I discovered the poetry of Walt Whitman in my early twenties, soon after moving to the United States to study. Having been educated in French, I was unfamiliar with the work of this great master, and was immediately captivated. Never before had I heard the English language sound so powerful, so passionate, and especially, so musical. It was the musicality of Whitman’s language, in fact, which convinced me not to try using it in a vocal setting. I felt any music I could compose would only interfere with the power of Whitman’s words: after all, how does one make song out of poetry which is already in essence song? However, as I have an unfortunate tendency to think in epic cycles, I did briefly toy with the idea of setting the poems as purely instrumental music, much in the same manner as Ravel approached the verse of Aloysius Bertrand in Gaspard de la Nuit. When I later lived for several years near Whitman’s birthplace in Long Island, walking the same beaches he had, seeing the same skies and sunsets, I gradually came to a better understanding of his words. It was in 2005, when my friend Risto-Matti Marin asked me for some new music for a summer concert, that I decided the time had come to try my hand at a large set of piano works, something in the tradition of such composers as Schumann, Chopin, Debussy and Messiaen; I discovered after that fact that the year marked the 150th anniversary of the publication of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, a pleasing coincidence.
It should be pointed out that, although the pieces are closely based on Whitman’s poems, they are not programmatic in nature, but rather personal distillations of the atmosphere of each one. In Tears, the piano rhapsodically portrays a storm both physical and psychological, as a nameless protagonist (the poet himself?), sits alone on a darkened beach, weeping. As in the poem, Whitman’s own cry of "Tears! Tears! Tears!" opens and closes the movement. Lingering last drops is its polar opposite, a quiet, consoling elegy in which the final drops of a rain shower are slowed down to the point where each one becomes a singular, exquisite event. Sparkles from the Wheel follows next, the hypnotic dance of sparks from a grindstone alternating wildly with glimpses of the busy surroundings, building toward a climax that gives voice to "the loud, proud, resonant bass of the streets." The final piece, appropriately enough for a Nordic summer night, is Twilight, a gently swinging blues accompanying the poet’s brief, haiku-like meditation on oblivion.
© Matthew Whittall Instrumentation
Works for Solo Instrument Premiere
Risto-Matti Marin, Mänttä, Finland, June 30, 2005. Movements
1. Tears, 2. Lingering last drops, 3. Sparkles from the Wheel, 4. Twilight Commisioned by / dedications
Commissioned by Risto-Matti Marin.
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