Ode To Whitman

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20100724

Rob Cowan explores the attraction to composers of the poetry of Walt Whitman.

Whitman's poetry has inspired an extraordinary number of musical works - there are some 1200 vocal and instrumental settings of his verse by, among others, Vaughan Williams, Delius, Bernstein, Ives, Weill, Hindemith, Holst and John Adams - and the 'Bard of Democracy's optimistic, inclusive, radically free voice continues to appeal to contemporary composers today.

Some of the earliest settings were by English composers, who saw in Whitman a liberation from Victorian jingoism.

He represented instead optimism and renewal, a celebration of free speech and free love.

Its timeless qualities meant that Whitman's poetry also became a potent force during the Second World War for Kurt Weill and Paul Hindemith, in flight from the Nazis, and looking to forge a new American identity.

Weaving together readings of his poetry with some of the music setting his words, and with contributions from David Reynolds, author of 'Walt Whitman's America,' on the influence of music on Whitman's verse, M.

Wynn Thomas on the radical qualities of his poetry, and Jack Sullivan on the musical responses to Whitman, this feature takes in some of the wealth of music Whitman has inspired, and discovers the inherently musical aspects of his writing.

Music was such a powerful force on Whitman that he saw himself less as a poet than as a singer or bard, and his verse repeatedly alludes to it: "I sing the body electric", "Song of myself", "I hear America singing" are among his titles.

Seeing his poetry as a kind of singing, he highlighted American themes but also integrated operatic techniques - the most profound influence on him being, as he put it, "the great, overwhelming, touching human voice..."

Vaughan Williams: Toward the Unknown Region (extract)

Roderick Williams, Baritone/ Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra/ David Lloyd-Jones

Michael Tilson Thomas: We two boys together clinging (extract)

Thomas Hampson (baritone)/ Craig Rutenberg (piano)

Delius: Sea Drift (two extracts)

Bryn Terfel (baritone)/ Bournemouth Symphony Chorus/ Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/ Richard Hickox (conductor)

Vaughan Williams: Sea Symphony (extract - mvt 1)

BBC Symphony Chorus/ BBC Symphony Orchestra/ Sir Andrew Davis (cond)

Bernstein: To What You Said (extract)

Charles Ives: Walt Whitman

John Adams: The Wound Dresser (extract)

Christopher Maltman (baritone)/ BBC Symphony Orchestra/ John Adams (conductor)

Hindemith: When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd: A Requiem for Those We Love (extract: March, Over the breast of spring)

Atlanta Symphony Chorus and Orchestra/ Robert Shaw (conductor)

Vaughan Williams: Dona Nobis Pacem

Yvonne Kenny (soprano)/ London Symphony Chorus/ London Symphony Orchestra/ Richard Hickox (conductor)

Delius: Songs of Farewell (extract - II 'I stand as on some mighty eagle's beak')

Bournemouth Symphony Chorus/ Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/ Richard Hickox (conductor).

Rob Cowan explores the attraction of composers to the poetry of Walt Whitman