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Heart Music

Fred Hersch, Leaves of Grass (Palmetto)

First published 150 years ago this summer, Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass was always a work in progress--or a series of works that varied in character and grew exponentially in size over more than three decades, until the poet's death in 1892. The first edition, first published one hundred fifty years ago this July and something of a vanity project manufactured with typesetting assistance from Whitman himself, presented a dozen poems on ninety-five pages. The second, published fourteen months later, contained thirty-two poems. Over the next four years, Whitman achieved full bloom as a writer (and as a man, owing in part to a visit to New Orleans that inspired a set of fearless poems about same-sex affection), and he expanded his masterpiece to 156 poems, including revisions and new orderings of the earlier ones into thematic clusters. (The 1860 edition, arguably the richest of the lot, is no longer in print, despite the fact that the work has long been in the public domain and could be published cheaply.) Whitman would devote most of the rest of his years to reshaping and applying more clay onto this work cast from early life. By the last of the nine versions that he produced, the "deathbed edition" of 1892, Leaves of Grass included more than four hundred poems on more than seven hundred pages.

As a song of self, it sings of an epically mercurial and voluptuous spirit. For this reason, Leaves of Grass endures, while so much poetry beloved in this country during Whitman's lifetime--Joel Barlow's "The Columbiad," Timothy Dwight's "The Conquest of Canaan"--would strike us as derivative, precious, or stilted, if we could find copies to read today. Whitman's masterwork still speaks to us not least because it is among the most American of our books, not only for its much-vaunted evocation of democratic ideals, its celebrations of individualism and egalitarianism, and its quirky, vernacular radicalism, but also for the seeming inexhaustibility of its resources. It is boundlessly explicable. What better gift could a master explicator like Bill Clinton give his girlfriend than a copy of Leaves of Grass, which glorifies bedrock American principles at the same time that it glories in matters of the flesh? (In her thank-you note, Monica Lewinsky wrote that "Whitman is so rich that one must read him like one tastes a fine wine or good cigar--take it in, roll it in your mouth, and savor it!" But I digress.)

Composers since the turn of the last century have gone fishing in Whitman's well-stocked stream of verse. Initially condemned for blasphemy and indecency (he advanced a vague pantheism and reveled in all varieties of sensation), Whitman was a prototype of the American Artist Underappreciated in His Own Uncultured, Overly Puritanical Country But Recognized, Thank Goodness, by the Europeans. The latter drew often upon Whitman in their music, to challenge the entrenched orthodoxies of their own countries. Delius found kinship in Whitman's quasi-paganism and overt carnality, and set Whitman's poetry to music in three of his signature pieces: Sea Drift (1904), Songs of Farewell (1930), and Idyll (1933,based on musical material from Margot la Rouge of 1902), all of which employ shifting layers of harmony to sweeping effect, an approach roughly parallel to Whitman's use of dense clusters of language. Vaughan Williams drew inspiration from the poet's erratic, seemingly spontaneous outbursts in his serpentine Whitman homages, Toward the Unknown Region (1907) and Sea Symphony (1910). Holst also wrote several good Whitman settings, including a lovely adaptation of Whitman's famous requiem for Abraham Lincoln, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," which Holst treated as an elegy for fallen veterans of World War I. And in the era of the next war, the German-born composers Kurt Weill and Paul Hindemith (musicians with vastly different aesthetics) both marked their relocation to the United States by writing pieces set to the verse of Whitman; the poet's iconoclasm, defiance of prevailing mores, and sheer Americanness seemed to reinforce their rejection of fascism. (Weill, following Holst, adapted one of Whitman's Civil War poems, "Drum Taps," to memorialize victims of World War II.) With the emergence of the postwar avant-garde in the years to follow, Whitman surfaced again, this time as the spiritual father of American bohemia, a proto-modernist. In 1957, Ned Rorem composed a set of angularly lyrical art songs to Whitman's verse, and in 1976 George Crumb revisited the durable "Lilacs" poems, in Apparition, setting them to a suite of bold, tonally venturesome works for voice and modified piano. (Four Rorem tunes, as well as select Whitman settings by Vaughan Williams, Weill, Hindemith, Ernst Bacon, and others appear in uniformly fine renditions by the baritone Thomas Hampson, accompanied by Craig Ruttenberg, on the album To the Soul: Thomas Hampson Sings the Poetry of Walt Whitman, from EMI Classics.) More recently, Whitman's vast output has been mined for its evocation of what Whitman called "manly attachment." He hinted at the theme here and there in his work, but dealt with it squarely in the "Calamus" (or "Live Oak, With Moss") poems inspired by his New Orleans jaunt--work once considered scandalous, now heroic. In 1993, Michael Tilson Thomas composed a delicate, pretty song, "We Two Boys Together Clinging," set to a excerpt from "Calamus":

