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The influence of Walt Whitman

Sun, July 21, 2019 1:15 PM | Anne Ocone (Administrator)

by Dana Paul Perna. 2019 marks the Bicentennial of WALT WHITMAN’s birth. Often referred to as “The Poet of Democracy,” his poetry has incentivized, inspired and influenced all manner of artists across the board in every corner of the world where his words have taken root to resonate. Poets, painters, composers, musicians, writers, actors, visual artists, world leaders….you name it, have placed his writings to register among those most celebrated by any of those authored in the English language. 

Recently, a framed portrait of Walt Whitman was unearthed in the basement of Percy Grainger’s White Plains home. This should come as no surprise when one realizes how valued the Grainger’s found Whitman’s words. Among the gifts Percy presented to Ella when he proposed was a copy of “Leaves of Grass”, which he inscribed to her - paraphrasing as I will, something to the effect of “Let us discover the ‘Poet of Democracy’ together.”  

If we limit Whitman’s influence simply to composers who have turned to Whitman, either for texts for their works, be them songs, or for more extended compositions of the (soloist-and-)chorus-with-orchestra variety, or for instrumental works drawn from them, it represents a stellar list of masters that include Holst, Vaughan Williams, Adams, Delius, Neely Bruce, Coghill, Siegmeister, Carpenter, Converse, Rorem, Hoiby, Schonthal, Weill, Hanson….and that does not even represent a beginning point for the innumerable creations that have musically flowed forth. 

To this point, and for those readers who may be interested, save the date of 3 August 2019. Beginning at 8:00 pm - unless you arrive early when a Pre-Concert lecture is set to commence at 7:15 pm - an outdoor concert in celebration of Walt Whitman’s Bicentennial has been scheduled. The location will be at Heckscher Park, Huntington, Long Island, New York (not far from Whitman’s actual birthplace) and will include the World Premiere performance of A Walt Whitman Reader by Dana Paul Perna (Recording Secretary of Percy Grainger America, and the International Percy Grainger Society), to be performed by acclaimed bass-baritone, Robert Osborne, accompanied by renowned pianist, Jeffrey Biegel. (It is suggested that any interested attendees bring something to sit upon, and that hydration is also recommended. Please note that weather conditions can neither be determined, nor controlled.) Here is a link regarding that event: 


In terms of Percy Grainger more directly and specifically, he also numbers upon the many who turned to Whitman as inspiration for his music, leading Percy to have composed one of his most significant compositions, namely MARCHING SONG OF DEMOCRACY. For those who may wish to, or are able to attend, on this year’s “Last Night of the Proms” (e.g. Proms 75), the BBC Singers, Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, to be conducted by Sakari Oramo will be performing that Grainger masterpiece on that occasion (in this version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=44eizaByCS4). Scheduled to occur on 14 September 2019 at 19:15 (e.g. 7:15 pm), here is a link that will provide you with further information:  https://www.bbc.co.uk/events/ezcd2m 

…..but, the final words should come from Walt Whitman, as (allegedly) heard by way of this 1890 cylinder recording, reciting a passage from his poem “America”: WALT WHITMAN 1890.mp3

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The Percy Grainger Society's programs are made possible by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of the Office of the Governor and the New York State Legislature.

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