Since publishing Leaves of Grass in June 1855, Walt Whitman and his poetry have captured the American imagination. Not until the early twentieth century, however, did composers begin to draw from and set to music Whitman’s work in earnest. Today, 200 years after Whitman’s birth, his settings have inspired over 500 composers to write over 1200 works rooted, in some way, within Whitman and his work. For American poets, only Emily Dickinson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow have been set to music more frequently.
Why have so many composers found inspiration and resonance in Whitman’s words? Whitman himself referred to many of his poems as “songs.” And the thematic repetitions and phrasing that permeate his work can read almost like the musical development a composer might choose.
Whitman’s popularity has continued to grow, even as his texts are set for varied musical contexts. Composers such as Leonard Bernstein, Benjamin Britten, Rhoda Coghill, David Conte, George Crumb, Frederick Delius, Howard Hanson, Paul Hindemith, Helen Hopekirk, Charles Martin Loeffler, Ned Rorem, Charles Villiers Stanford, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Kurt Weill, and Roger Sessions have all set his poems to music. Most recently, Matthew Aucoin composed an opera, Crossing (2015), inspired by Whitman’s Civil War diaries.
To celebrate Whitman’s contributions to the American experience upon his 200th birthday on May 31st, the Library of Congress will display materials related to Whitman from May 17 through August 14 in agile display cases in the Thomas Jefferson Building. The cases will be in the north and south alcoves of the first floor. From the Music Division, this includes musical settings of Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last…,” John Adams’s “The Wound Dresser,” and a set of three Kurt Weill songs. These settings, however, represent only a small portion of the musical settings of Whitman’s poetry that can be found in the Library of Congress’ collections.
The Music Division’s digital collections include several musical settings of Whitman’s poetry. Helen Hopekirk took the text for her song Reconciliation from Whitman’s “Drum Taps.” A lilting melody with a moderate tempo, her setting meditates on both the pain and peace in saying goodbye to loved ones who perish in war. Her setting oscillates between two ostensibly harmonic extremes – F# Major and G-flat Major. The keys may be essentially the same (that is, enharmonic equivalents), perhaps demonstrating the greater complexity within the ostensible binary opposition with which Whitman depicts war in the original poem.
H.T. Burleigh’s setting of “Ethiopia Saluting the Colors” depicts the dramatic account of a chance meeting between a Union soldier and an African-American woman. In his setting, Burleigh shifts the musical styles depending on which character speaks. You can hear a recording of the piece or watch a performance.
Composer Elinor Remick Warren, whose collection is in the Music Division, set Whitman’s text “We Two” in 1946 to celebrate her wedding anniversary with the actor and singer Zachary Wayne Griffin. Declamatory gestures, accompanied by thick chords in the piano, frame the opening and closing of the setting. An expressive central section provides a more lyrical vocal line and harp-like accompaniment. Just as Whitman repeats the phrase “we two together” to close each stanza, Warren repeats the phrases in fragments to bring the short piece to an emotional close. You can hear an exquisite recording of the piece in the Music Division’s Songs of America digital collection.
More contemporary settings of Whitman include those by Perry Bass, whose poem, “Walt Whitman in 1989,” became the base of a song cycle by Chris DeBlasio. The work was subsequently included in “The AIDS Quilt Song Book” recording. Here, however, Whitman’s meditations on war are focused toward bigotry and hatred.