A programme note from the composer
I first discovered Walt Whitman’s poetry as a young man after hearing Vaughan Williams’s Sea Symphony. Although I was attracted to Whitman’s mystical texts, I did not explore his poetry any further until the early 1990s when I read a biography of him by the Victorian writer John Addington Symonds which was published in 1890. I must say that even today this eloquently written book is one of the most illuminating introductions to Whitman’s poetry I have ever read. So much so that it has, over the years been an invaluable guide in deepening my understanding of his poetry and especially of the poems that I have set in ‘The Last Invocation’.
As the bicentenary of Whitman’s birth got underway in 2019 I returned to his poetry with the intention of composing a song cycle. However, I was still working on the final movements of a Requiem so any thoughts of writing a cycle would have to wait. By the Autumn of 2019 I was at last ready to begin work on a new composition; this was given added impetus when The Richard Hall Trust kindly offered me a commission to write this work. In many ways, The Last Invocation evolved from ideas that were distilled from the Requiem. Engaging with the liturgy and the texts of the Mass for the Dead confronted me with questions about my own spiritual beliefs. Indeed, these same questions lie at the heart of Whitman’s poetic vision and so when structuring the cycle I arranged the four settings in a particular sequence, in order to chart a musical narrative that, it is hoped, will bring the listener’s personal experience within the realm of the transcendental.
The cycle opens with a setting of ‘Shine! Shine! Shine!’. The text is taken from the first poem of Whitman’s Sea-Drift collection entitled Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking. The poem describes a boy’s growing maturity and his awakening experience of Love and Death. Whitman draws on his childhood memories to portray an image of an idealised Love, as symbolised by two mockingbirds nesting near his home. The italicised stanza that begins ‘Shine! Shine! Shine! Pour forth your warmth great sun!’ acts as a kind of poetic aria in which the birds sing joyous songs. The music seeks to mirror this idyllic scene, ‘While we bask, we two together. Two together! However, a more restless section follows beginning at the words, ‘Winds blow south, or winds blow north’ that leads to an ecstatic vocal climax ‘Singing all time, minding no time’. A reprise of the opening music on the words ‘We two together’ ends the song in a mood of joyful optimism.
The subject of the second song ‘Out of May’s Shows Selected’ is Whitman’s deep empathy with Nature. Symonds summarised Whitman’s belief, ‘he who has imbued himself with nature is in harmony with the world. His vision was of a cosmic unity that underlies everything. “I think a thought of the clef of the universe, and of the future”. This conception of the intimate relation which exists between human personality and the external world permeates the whole of Whitman’s work’. The poem, taken from Sands at Seventy presents the poet’s experience of observing nature in the full flush of Spring with its cornucopia of blossoms and colours. The song begins with a short introduction for piano that attempts to capture the poet’s vision of this iridescent scene, ‘Apple orchards, the trees all cover’d with blossoms’. The vocal melody is a long-breathed line that floats gently above a moving piano accompaniment, alternating the unusual time signatures of 4/16 and 5/16. These lightly sprung rhythms convey a subdued inner tension that propels the music forwards, whilst adding to the vibrancy and a sense of anticipation to the lines ‘The eternal exhaustless freshness of each early morning’ and ‘The aspiring lilac bushes with profuse purple or white flowers’. An exuberant mood is maintained throughout this short setting, and the song ends as it began, with a reprise of the piano’s radiant introductory music.
