<< -- 3 -- Roderic Dunnett WHISPERS OF HEAVENLY DEATH
Three other unpublished (and fragmentary) Whitman songs in the British
Library, bound together and entitled Nocturnes (one -- 'By the bivouac's
fitful flame' -- is for chorus), date from 1908 -- the very year Vaughan Williams
visited Paris for 'a little French polish' with Ravel, and shortly before
he found his own voice with the Sea Symphony and the Tallis Fantasia.
There's a curious but telling small link between 'Whispers of heavenly
death' and the other three songs, Martin Lee-Browne points out, in that
on the front of the MS it is clearly marked, in pencil, 'Nocturne'.
These Whitman settings (together with his early folksong researches and
the first edition of The English Hymnal) proved a turning point in
Vaughan Williams's fortunes. Michael Kennedy, in his landmark study of the
composer, attributes at least one further Whitman song ('Aethiopia Saluting
the Colours', which RVW reset in his last years) -- as well as one song from
the later Housman cycle On Wenlock Edge -- to l908. While pointing
out the incomplete nature of the three songs, Kennedy describes them as
'the most important of the unpublished Vaughan Williams MSS up to l9l4,'
which underline 'the growing mastery which Whitman's verse precipitated
in his music.'
The third and last of the previously known Nocturnes, 'Out of the Rolling
Ocean' (all three come from Whitman's collection Drum-Taps; the new
song is from Leaves of Grass), had an added significance, Kennedy
says, inasmuch as ideas from it can be traced forward to On Wenlock Edge,
to his operas Hugh the Drover (in the première of which Frederic
Austin was centrally involved) and The Pilgrim's Progress, and to
the 'Pastoral' Third Symphony; while one monumental passage that accompanies
Whitman's rapt words 'Behold the great rondure, the cohesion of all, how
perfect' is directly translated into sacred guise in his oratorio Sancta
Civitas, at the words 'And I saw the Holy City coming down from heaven'
-- as if to suggest a psychological link in Vaughan Williams's mind between
the ideas of the Holy City and the boundless ocean (which for Whitman had
become 'a symbol for the exploration by the human soul of realms unknown
to temporal man').
Copyright © 25 October 2001
Roderic Dunnett, Coventry, UK
PHILIP LANCASTER'S THREE CHOIRS REVIEW
THE VAUGHAN WILLIAMS SOCIETY WEBSITE
HEAR VAUGHAN WILLIAMS SPEAK
& Vision home
Petr Altrichter >>