The Wound-Dresser

Armory Square Hospital in Washington, D.C. (August, 1865)
Armory Square Hospital in Washington, D.C. (August, 1865)

 

Thus in silence in dreams’ projections,
Returning, resuming, I thread my way through the hospitals,
The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand,
I sit by the restless all the dark night, some are so young,
Some suffer so much, I recall the experience sweet and sad,
(Many a soldier’s loving arms about this neck have cross’d and rested,
Many a soldier’s kiss dwells on these bearded lips.)

-Walt Whitman, The Wound-Dresser, 1865 

On July 21, 1861, spectators, armed with picnic baskets, eagerly followed the Union army twenty five miles out of Washington into the Virginia countryside to watch what would become the first major battle of the American Civil War. At the First Battle of Bull Run, Northern sightseers (including congressmen) expected to observe a quick, easy, and decisive victory over the Confederates…perhaps the nineteenth century equivalent of “shock and awe.” They intended to indulge romantic notions of heroism and valor. Instead, they got a glimpse of the horrific reality of war. Bull Run was the bloodiest battle in American history up to that point. It showcased the gruesome and unexpected effects of new combat technology. Notions of a quick “summer war” were swept away and for both sides Bull Run suddenly became a depressing harbinger of the struggle ahead. The poorly trained defeated Union army fled back to Washington amid the gridlock of sightseers.

The poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892) forces us to confront the human cost of war. “The real war will never get in the books” said Whitman, who dressed the wounds of both Northern and Southern soldiers during the Civil War. But enter the dazed world of The Wound-Dresser and other war poems by Whitman, and you begin to get a sense of the wasteland of the battlefield. Out of this darkness emerges a powerful sense of humanity: the loving relationship between caregiver and dying patient. As Sarah Cahill observes,

There is a powerful tension in Whitman’s poem between the physical and the metaphysical, between bodily sickness, which he records with almost scientific detachment (“From the stump of the arm, the amputated hand/I undo the clotted lint”) and a spiritual transcendence of the corporeal.

In John Adams’ 1988 setting of Whitman’s poem, we get a sense of the wound dresser going about his business in a daze. The hypnotic repetition of the opening music and the detached, searching voice of the solo violin in its highest and most ethereal register create the feeling of an out-of-body experience. Surreal new electronically synthesized sounds blend with the traditional orchestra. Suppressed emotion and scientific detachment seem to be the only way to survive the horrific work at hand. But there are also brief moments of intense, soaring emotional release. Later, we hear the searching sound of a distant battlefield bugle (11:02), the same voice we hear in Adams’ haunting, quiet fanfare, Tromba lontana

John Adams’ vocal lines preserve the rhythmic flow of Whitman’s poem. In an interview with Edward Strickland (American Composers: Dialogues on Contemporary Music) Adams said,

I tried to set the Wound-Dresser absolutely simply and used hardly any melisma, since American English does not lend itself well to that treatment, as Italian or even German does. The best American pop and Broadway music by very great composers like Richard Rodgers and George Gershwin had the ability to treat the text in a very direct way, and that’s the tact I’ve taken in this piece.

Here is a performance by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s with baritone Sanford Sylvan:

George Crumb’s Apparition

West Virginia composer George Crumb’s Apparition for Soprano and Amplified Piano (1979) is a setting of Walt Whitman’s famous elegy following the assassination of Lincoln, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d. We float through a strange, cinematic musical landscape with a surprising array of sounds and colors emerging from the piano. William Bland provides this description in the program notes to this recording:

. . . the literary and musical materials focus on concise, highly contrasting metaphors for existence and death . . . death is never depicted as an ending of life. Instead, it is circular, always beginning or an enriched return to a universal life-force . . .

Here are three excerpts performed by mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani, (for whom the piece was written), and pianist Gilbert Kalish:

1. The Night in Silence Under Many a Star:

3. When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d:

8. Come Lovely and Soothing Death:

Paul Hindemith’s Requiem

Here is German composer Paul Hindemith’s When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d: A Requiem for those we love, written in 1946, following the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt:

“Be not dishearten’d — Affection shall solve the problems of Freedom yet;
Those who love each other shall become invincible.”

-Walt Whitman, Over the Carnage Rose Prophetic a Voice

Stravinsky Goes Back to the Future

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

What do you do when you drive around a sharp curve and suddenly see the road coming to a dead end in front of you? The obvious answer is to turn around and find another route forward.

