From Noon to Starry Night for piano and orchestra was commissioned jointly by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, the Barlow Endowment for Music Composition and the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music to celebrate the one-hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Indiana University Department of Music. The concerto provides musical commentary on five poems by Walt Whitman: “Beat! Beat! Drums! – Blow! Bugles! Blow!”; “Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun”; “Warble for Lilac-Time”; “The Dalliance of the Eagles”; and “The Mystic Trumpeter.” The work is an outgrowth of Flights of Passage, a solo composition I wrote in 1998 for the marvelous pianist, James Dick. From Noon to Starry Night expands the scope of the earlier keyboard work (and its symphonic companion from 1999, The Mystic Trumpeter), setting the soloist against an orchestral background and adding a fifth movement to the original four-movement plan.
Rather than merely reflect the general moods and often sensual qualities of Whitman’s poems, I sought in the concerto to parallel musically their overall formal structures, organizing the compositional materials in each movement in ways that would complement Whitman’s cyclical presentation of ideas. Too, I attempted to amplify the implied meanings present in each poem…and even to create additional associations. This is accomplished in part by the allusion to and quotation of passages from well-known compositions having extra-musical narratives that echo the spirit and content of Whitman’s verses.
Although the work is cast in five separate movements, numbers one and four can be viewed as introductions to and integral facets of the movements that follow, joining them without pause. Thus, the concerto in actuality assumes a three-part format. The two poems that provide the programmatic impetus for the first large section (respectively, “Beat! Beat! Drums! – Blow! Bugles! Blow!” and “Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun”) appear in the collection entitled “Drum Taps.” The former poem is a stirring call to arms written in the first years of the American Civil War. The music inspired by its martial meters is isorhythmically constructed and is comprised of two simultaneous and overlapping taleae — a talea being a repeated rhythmic pattern, an ostinato of sorts, which may have a melodic/harmonic component as well. The first of these is played only by the timpani, while the other is fragmented among the high instruments — upper woodwinds and strings, trumpets, horns and mallet percussion. The low instruments and solo piano do not participate in the ostinati, but rather challenge and provoke one another as they form into a solid third element.
The poem, “Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun,” is masterful in its reiteration of text and in the rhythmic balance and symmetry of its lines. In the first of its two stanzas, Whitman expresses an initial longing for Nature’s “primal sanities,” but in the second, he rejects those serene delights in favor of the turbulence of war-excited city streets. The structure of the concerto’s second movement mirrors this antiphonal contrast between the poem’s stanzas. Because of the poem’s Transcendentalist references, it also seemed fitting to use as a sort of “idée fixe” for the movement the beginning phrase of “Thoreau,” the final movement from Charles Ives’ Concord Sonata for piano. Thoreau was, after all, the great man of Nature, one who, in Ives’ own words, “sang of the submission to Nature, the religion of contemplation, and the freedom of simplicity…”
The tripartite third movement (itself comprising the second large section of the concerto) is inspired by the poem, “Warble for Lilac-Time,” a “jocund and sparkling” spring song. The poem’s exuberant celebration of spring brought to mind the glorious setting of Hermann Hesse’s “Frühling” (“Spring”) by Richard Strauss as the first number in his valedictory work, the Four Last Songs. Accordingly, the final cadential chords of the orchestral accompaniment to the Strauss song are adapted here as a sort of motto in the first section of this movement.
The brief second part of the movement is transitional in nature and makes reference to various elements from the opening section of the concerto. The piano’s lines from “Drum Taps” now appear in the orchestra in a modified and occasionally distorted form, signaling the coming dark mood of the movement’s third part.
“Warble,” despite its subject matter, appears in the collection entitled “Autumn Rivulets.” The prevailing tone of the poems in this group is one of wistful reminiscence in the light of mature evaluation, a “remembrance of things past” from the perspective of old age and decline. Implicit is the idea that youth is overshadowed by age, love by loss, happiness by despair…and spring by autumn. In keeping with this concept, the music of the movement’s concluding section draws its materials from “Der Einsame im Herbst” (“The Lonely One in Autumn”), the second of the six songs from Gustav Mahler’s cycle, Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth ). Mahler’s song, a setting of a Chinese poem translated into German, is a poignant lament on the passing of beauty…and of life. Thus, the hopefulness and vibrancy of spring, as represented in Whitman’s poem by the lilac (“In somber shadows, I dreamt long of your fragrance…” – Hesse), are now supplanted by loneliness and fatigue (“The flowers’ sweet scent is forgotten…” – Qian Qi/Bethge).
