Three Whitman Songs
I wrote these songs as studies for my opera Crossing, which features Walt Whitman as its protagonist. Whitman’s poetry is fiendishly hard to set to music well, partly because his lines are so long they spill over the edge of the page and partly because they’re stuffed to the brim with music of their own. I needed to be sure that at least some of his poems fit my musical voice before I embarked on a Whitman opera.
I thought all three songs would find a musical home in Crossing, but two ended up on the cutting room floor (only “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” remains in the opera). They weren’t cut because I disliked them – they just didn’t have any place in the drama.
So I’m very happy to warm up these leftovers for a much lighter musical meal. In the first song, an excerpt from the poem “The Sleepers,” Whitman imagines himself as the only conscious presence in a sleeping world. He recounts visiting the bedsides of injured soldiers, “the worst-suffering,” who twist and turn in their sleep. The excerpt ends with Whitman attempting to reconcile himself to the disappearance of the visible world as night descends: “The earth recedes from me into the night. / I saw that it was beautiful, and I see that what is not the earth is beautiful.”
"Whitman’s poetry is fiendishly hard to set to music well, partly because his lines are so long they spill over the edge of the page and partly because they’re stuffed to the brim with music of their own."
The second song is an excerpt from “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Whitman’s ecstatic vision of the unity of human life across the generations, inspired by the sight and sound of the ferry that passed – and still passes – daily between Brooklyn and Manhattan.
The third song sets the brief, elegant poem “A Clear Midnight,” another moment of nighttime reflection. In this poem, Whitman finds himself ready to return to the things his soul loves best: “Night, sleep, death and the stars.”