. Frankly, those by Ned Rorem seem to impose the music on the words rather than flowing from it. The music by Ives, Michael Tilson-Thomas, Bernstein and Vaughan Williams, on the other hand, flows from the words.

Maestro Tilson-Thomas wrote what is probably my favorite of the 22 songs (there are an additional four pieces spoken by Thomas Hampson). "We two boys together clinging" opens with a soft piano filigree (and Craig Rutenburg provides charming piano accompaniment throughout this disc) that sets the tone for the whole piece:

We two boys together clinging.
One the other never leaving.

This poetry recalls my best friendship growing up. If you are offended by seeming homoerotic references then you don't understand the poetry of Walt Whitman. While there are erotic undertones, the whole piece speaks of an innocence and joy of days long gone. Tilson-Thomas weaves the music from within the words, creating shades of tender memories cast in the glow of autumnal recall. I found myself humming the music as I walked last night.

Charles Ives is the composer who most comes to my mind when I read Whitman. Ives' music has the reckless abandon, the free spirit essence found in Whitman's verses.

Who goes there? Hankering, gross, mystical and nude; How is it I extract strength from the beef I eat?

While this piece is only 46 seconds long, that is its only shortcoming. I would love to hear a more extended composition of Ives based on Whitman's poetry.

Then there is Ralph Vaughan Williams. Here is a composer who apparently loved Whitman. He used Whitman's works as a basis for his First Symphony, "The Sea" and "Toward the Unknown Region". It is interesting that this English composer seems to so deeply understand the poetry of Walt Whitman. Like the other good pieces in here, the music flows from the rhythm inherent in the language. His song here is based upon, a Clear Midnight:

This is thy hour, O soul, thy free flight into the wordless…

Some of the music in here is not as successful as others. I've mentioned Rorem, and there are other pieces that sound too much like salon music. The sound is excellent, balance between the soloists is perfect. This is a fine disc full of fine music and I strongly recommend it. Whitman's best work is "Song of Myself" and Hampson closes the disc with the closing lines of that great poem:

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, If you want me again look under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean, But I shall be good health to you nevertheless, And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, Missing me on place search another, I stop somewhere waiting for you.

I have placed the listing of contents at the end of this review on purpose. As is becoming my want, I offer a couple post scripts at the end of this list. I do not encourage you to read them, they are more like after-thoughts and are obtusely related to this disc. That is, they are about the insert notes.

Thomas Hampson Sings
The Poetry of Walt Whitman

One's Self I Sing Look Down Fair Moon
(Spoken) (Ned Rorem)
As Adam Early in the Morning Ethiopia Saluting the Colors
(Ned Rorem) (Henry Thacker Burleigh)
The Last Invocation Dirge for Two Veterans
(Frank Bridge) (Kurt Weill)
To the Soul I Hear It Was Charged Against Me
(Charles Villiers Stanford) (Spoken)
A Clear Midnight Walt Whitman
(Ralph Vaughan Williams) (Charles Ives)
Joy, Shipmate, Joy Behold This Swarthy Face
(Ralph Vaughan Williams) (Gerald Busby)
The Mystic Trumpeter We Two
(Spoken) (Elinor Remick Warren)
Prayer of Columbus Among the Multitude
(Robert Strassburg) (Craig Urquhart)
One Thought Ever at the Fore Sometimes with One I Love
(Ernst Bacon) (Ned Rorem)
As I Watch'd the Ploughman We Two Boys Together Clinging
(Philip Dalmas) (Michael Tilson Thomas)
Sing on There in the Swamp That Shadow, My Likeness
(Paul Hindemith) (Ned Rorem)
Look Down Fair Moon To What You Said
(Charles Naginski) (Leonard Bernstein)
Memories of Lincoln Song of Myself
(William H. Neidlinger) (Spoken)

Post Script: The insert notes open with:

I sing…the body electric, a song of myself, a song of joys, a song of occupations, a song of prudence, a song of the answerer, a song of the broad-axe, a song of the rolling earth, a song of the universal….

Walt Whitman caroled throughout his verse

Yes, and I have studied his delivery. He had a high pitched voice at odds with his build. He spoke with a somewhat southern drawl….about like southern Ohio here. If we want to capture the 'caroling' of his verse, perhaps we need "period voice patterns" historically informed performances. Hahahahahahaha!!!!

Post-Post Script: I just finished the insert notes. It has been awhile since I read my Whitman biographies, and the detailed information regarding the correlation between opera and Whitman had eddied away in my memory. I reread Gay Wilson Allen's definitive biography, The Solitary Singer. Now, the details in the insert notes are more focused and therefore provide more information on this particular subject. The point is, however, that Whitman did love opera and at one time said, "But for opera I would never have written Leaves of Grass". Just thought you might find that interesting.

Post-Post-Post Script: A memory: I mentioned when I was in undergraduate school I took a special studies course in Whitman. There was me and the professor, Dan Barnes, and we met in his office at OSU (or, The Farm, as we called it). There was no "text" but the best biography on the market was Gay Wilson Allen's. I could have borrowed it from the library, but hey had an irritating habit of wanting the books back. It was only available in hardback, but I had to have it. I recall the financial effort necessary to get this book. Still, I got it and paid the steep price of $10.00. Time stays still, only the relative prices change.

Copyright © 1999, Robert Stumpf II