Thursday, May 31, 2012

Celebrating Walt Whitman's birthday

Walt Whitman
We celebrate baritone birthdays daily on Barihunks, but today we thought that it was important to celebrate the birthday of poet Walt Whitman.

Whitman has not inspired scores of composers to set his poetry to music, but singers are often so personally moved by the text that they seek out songs set to his words. Don't miss the selection from Randal Turner singing Clint Borzoni's "I Dream'd in a Dream" with the singers personal tale of inspiration and hope.

According to Michael Hovland's Musical Settings of American Poets, the poetry of Walt Whitman has been set to music 539 times, more than that of any other American poet with the exceptions of Emily Dickinson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Composers as diverse as Ned Rorem, Frederick Delius, Clint Borzoni, Ricky Ian Gordon, Kurt Weill, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Roy Harris, Lee Hoiby

Ian Greenlaw sings 'Oh Captain! My Captain!' from Kurt Weill's Walt Whitman songs. Performed at a cabaret sponsored by operamission last year in New York:

Walt Whitman is known for his famous, and controversial, collection of poems, Leaves of Grass.

Whitman was born on May 31, 1819 in West Hills, New York. His mother, Louisa Van Velsor, was descended from a long line of New York Dutch farmers; his father, Walter Whitman, was a Long Island farmer and carpenter. His mother was Louisa Van Velsor.

In 1823, the family moved to Brooklyn in search of work. The second of nine children in an undistinguished family, Whitman received little in the way of formal education. He still managed to read the works of Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare.

A sunstroke in 1885 and another paralytic stroke made Walt Whitman increasingly dependent on others. He died of complications from a stroke on March 26, 1892.

At the age of 17, Whitman began teaching at various Long Island schools and continued to teach until he went to New York City to be a printer for the New World and a reporter for the Democratic Review in 1841. For much of the next years, he made his livelihood through journalism. Besides reporting and freelance writing, he also edited several Brooklyn newspapers, including the "Daily Eagle," the "Freeman," and the "Times."

In 1848, Whitman met and was hired by a representative of the New Orleans Crescent. Although the job lasted only a few months, the journey by train, stagecoach, and steamboat helped to broaden his view of America.

Randal Turner sings Clint Borzoni's "I Dreamed in a Dream" and talks about how this song made him think about the gay teens being bullied, including his own personal story. 

Whitman received little money with the first edition of Leaves of Grass, but he did receive some attention, including a letter from Ralph Waldo Emerson. The second edition in 1860 with the "Calamus" poems and the third edition of Leaves created controversy for readers, but the Civil War turned all eyes on the battlefields.

Whitman traveled to Virginia to search for his brother, George, and found him wounded. He stayed to help tend wounded soldiers in Washington DC; and wrote some of his famous war poetry, printed partially as "Drum Taps" and "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." He witnessed Lincoln's second inauguration and mourned the assassination of Lincoln in April.

In the years after the war, Whitman's reputation increased both in England and in the US. In January of 1873, he suffered a paralytic stroke. Several months later, in May, his mother died. Unable to work, he returned to live with his brother in Camden, New Jersey.

He was able to take trips to New York, Boston, and even to Colorado to see the Rocky Mountains, but his declining health mostly provided him with the opportunity to restructure and revise his most famous work, Leaves of Grass, the culmination of so many previously published collections.


Bryn Terfel sings English composer Frederick Delius' "Sea Drift", based the poem "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" from Book XIX of the poetry collection "Leaves of Grass" by Walt Whitman. The work was premiered in 1906 and the poetry is suffused with images of love, the sea and death as Whitman observes two mating birds, the male's bewilderment, following the death of the female, becoming analogous to the human experience of loss and grief.


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