Around 1920, Igor Stravinsky and other composers confronted a similar challenge. Romanticism had hit a wall. The colonialist expansion of nineteenth century Europe was disintegrating in the post-battlefield daze of an apocalyptic World War. In the almost hundred years between Beethoven’s Eroica and Wagner’s epic 15-hour-long Ring Cycle, music had progressed in one general direction: bigger, louder and longer. Now it had finally reached its limit. A new Zeitgeist was in the air.

Neoclassicism, a label which Stravinsky despised, represented a return to the cool, pared-down structural efficiency of music before the Romantic era. Detached, dry and witty, this music blends Classical and Baroque form with the distinct sound of the twentieth century. Prokofiev (the “Classical” Symphony), Poulenc, Milhaud, and others moved in a similar direction.

Composers have been known to say some outlandish and highly debatable things about music. This quote from Stravinsky’s 1936 autobiography may fall into that category, but it’s still thought-provoking and suggests a decidedly anti-Romantic philosophy of music:

For I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc. Expression has never been an inherent property of music. That is by no means the purpose of its existence. If, as is nearly always the case, music appears to express something, this is only an illusion and not a reality. It is simply an additional attribute which, by tacit and inveterate agreement, we have lent it, thrust upon it, as a label, a convention – in short, an aspect which, unconsciously or by force of habit, we have come to confuse with its essential being.

By the 1950’s, Stravinsky would move on to the twelve-tone serialism pioneered by Arnold Schoenberg (listen to Stravinsky’s Agon). But for now, let’s stay with three fun examples of Stravinsky’s neoclassical period…music which looks back in order to move forward:

Pulcinella

Pulcinella was a 1920 ballet commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev with sets and costumes designed by Pablo Picasso. Stravinsky’s score is based on music which was attributed to the Italian Baroque composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736). Later it was discovered that some of the music was written by contemporaries of Pergolesi. Here is what Stravinsky said about Pulcinella:

Pulcinella was my discovery of the past, the epiphany through which the whole of my late work became possible. It was a backward look, of course—the first of many love affairs in that direction—but it was a look in the mirror, too.

Take a moment and listen to the music as it was originally written. Then listen to the way Stravinsky uses these Baroque blueprints to create completely new music.

This is Christopher Hogwood conducting the Orquesta de Cámara Basel:

  1. Sinfonia (0:00)
  2. Serenata (1:48)
  3. a: Scherzino b: Allegretto c: Andantino (4:41)
  4. Tarantella (8:56)
  5. Toccata (10:49)
  6. Gavotta (con due variazioni) (11:39)
  7. Vivo (15:27)
  8. a: Minuetto b: Finale (16:51)

At times the Pulcinella Suite seems like a caricature of the music on which it was based. It’s filled with sudden surprising dissonances, little rhythmic jabs and strange new voices, like the conversation between the trombone and the double bass (15:27). Every time I play Pulcinella, I’m amazed by those moments when the music seems to briefly suspend time (for example 10:32 at the end of the Tarantella and in the last bars of the Finale). Then there’s the drama of the Minuetto, which slowly builds anticipation, setting up the exuberant joy of the Finale. 

Here is a clip of Stravinsky rehearsing the Pulcinella Suite with the Toronto Symphony in 1967. Also listen to Ilya Kaler performing a version for violin and piano.

Violin Concerto

Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto in D major was written in 1931 for Polish-American violinist Samuel Dushkin. All of the movements open with the same distinctive chord, each time presented in a slightly different configuration. Like a Baroque concerto, a single atmosphere and tempo permeates each movement. There is also an interactive dialogue between the violin, groups of instruments and the full orchestra which suggests a traditional Concerto grosso (here is some Vivaldi for comparison). You’ll hear walking bass lines (in the first and last movements listen to the tuba and trombone lines comically rising and falling), sequences, contrapuntal lines and other details which seem to be holding up  a giant sign saying, “I’m a Baroque Concerto.”

Here is a live performance with Gil Shaham:

  1. Tocatta (0:00)
  2. Aria I (5:58)
  3. Aria II (10:18)
  4. Capriccio (15:43)

Dumbarton Oaks

Concerto in E-flat “Dumbarton Oaks” was commissioned in 1937 for the thirtieth wedding anniversary of Robert Woods Bliss and Mildred Barnes Bliss. It was named after the couple’s estate in Washington D.C. Listen to the dialogue between instruments and enjoy the sense of rhythmic groove. There’s something fresh and almost innocent about the opening of this piece.

Here is Robert Craft conducting the Orchestra of St. Luke’s:

  1. Tempo giusto (0:00)
  2. Allegretto 
  3. Con moto (8:01)