We two boys together clinging, One the other never leaving…. Arm'd and fearless, eating, drinking, sleeping, loving, No law less than ourselves owning…

All told, no fewer than five hundred musical compositions, works varying widely in style, scale, and intent, have been set to Whitman's words, most of them drawn from the eight versions of Leaves of Grass, and more Whitman inspired music keeps appearing. (Even Madonna has written a song quoting Whitman, her melodramatic "Sanctuary." But I digress again.) "The proof of the poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it," Whitman wrote in the preface to the 1855 edition of his epic. The musical landscape's capacity to absorb Whitman remains considerable, and Leaves of Grass is, musically speaking, still very much a work in progress.

As one might expect from the author of American poetry's democratic manifesto, Whitman was a public champion of homegrown American sounds. He served for some time as a newspaper music critic, and he used his forum to argue the superiority of just-emerging modes of American folk music over traditional forms of Western music. In a way, he declared the culture wars a hundred years early, advancing "heart music" (earthy, declarative, informal, American) over "art music" (refined, urban, formal, European). Lauding one of the many family vocal groups popular in the decades before the Civil War, Whitman praised the music as "simple, fresh, and beautiful." He added: "We hope no spirit of imitation will ever induce them to engraft any `foreign airs' upon their `native graces.'"

He liked minstrel shows, too, identifying in them a high level of artistry for a "low" form of popular art. As he wrote about one minstrel group (no doubt white performers in blackface, although African Americans also participated in minstrelsy, essentially parodying whites parodying them) in a review titled "True American Singing," "Their negro singing altogether proves how shiningly golden talent can be spread over a subject generally considered low. Singing with them is a subject from obscure life in the hands of a divine painter: rags, patches, and coarseness are imbued with the great genius of the artist, and there exists something really great about them."

Whitman absorbed a great deal of music in his lifetime, and he noted in his maturity that his youthful musical encounters informed his writing deeply. As he told his late-life friend Horace Traubel (who compiled the poet's reminiscences in With Walt Whitman in Camden), "My younger life was so saturated with the emotions, raptures, and uplifts of such musical experiences that it would be surprising indeed if all my future work had not been colored by them." Leaves of Grass, in Whitman's own view, was indebted to the Italian operas that he came to love in the decade prior to the book's first publication. "But for the opera," he said, "I could never have written Leaves of Grass."

He was referring in this instance not to the opulent emotionality of Italian opera, an obvious corollary to Whitman's poetry, but to the flexibility of recitative, opera's freedom to dispense with rhyme and the metrical patterns of traditional song. But the music of Whitman's verse begs other analogies as well. It in its jagged, erratic lines, its unpredictable swoops and sudden eruptions, Leaves of Grass anticipated Charlie Parker as much as it reflected Rossini.

How strange that Leaves of Grass inspired no major work in the jazz idiom, at least none that I know of, until now. The composer and pianist Fred Hersch has written a glorious new setting of excerpts from the book, which I recently heard performed by the composer and a seven-piece chamber-jazz ensemble at Zankel Hall in New York. (Hersch and his group have been touring the piece to support its CD release by Palmetto Records.) Whitman's idiosyncratic poetry certainly seems more suitable to the improvised spontaneity of jazz than it is to, say, the noble Anglicism of Vaughan Williams or the rigorous intellectualism of Hindemith. Indeed, one of Whitman's hallmarks is that his poems are not primarily intended to describe phenomena; they are phenomena. Their function is not merely interpretive: they are put forth as objects for our interpretation, much as a jazz solo is not just the performer's rendition of a composition, but a composition itself.

