WHISPERS OF HEAVENLY DEATH
RODERIC DUNNETT talks to MARTIN LEE-BROWNE
about a newly discovered
Vaughan Williams setting of Walt Whitman
<< Continued from last week
So were there originally four planned Nocturnes, with 'Whispers
of heavenly death' conceived as the first of a sequence?
'It certainly seems to belongs with the others,' says Martin Lee-Browne,
'even though it comes from a different Whitman collection. The fact they
weren't published, however, rather suggests he wasn't too happy with any
of them; there are no conductor's marks in the score, and no sign of any
player's parts, to imply it was ever performed with orchestra.'
'What's more, it's not what you might call echt Vaughan Williams
: it has few of the usual, recognisable RVW "fingerprints". Instead,
you sense he was still working towards finding his own real style.
'With the noble unfolding of its second section ("I see, just see
skyward, great cloud-masses, / Mournfully, slowly they roll, silently swelling
and mixing...") the song "Whispers of heavenly death" evokes
a strikingly rapt vision. The text (it immediately precedes 'Toward the
Unknown Region' in the collection) from Whitman's Leaves of Grass
set by Vaughan Williams runs thus :
- 'Whispers of heavenly death murmur'd I hear,
labial gossip of night, sibilant chorals,
Footsteps gently ascending, tides of a current flowing, forever flowing,
(Or is it a plashing of tears? The measureless waters of human tears?)
- I see, just see skyward, great cloud-masses,
Mournfully, slowly they roll, silently swelling and mixing,
With at times a half-dimmed sadden'd far-off star,
Appearing and disappearing.
- (Some parturition rather, some solemn immortal birth;
On the frontiers to eyes impenetrable [Vaughan Williams sets "invincible"],
Some soul is passing over).'
Copyright © 1 November 2001
Roderic Dunnett, Coventry, UK
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