In order to get the full Walt Whitman experience, I have to read his poetry out loud. I find that I can more successfully understand his words when I can say or hear them. I have often wondered what it would be like to hear his poetry in musical form, whether lyrically or instrumentally. I shall wonder no more! I found two choral symphonies that are inspired by Walt Whitman’s poetry. The first, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 1, A Sea Symphony, was written between 1903 and 1909. Here is a video of a performance of the second movement, which puts Whitman’s On the Beach at Night Alone into music.
When I realized that Vaughan Williams’ symphony used Whitman’s poems, I decided to read each of the poems before I listened to the music. I was pleasantly surprised by Vaughan Williams’ orchestration. It is a bit more emotionally intense than what I envisioned. The music is at times grand, serious, contemplative, somber, and lively. The movement begins with a very subdued orchestra. A baritone soloist sings Whitman’s words. Starting with “a vast similitude interlocks all,” the music becomes a bit more vigorous and energetic. Going into “all souls, all living bodies,” the choir and orchestra reach a dramatic crescendo. In the next line, a very layered choir sings “all nations, all identities that have existed or may exist” interestingly in very dark, ominous waves. I like that the choir and soloist come together in unison to sing “all of the past, present, and future.” After this, the orchestra drops out except to highlight the ends of verses. Then the choir presents us with the “vast similitude.” The orchestra soars, musically evoking Whitman’s idea of the “vast similitude.” The movement ends with a somber repetition of the opening lines. As the choir fades out, the orchestra goes on to explore some of the musical themes from throughout the movement. When I hear the orchestral exploration at the end of the movement, I imagine Walt Whitman on a beach under the stars, contemplating “the vast similitude.”