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Wild Nights, Bird Raptures, and other Musical Verse

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Walt Whitman, half-length portrait, seated, facing left, wearing hat and sweater, holding butterfly. Prints and Photographs Collection, Library of Congress.
Walt Whitman, half-length portrait, seated, facing left, wearing hat and sweater, holding butterfly. Prints and Photographs Collection, Library of Congress.

Music and poetry are two sides of artistic expression that are often inseparable – in the nomenclature of today’s youth, they are indeed Best Friends Forever. April is National Poetry Month, a designation first made  in 1996 by the Academy of American Poets in New York. As the month winds down, In the Muse sets anchor in the great waters of the Music Division collections and fishes out for you, the reader, musical  settings of the great poets.

Composer Ernst Bacon set a variety of poems to music, and seemed particularly drawn to visionaries like William Blake, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson. Bacon self-published Songs from Emily Dickinson, which sets music to “It’s coming – the postponeless creature,” “Let down the bars,” and, as if to show that death wasn’t all that was on her mind, the passionate “Wild nights:”

Wild nights! Wild nights!
Were I with thee,
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile the winds
To a heart in port,
Done with the compass,
Done with the chart.

Rowing in Eden!
Ah! the sea!
Might I but moor
To-night in thee!

Earlier this month In the Muse looked at  varieties of birdsong in music. To dovetail this theme with poetry is a setting of English poet Christina Rossetti’s “Bird raptures,” by the forgotten British composer Sir Frederic Hymen Cowen. Rossetti’s poetry has frequently been set to music; in fact just a few years ago, a poll of English choirmasters named the setting of her poem “In the bleak midwinter” the greatest Christmas carol of all time. You may know Rossetti’s face from the work of her brother, Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who chose his sister as the model for some of his most famous works.

The spectre of Walt Whitman haunts the project currently known as the Performing Arts Encyclopedia, which some of us on staff may think of as The Site Formerly Known as I Hear America Singing. The project I have been working on since joining the Music Division in 2002 took its original title from Whitman, who also inspires Thomas Hampson’s ongoing Song of America tour as well as a related web presentation. Read about Whitman’s use of musical terms in Leaves of Grass in this article, and listen to then-poet laureate Billy Collins read Whitman’s words here. Whitman is also represented in the Performing Arts Encyclopedia by “Ethiopia saluting the colors,” the text set to music by H.T. Burleigh, who may be best known for his arrangement of the African-American spiritual “Deep river.”

Langston Hughes, by Carl van Vechten. Prints and Photographs Collection, Library of Congress.
Langston Hughes, by Carl van Vechten. Prints and Photographs Collection, Library of Congress.

From the African-American Odyssey in American Memory, comes a setting of  Langston Hughes’s first published poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” Set to music numerous times, “perhaps none is better known than that by Chicago composer Margaret Bonds, published in 1942 by the Handy Brothers Music Company. Run by W. C. Handy, that company used the money made by ‘The St. Louis Blues’ and other early Handy blues songs to finance the publication of classical music by a generation of African American composers, including J. Rosamond Johnson, Eubie Blake, Noah Francis Ryder, and Harry Lawrence Freeman.”

In closing, we bring you, from the depths of the Historic Sheet Music, 1800-1922 collection, “The Dying Poet,” composed by one L.M. Gottschalk.  It is wordless.

Comments (2)

  1. Ives, more than other composers of his era, explored much closer to the same edges that Whitman and others moved towards (and his Whitman settings, included in Hampson’s project, back that up). Much closer in spirit to Whitman, Hawthorne, Emerson, and other writers than he is to his musical contemporaries, like Foote, Chadwick, and Parker.

    No other composer of his time who could hold forth with a “barbaric yawp,” of which there are many examples in his mudic.

    And he wrote this about poets:
    “If a poet knows more about a horse than he does about heaven, he might better stick to the horse, and some day the horse may carry him into heaven.”

  2. Interestingly, there are (at least) two competing settings of “In the Bleak Midwinter,” the more frequently performed by Harold Darke (which is what won the choirmaster poll) and another by Gustav Holst.

    Whether either overcomes the (by current standards) mawkish sentimentality of the poem is another question; also open, I suppose, is the question of whether or not Christmas carols ought to be mawkishly sentimental, more or less by definition.

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