Program notes for a doctoral recital: Blake, Whitman, and Brass

I'm getting in the habit of writing as much as I can about what I read and sing. For my second doctoral recital at Juilliard, I wrote some notes about the three poets featured on the program and the composers who set them. The recital is September 22, and you learn details by clicking here

This recital explores the words of three writers from three different centuries: William Blake, Walt Whitman, and Perry Brass. While their poetry varies and their idiom is entirely different according to their respective eras, these three men have a significant degree in common. Each occupies a space on the fringes of society, not easily categorized into a particular literary movement, nor accepted broadly for most of their lifetimes, if at all. Some historians might categorize all three as bohemians. Justin Martin defines bohemianism broadly to include “an intense passion for art… a near-pathological fear of conventionality, and a charming insouciance in the face of impending disaster.” The bohemian is the outlier in society, and inhabits the role of the countercultural iconoclast. Moreover, the bohemian’s work creates a relationship between fate and the individuals who contend with it. Although I, and perhaps all three of the poets on this recital, might disagree with such a specific categorization, the context of bohemianism helps to provide a lens through which to understand Blake, Whitman and Brass, and their settings by Britten, Bernstein, Kaminsky, Rorem, and DeBlasio.

 William Blake

William Blake

William Blake (1757-1827) wrote his collections Proverbs of HellAuguries of Innocence, and Songs of Experience in a time during which the industrial revolution was changing England with alarming speed. New inventions and public systems allowed for progress but frequently came at the cost of pollution, poverty, and squalor. In his poems, Blake focuses on tragic subjects who are unable to change their fate or alter the steady progress of time. This is perhaps most clearly evinced in this program by “The chimney sweeper,” a child covered in soot and abandoned by his parents in the middle of a snowy field. The boy is not overly bothered by his orphaned state, but carries on with dance and song in the face of misery.

Benjamin Britten’s setting of Blake relies on selection by his partner Peter Pears, who intelligently mixed and matched poems in a creative arc. For much of the cycle, Britten draws on serial techniques to create melody and accompaniment. This is shown most clearly in the non-consecutive proverb movements. From the outset, Britten establishes the proverbs as unfoldings of four-tone rows. The first proverb explores three rows, cycling through all twelve tones. While not every proverb goes through all twelve tones, the basic construction of four-tone rows in groups is maintained throughout these movements. Although the songs are given varied free-form treatment, serialism is to be found in them as well, most prominently the twelve-tone opening melody of “Poison Tree.” This song unfolds into seething counterpoint that climaxes through a brilliantly conceived quasi-passacaglia with the opening melody in the bass. Britten also explores various origins of melodic construction, employing locrian mode in “The tyger,” and whole tone rows in “London.” The final song, “Every Night and every Morn,” floats above a low meditative dirge in the bass and then soars into the upper register while the piano stomps emphatic clusters below. Surprisingly, the song winds itself into an F major completion, which hardly seems final or resolute given the winding passages and serial rows that precede it.

 Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman (1819-1892), like William Blake, was an unrecognized writer for much of his life. Until he reached his forties, the poet lived mainly with his mother and brothers in a house in Brooklyn (less than a mile from where I live today), eking out a living as a journalist. His poetry was an avocation and earned a very small following, principally from New York’s budding bohemian movement led by Henry Clapp, who held daily artistic gatherings at Pfaff’s saloon on Broadway. Whitman’s first major collection, Leaves of Grass, contained a section known as “Calamus.” These poems use blatant sexual language and have been controversial for their discussion homosexual love. The Calamus poems are the inspiration for Bernstein’s and Kaminsky’s settings on this program. As a side note, there is some conjecture, most specifically from Thomas Hampson, that “To What You Said” might date from 1871 with the publication of Democratic Vistas.

It was the American Civil War and its aftermath that eventually became the catalyst for Whitman’s legacy as one of the leading voices of the nineteenth century. The War prompted Whitman to move to Washington where he took a bureaucratic post and volunteered in hospitals as an unofficial nurse and deliveryman. His writings from this time and after the war, including Drum Taps and later Specimen Days, contain some of the poet’s most famous poetry, including “Oh Captain, My Captain,” and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” Specimen Days is the source for Rorem’s cycle on this program.

Leonard Bernstein’s Songfest was written for the 1976 bicentennial celebrations, and contained text by American poets representing various cultural traditions and heritages. The original “To What You Said” was scored for a large orchestra. The following year, Bernstein reduced the score for voice, cello, and piano. After an opening bright fanfare in the piano, Bernstein’s setting maintains a steady pulse on middle C, suggesting a heartbeat around which melodic figures rise and fall. The song contains a striking modal mixture of C major and C minor that never appears to resolve, perhaps reflecting the duality of Whitman’s words, acknowledging his love for his comrade while accepting the fact that his relationship will not be accepted in the context of the “received models of the parlors.”

Laura Kaminsky’s settings of the Calamus were premiered in 1992 at Symphony Space. I asked her about her choice of these poems and their directness. She explained that she enjoyed “the declarative nature of the line ‘I am Walt Whitman,’ but also responded to the two texts because of how imagistic and evocative they were, stemming from the first person's perspective; it invites the singer to go deep into the poetry and, hopefully, for the audience to also identify closely with the narrative.” Kaminsky’s writing simultaneously contains momentum and inertia. Passages of quick motion follow pools of sustained notes for both voice and piano. The result is a texture that allows for meditative reflection and attention to text.

If Bernstein and Kaminsky set Whitman’s words through an impressionistic lens, Rorem sets it with startling directness. Rorem wrote War Scenes in reaction to the Vietnam War, and much of that conflict’s turmoil comes across in his composition. After carefully selecting excerpts of Specimen Days and even adding his own original text in one instance, Rorem composed a chilling cycle that transforms the Civil War into a bitingly immediate event. Much of his composition of War Scenes contains sparse writing, relying on extended serial rows in the first, third and final songs. Extended a cappella passages also persist in the opening and closing songs. By contrast, the second song is strikingly tonal and sustained and the fourth song is a demonic waltz, much in the style of Ravel or even Shostakovich.

 Perry Brass

Perry Brass

Perry Brass (b. 1947) brings this program into the present day. If Blake and Whitman commented on life from the edge of society, Brass’ experience has been edgier. In his words: “I grew up, in the racially segregated fifties and early sixties, in equal parts Southern, Jewish, economically impoverished… and very much gay.” Perhaps as a result of his decades of involvement in the LGBTQ rights movement, much of Brass’ poetry has focused on issues facing the gay community.

In 1990, Chris DeBlasio selected five of Brass’ poems to create All The Way Through Evening, a personal response to the AIDS crisis and his own HIV-positive status. DeBlasio was a musical jack-of-all-trades, and made a living as a composer, pianist, and singer (including in the Choir of Trinity Wall Street – my own church gig). He shows his brilliance as a composer of art song with this cycle. His connection to the poetry is apparent from his natural setting mirroring speech rhythm. The central song, “An Elegy to Paul Jacobs,” is reminiscent of a French overture with inégale figures throughout the piano part. These figures, a deliberate allusion to Jacobs’ role as the harpsichordist of the New York Philharmonic, are foreshadowed at the end of the second song, “Train Station,” in the vocal part. The final song, “Walt Whitman in 1989” draws upon the experience of the AIDS crisis and connects it, as Brass explains, “with a hidden history of grief and transcendence.” After a quasi-recitative opening, DeBlasio reveals a deep largo closing section with undulating quarter notes in the piano, providing a sense of eternity and calm. Much like Britten’s Blake, DeBlasio’s Brass (and Whitman) resigns himself to fate and emerges to find solace in the productions of time.