Structurally, too, many of Whitman's poems employ the same form as jazz pieces geared for jamming. A poem will often begin with a line stating the theme or subject--the "head," in jazz lingo--and then launch into elliptical development of that theme. Digressions are as welcome as conventional development. Details transcend the plan.

Hersch, who is gay, HIV-positive, and fed up with habitually being described as such, has said that he was drawn to Leaves of Grass for the centrality of the moment in Whitman's aesthetic. "It has nothing to do with Whitman being gay and me being gay or any of that shit," he has remarked. "Life is change, and the only thing we have is this moment." (The latter thought does seems connected to the fact of Hersch's living with HIV, as well as to his Buddhist faith.) His Leaves of Grass has a spark, a joy taken in its own being, that honors Whitman as it salvages the work from the banality of serving as a monument to him. It makes no effort to be monumental in the grand, symbolic, official, gray-poured-concrete sense. Yet, in its unaffected surety and easy-flowing originality--its fealty to the minute-by-minute impulses of a gifted composer who loves to improvise--it is a magnificent achievement.

Since he was composing an "evening-long" work from a lifelong endeavor, Hersch had to edit mercilessly. He used about 0.5 percent of the text at his disposal, by my own rough math, and his choices are telling. With the exception of the essential "Song of Myself," he passed over Whitman's best-known poems, such as "Lilacs" and "O Captain, My Captain," and he used none of the many poems about the Civil War and New York City (also Hersch's home). There seems no scheme to Hersch's selections other than his personal taste--the most appropriate criterion for doing Whitman justice--and an evident intent to veer the core idea of self toward the universal.

The self that Hersch's setting of Leaves of Grass celebrates is a composite of Whitman, Hersch, and a conception of the universal self that Hersch extracts from the text and accentuates through the music and the organization of materials. While Whitman began the first edition of his book with "Song of Myself," the indelible birth cry of the American ego, the first poem in Hersch's setting is "Song of the Universal":

Come said the Muse.-- Sing me a song no poet has yet chanted. Sing me the universal.

Hersch repeats the passage four times (Whitman used it once), and he has it sung by Kate McGarry, a versatile singer with a gentle, lilting, reedy voice--the kind we tend to associate with Irish folk songs and their funny stories about rural life and death.

Hersch employs two vocalists, McGarry and the jazz singer Kurt Elling, each to distinct effect. McGarry generally handles the transcendental and agrarian stuff; she is more prominent in the second half of Hersch's work, which grows progressively more intimate and ruminative--it gets freer in mode and calls for more instrumental improvisation. Elling takes care of the robust American self-projection that opened Whitman to charges of ungentlemanly arrogance in his day. (Whitman relished the criticism and asked for more by publishing harsh reviews of his book as appendices to some editions of Leaves.) "When you're singing lines like `I celebrate myself' and `I sing myself,' you have to own it," Hersch has said. Elling owns it; he has a steely baritone voice and good range, which he stretches to impressive effect through the force of will that infuses most of his singing. In Elling's hands, a great many lyrics communicate self-celebration. Still, much to his credit (and, presumably, Hersch's), Elling taps unexpected resources of grace and subtlety at points in Leaves of Grass, such as the segment titled "A Child Said, `What Is the Grass?'"

Wisely, Hersch does not employ a period idiom; he refers to nineteenth-century music (marches, fanfares, folk tunes) sparingly, with incidental gestures. Hersch's Leaves of Grass is utterly contemporary in feeling and wholly in keeping with his past work. Its debts are evident: Brazilian jazz, Monk, the harmonic concepts of both Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock; but the music is distinctively Hersch's--unabashedly passionate, rich as marzipan, and always swaying, sort of dancing to itself. As Whitman does with his poetry, Hersch uses accessible musical language that belies sophisticated, complex ideas. Under the gorgeous melodies McGarry and Elling sing in pieces such as "After the Dazzle of Day" lie puzzle patterns of harmony.

I love this piece of music, but I find it disappointing in one way. The unnerving charm of the early versions of Leaves of Grass is their perplexity--the disorder of the poems, their aimless and inexplicable digressions. I would have liked to hear a bit of that Whitman too, to have his brilliant indulgence also translated into jazz. Then again, I can always play a Coltrane record.