The opening portion of the concerto’s third major section is a musical evocation of “The Dalliance of the Eagles,” one of Whitman’s most compressed and elemental works. The poem describes what Whitman assumed to be eagles mating in mid-air (actually, what he witnessed was an act called “taloning”). The poem itself provides the best description of the music, since this fourth movement, this “gyrating wheel” of sound unfolding in “tumbling turning clustering loops,” is the most obvious example of “tone-painting” in the set.
The final movement, “Ecstatic Ghost,” treats the long poem, “The Mystic Trumpeter.” The poem’s theme is music’s inspiration. The first five stanzas summon forth the “immortal phantoms” of past musicians, particularly those from periods of history that are associated with idealized or chivalric love (the “amorous contact” in “Dalliance” here blossoms into something deeper). But in the sixth stanza, a contrary theme is introduced — the heralding of war, with its “deeds of ruthless brigands, rapine, murder” (the “wild trumpeter” now becomes the “shrill bugler” of “Beat! Beat! Drums!”). In the final canto, however, after enduring “measureless shame and humiliation,” humankind is redeemed, “a reborn race appears,” “war, sorrow, suffering” are gone, and all is joy.
The music of “Ecstatic Ghost” is a collage of sorts, incorporating quotations (some distorted, some literal) from four existing works: Charles Ives’ short tone poem, The Unanswered Question; the sprawling piano piece, Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jésus (“Twenty Meditations on the Child Jesus”) by Olivier Messiaen; Music for the Magic Theatre by the late American composer, George Rochberg; and Reis Glorios (“Glorious King”), a song by the medieval troubadour, Guiraut de Bornelh. Each of these quoted compositions entails distinct parallels, either musical or literary, with Whitman’s poem. Ives’ The Unanswered Question also imagines a kind of mystic trumpeter, for it is a trumpet that repeatedly poses “the Perennial Question of Existence” in that composition’s programmatic scenario. Rochberg’s work evokes the “Magic Theater” of Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf (a novel that includes the line, “I saw Moses, whose hair recalled portraits of Walt Whitman”). The duality of human nature (animalistic vs. spiritual) expressed in the final cantos of “The Mystic Trumpeter” is also chronicled in Steppenwolf. More significantly, the central figure in the “Magic Theatre,” as in Whitman’s poem, is the presence of music (“music of the immortals”), music that is inherent in all life, nature and even memory.
Whitman’s invocation of love and joy (in the fifth and eighth stanzas, respectively, of “The Mystic Trumpeter”) resonates with Messiaen’s vision of divine love in the last of the Vingt Regards. Whitman’s phrases, “no other theme but love…the enclosing theme of all,” have a musical complement in the “Thème d’amour” (“Love Theme”) of Messiaen’s piece, and the utopian vision of a humanity redeemed and joyful that is set forth in the final stanza of the poem finds kindred expression in Messiaen’s “Triomphe d’amour et de joie” (“Triumph of Love and Joy”). The citations of these fragments from Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jésus in my own work are particularly appropriate in light of Whitman’s view of himself as the “American Jesus” and the prophet of a new “American religion.”
Less oblique, perhaps, than the aforementioned references is the appearance of an actual troubadour melody underscoring in a very concrete way Whitman’s vision of medieval splendor in the fourth stanza of his poem. The text of this song by de Bornelh is a prayer beseeching God to guide the poet’s companion safely home — a beautiful metaphor for Whitman’s life and work.
I wish to thank the following publishers for graciously granting me permission to use the copyrighted music referenced or cited in From Noon to Starry Night: G. Schirmer, Inc. (Concord Sonata by Charles Ives); Boosey and Hawkes, Inc. (Vier Letzte Lieder by Richard Strauss); Peer Music Classical (The Unanswered Question by Charles Ives); Theodore Presser Co. (Music for the Magic Theatre by George Rochberg); and Durand-Salabert-Eschig/Universal Music Publishing Group (Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jésus by Olivier Messiaen).