The poem ‘As at Thy Portals also Death’ is taken from Whitman’s collection Songs of Parting. It is in part an Elegy, but is also a tribute to his mother. The poem’s opening line, ‘As at thy portals also death’, addresses the poet’s belief that after our earthly existence is over the Soul joins the spiritual world that lies beyond the veil. Symonds argued, that Whitman had ‘a profound belief in the eternity of spirit underlying all appearances and phenomena’. The second line returns the narrative to the temporal world ‘Entering thy sovereign, dim, illimitable grounds’ and to the scene of his mother’s grave. This eerie image is evoked in the plangent atmosphere of the piano’s opening music and acts as an introduction to the song’s principal vocal melody sung to the words. ‘To memories of my mother, to the divine blending, maternity’. By contrast, the narrative of the central section is more celebratory in tone, ‘To her, the ideal woman, practical, spiritual, of all of earth, life, love, to me the best’. To mirror these affectionate sentiments I have included a melodic fragment that comes from my setting of Tennyson’s poem ‘Break, break, break’. This poem was written in memory of Tennyson’s great friend, Arthur Hallam and while setting the words ‘But O for the touch of a vanished hand’, memories of my own mother inspired the melody that accompanies this line. Whitman’s heartfelt words, once again brought back memories of my mother and miraculously, this very same melody fitted the words like a hand in a glove. Such inspirational moments are rare in one’s creative life and looking back it seems to me that this synthesis has achieved a remarkable unity of words and music – the poet’s thoughts and feelings blending seamlessly with my own to chime as one. In the final section of the poem Whitman expresses his hope that his life as a poet had not only honoured his mother’s love but it had also given her a lasting tribute ‘I grave a monumental line before I go amid these songs and set a tombstone here’. Similarly it is my hope that I too have composed something worthy of my mother’s cherished memory.
The cycle’s final song is a setting of Whitman’s transcendental poem,‘The Last Invocation’, taken from his collection, ‘Whispers of Heavenly Death’. While ‘As at Thy Portals also Death’ explored Whitman’s belief in the immortality of the Soul, The Last Invocation describes the Soul’s final journey to eternity. Whitman was well-versed in the study of Hermeticism – a philosophy that maintained that the body is the ‘prison house’ of the Soul and that only at death will the Soul be released from its earthly imprisonment. Whitman makes this clear in the poem’s opening lines. ‘At the last, tenderly / From the walls of the powerful fortress’d house / From the clasp of the knitted locks. From the keep of the well-closed doors / Let me be wafted’. One of the links between this cycle and my Requiem is the prevalence of modality. Apart from a short section in the previous song that is firmly established in the uplifting key of D-flat major, all the songs in this cycle are rooted in a particular mode. For me modes possess an eternal resonance that connects us to the distant past and especially to the folk song tradition that has informed so much of our English musical heritage. In this way, modes if used imaginatively can provide a conduit through which the past can reach into the present.
‘The Last Invocation’ begins with an ostinato figure in the piano accompaniment that evokes a mood of tranquility and a feeling of gentle movement. This kind of musical metaphor or symbol has appeared a several times in my earlier work. Although such metaphors come to me entirely subconsciously, they nevertheless inform an aspect of my musical language. A similar ostinato figure occurs in the song ‘In Memoriam: Ivor Gurney’ from my cycle, The Pine Boughs Past Music. Here it accompanies the vocal narrative, ‘But still the river glides his madrigals’. Similarly, this metaphor appears at the end of the cycle, The Song of the Severn, where it underpins a vocal narrative that expresses the poet’s hope that the river will remember him; ‘As quiet and steadfast flows the river, If all is well, remember me’. Although, Whitman’s opening lines do not present an image of water, they nevertheless arouse a feeling of ‘drifting’ or forward movement. Whitman’s narrative changes abruptly at the line ‘Set ope the doors O soul’. Here I introduce a new accompanimental figure that mirrors the rising vocal melody. This short passage culminates at the poem’s denouement on the words ‘tenderly be not impatient’. Despite Whitman’s unwavering belief in the Immortality of the Soul and his depiction of its transition from an earthly existence to a spiritual one, he still implores us to ‘be not impatient’ to leave this world behind. To try to express such thoughts I have incorporated another musical metaphor that I have used before in my work. It is formed from a group of slowly moving, oscillating quavers that is combined with a modally inflected harmony. I hope that this metaphor will elicit a sense of timelessness and ethereality. Above this ruminating accompaniment, the singer intones a wistful melodic phrase on the words ‘tenderly, be not impatient’. This is repeated three times in order to emphasise the Soul’s reluctance to journey into the unknown. The song concludes with a piano postlude that reprises a fragment from the opening song Shine! Shine! Shine!, recalling a tender memory from the Soul’s past life as the music drifts to a tranquil close.