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<<  -- 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Three other unpublished (and fragmentary) Whitman songs in the British Library, bound together and entitled Nocturnes (one -- 'By the bivouac's fitful flame' -- is for chorus), date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 While pointing out the incomplete nature of the three songs, Kennedy describes them as 'the most important of the unpublished Vaughan Williams MSS up to l9l4,' which underline 'the growing mastery which Whitman's verse precipitated in his music.'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').

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Copyright © 25 October 2001 Roderic Dunnett, Coventry, UK







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