23 May Come lovely and soothing death
This setting is a kind of sketch for my piano piece Lilacs, which is based on parts of When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d, an elegy on the death of Abraham Lincoln. As a wound dresser in the American Civil War, Whitman became intimate with death in its most agonizing and futile guise. For me, his sensual and wholly accepting ode is a heartfelt and wonderfully gracious response.
In keeping with Whitman’s intimate tone, the voices are low in tessitura, close or overlapping in range, and moving by little steps. Harmonies are usually very consonant and rooted–dictated in part by the need for clarity when writing for so many voices in the low register. There are echoes of Renaissance vocal writing, say of Byrd or Josquin, as well as passages of more contemporary vintage.
Come lovely and soothing death,
Undulate around the world, serenely arriving, arriving, In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
Sooner or later delicate death.
Prais’d be the fathomless universe,
For life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious, And for love, sweet love—but praise! Praise! Praise! For the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding death.
Over the treetops I float thee a song,
Over the rising ans sinking waves, over the myriad fields and the prairies wide, Over the dense-pack’d cities all and the teeming wharves and ways,
I float this carol with joy, with joy to thee O death.