Texts by Walt Whitman.
The finale [of Whitman Portrait] is a moving setting of Whitman’s death song, “Darest thou now, O Soul, walk out with me toward the unknown region.” It was sung by Michelle Johnson, a young soprano who’s been playing title roles all over the United States, and it brought the evening to a rousing close. Johnson’s voice floated over a torrent of piano music, singing a vocal line that matched the flow of Whitman’s language.
– Broad Street Review, 5 May 2015
During the 2013–14 season I was a fellow of the American Opera Projects’ Composers & the Voice workshops. All composer fellows were tasked with composing one piece for each of AOP’s six resident singers. I decided to compose a set of songs on texts by Walt Whitman that paints a self-portrait (using his own words) of perhaps our greatest American poet.
One aspect of Whitman’s poetic persona that has always compelled me is his breadth of vision and all-inclusivity (he himself famously remarked: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”) I read the complete poetry and prose of Whitman to find six texts that most clearly revealed to me this great variety.
“You Laggards There on Guard,” for tenor, conflates two consecutive poems from “Song of Myself.” It deals with Whitman as the great identifier: here, he is a prisoner, sick in mind and body, though proudly displaying himself for scrutiny.
“Fine, Clear, Dazzling Morning,” for coloratura soprano, excerpts some lines from Whitman’s Specimen Days, a kind of diary and his major prose work. It shows Whitman as a solitary lover of nature, following the flight and song of a meadowlark one spring morning, and presents a marked contrast to the previous song.
“Hark Close and Still What I Now Whisper,” for mezzo-soprano, is Whitman at his most erotic, coming from the long love poem “From Pent-up Aching Rivers.” Here, I have excerpted only the parenthetical lines that occur in this poem with an aim toward discovering Whitman’s most private thoughts and feelings, and the generally hushed tone and sparse texture of this song add to its erotic tension.
“Mossbonkers,” for bass-baritone, focuses on Whitman as the lover of men and vocation, and depicts a small fishing operation off the coast of Long Island. Though he begins with a description of the boats, nets, and other fishing equipment, Whitman becomes intoxicated by the rugged masculinity of the fishermen themselves, and sings their praises.
“Thus by Blue Ontario’s Shore,” for baritone, comes near the conclusion of a set of 20 poems laying out Whitman’s expectations of the Great American Poet. These poems reveal Whitman at his most aspirational, and form his poetic distillation of his prose Democratic Vistas. This song ends megalomaniacally, in which “the loftiest bards of past ages” evaporate in the presence of this new poet of America.
“Darest Thou Now O Soul,” for dramatic soprano, is from “Whispers of Heavenly Death,” a later addition to Leaves of Grass. In it, the elder Whitman muses on the line between life and death, and ends with an ecstatic vision of the beyond, where the soul and the body are united on the same plane (Whitman asserts often throughout Leaves of Grass that the body is the soul, and here their unity is made explicit).
Whitman Portrait begins with a short prelude that sets a text from “Song of Myself,” reminding the listeners that what follows is, in fact, a portrait: “Who goes there? hankering, gross, mystical, nude;” a text that has also been set by Charles Ives.
Whitman Portrait was begun at the MacDowell Colony, where I was a resident artist.