Four Songs on Poems by Walt Whitman

These poems are contradictory in nature. Whitman speaks of intimate and personal feelings by magnifying them with grand turns of phrase, and metaphors embracing the eternal and the universal. The music, rather than mimicking the poet, seeks to distill the original emotions, and to let the words speak for themselves. The voice is reduced to a very restricted range, time is stretched to near-stillness, the accompaniment is full of silences. Complex random-number procedures were used to ensure that pitches and durations remained consistent and distinct; this gives the piano part a very traditional role, that of setting and maintaining the poems’ moods.

1. I heard you solemn sweet pipes of the organ

I heard you solemn sweet pipes of the organ as last Sunday I pass’d the church, Winds of Autumn, as I walk’d the woods at dusk I heard your long stretch’d sighs up above so mournful,

I heard the perfect Italian tenor singing at the opera, I heard the soprano in the midst of the quartet singing;
Heart of my love! You too I heard murmuring low through one of the wrists around my head,

Heard the pulse of you when all was still singing little bells last night under my ear.

2. Not heaving from my ribb’d breast only

Not heaving from my ribb’d breast only,
Not in sighs at night in rage dissatisfied with myself,
Not in those long-drawn, ill-supprest sighs,
Not in many an oath and promise broken,
Not in my wilful and savage soul’s volition,
Not in the subtle nourishment of the air,
Not in this beating and pounding at my temples and wrists,
Not in the curious systole and diastole within me which will one day cease,
Not in many a hungry wish told to the skies only,
Not in cries, laughter, defiances, thrown from me when alone far in the wilds,
Not in husky pantings through clench’d teeth,
Not in sounded and resounded words, chattering words, echoes, dead words,
Not in the murmurs of my dreams while I sleep,
Nor the other murmurs of these incredible dreams of every day,
Nor in the limbs and senses of my body that take you and dismiss you continually—not there,

Not in any or all of them O adhesiveness! O pulse of my life!
Need I that you exist and show yourself any more than in these songs.

3. O you whom I often and silently come

O you whom I often and silently come where you are that I may be with you, As I walk by your side, or sit near, or remain in the same room with you, Little you know the subtle electric fire that for your sake is playing within me.

4. A clear midnight

This is thy hour O soul, a free flight into the wordless,
Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done,
Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes thou lovest best, Night, sleep, death, and the stars.