“Ode to Death”: Holst’s Haunting Walt Whitman Setting

English composer Gustav Holst completed Ode to Death, Op. 38 in 1919 as a memorial to friends lost in the First World War. The haunting and transcendent work for chorus and orchestra is a setting of the final lines of When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, Walt Whitman’s 1865 elegy to President Abraham Lincoln. Holst drew inspiration from Whitman “as a New World prophet of tolerance and internationalism as well as a new breed of mystic whose transcendentalism offered an antidote to encrusted Victorianism.”

“Come lovely and soothing death…” As with Whitman’s poem, there is nothing tragic or melancholy about Holst’s Ode to Death. Instead, this is music filled with mystery, awe-inspiring wonder, and shimmering, ethereal colors.


  • Host: Ode to Death, Op. 38 , Richard Hickox, City of London Sinfonia, London Symphony Chorus Amazon

Photograph: Australian gunners walking through Château Wood, Belgium following the Battle of Passchendaele on October 29, 1917

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

2 thoughts on ““Ode to Death”: Holst’s Haunting Walt Whitman Setting”

  1. Ernst Bacon’s short, Whitman-based oratorio, By Blue Ontario
    The upcoming bicentennial of Walt Whitman in 2019 would be an ideal time to perform Ernst Bacon’s short oratorio, By Blue Ontario. Inspired by Whitman’s strong sentiments about democracy, nature, and the arts, Bacon wrote one of his best and most important works, By Blue Ontario, for SATB chorus and orchestra with baritone and mezzo soloists. This stirring and quintessentially American piece was composed in 1958 and premiered at Syracuse University and performed again in 1969 (the year of the Whitman sesquicentennial) by the MIT Choral Society and Orchestra.

    To hear the MIT performance, please visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NWJuLAcMszg

    The orchestral and choral scores of By Blue Ontario have recently been engraved, and the Ernst Bacon Society can provide perusal copies, along with the CD recording, to anyone interested in programming it. (ellenwbacon@gmail.com)

    Full-sized orchestral scores, along with parts and choral scores, can be obtained from the Philadelphia Library’s Fleisher Collection. Listed in David Daniels’ handbook, Orchestral Music, the instrumentation is: 2[1.2/pic] 2 2 2 – 4 3 3 1 – tmp+3 – cel – str; perc: bd, sus cym, sd, field dr, tri, gong, glock, xyl, bongos, chimes (opt)

    According to Victoria Villamil, author of A Singer’s Guide to the American Art Song, 1870-1980, “….in his settings of Walt Whitman, Bacon perfectly matches the amplitude, mystery, vision, and challenging exuberance of the grand poet, who in his free-wheeling celebration of America, the common man, life, and the unknown, was surely Bacon’s soul mate.” The foreword to Villamil’s book was written by Thomas Hampson, who included some of Bacon’s songs on his WFMT series, “Song of America.” Hampson’s soulful recording of 7 of Bacon’s Whitman settings is featured on the newly-released Cedille CD, “Songs of Chicago” (see below).

    Besides Thomas Hampson, others who have recently performed and recorded Bacon’s music include Leonard Slatkin (Ford’s Theatre on the NAXOS CD “Abraham Lincoln Portraits”); Henry Fogel (April 22, 2017, program of Bacon choral and orchestral works on nationally syndicated “Collector’s Corner”); and Juilliard cellist Joel Krosnick with pianist Gilbert Kalish (cello suite, A Life, on the Arabesque CD, “Forgotten Americans”). As Joel wrote in The Juilliard Journal, “Gil and I feel strongly that Ernst Bacon has not received his due recognition for the eloquent master he is.” (December, 2007)

    At the MIT Whitman tribute, the following pieces were performed on the first half of the program:
    Vaughan Williams, On the beach at night alone (baritone solo, chorus, orchestra)
    Holst, Dirge for Two Veterans (male voices, brass, drums)
    Delius Songs of Farewell, Nos. 2, 3, 6 (double chorus, orchestra)

    Another excellent companion piece is Jeffrey Van’s powerful and moving A Procession Winding Around Me (settings of four Civil War Poems for mixed chorus and guitar).

    Like Schubert, Ernst Bacon, whom Virgil Thomson called “one of America’s best,” composed some fine orchestral and chamber music but was best known for his more than 250 art songs. He was one of that pioneering generation of composers, including Thomson, Copland, and Harris, who sought a voice for American music; but he more or less went underground during the decades dominated by the avant-garde. HIs music is now being revived with the help of the Ernst Bacon Society (www.ernstbacon.org), of which I am president (ellenwbacon@gmail.com).

    Ellen Bacon, widow of Ernst Bacon
    President of The Ernst Bacon Society (www.ernstbacon.org)
    Tel: 315-446-64

  2. Dear Mr. Judd,
    Though not a musician, music is much to me. . . close to everything now as I enter final aging. I was long a professor of literature, specializing in the U.S. 19th century. I have heard many settings of Whitman, and recently I have been infatuated (that’s really the only word for it) with Frederick Delius’ three Whitman settings, especially being taken with ‘Prelude and Idyll,’ which as you know was the last composition he completed (with Eric Fenby’s help).

    I understand now what I did not while teaching: that Walt Whitman’s poetry had a deep appeal to late 19th century British composers, particularly the WWI generation, and that Vaughn Williams, Delius and now–my first encounter with this piece–Holst. But. . . . Because I hold ‘Lilacs’ to be one of the very finest poems ever written in our language, and much the strongest WW wrote, because his occasion was the strongest in U.S. history, I have not been the least satisfied with choral / vocal settings of the poem (e.g. Hindemith’s). WW’s elegy to Lincoln is too grand and momentous for an audience NOT to hear and comprehend its every syllable and word!

    Yet now that I’ve heard Holst’s setting of the ending ‘Death carol,’ I feel that his is the best musical approach to the poem: cut the end off and give it your whole heart as a composer, thinking of Belgium’s WWI horrors as WW did of the U.S. Civil War–the poet was an active, front-line nurse for the wounded of the Army of the Potomac for two years of the war–while doing no damage to the poem. The ending will grow back. . . ‘Lilacs’ is that kind of organism.

    So sincere thanks for putting up the music and its score. I shall check on your blog from time to time. Best of luck in keeping things going.

    Bob Bray


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