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
1 thought on ““Ode to Death”: Holst’s Haunting Walt Whitman Setting”
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. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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 (email@example.com).
Ellen Bacon, widow of Ernst Bacon
President of The Ernst Bacon Society (www.ernstbacon.org)