Gertrude Stein had a special place in her literary heart for Walt Whitman. She showed her appreciation in her long poem Tender Buttons, where she obliquely pointed (never alluded) to Whitman’s Abraham Lincoln elegy “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” In stanza 8 of “A chair.”, a subpoem of Tender Buttons that seems to depict the assassination of the 16th American president, take note of “a stubborn bloom”:
Actually not aching, actually not aching, a stubborn bloom is so artificial and even more than that, it is a spectacle, it is a binding accident, it is animosity and accentuation.
Here are the opening stanzas of “When Lilacs in the Dooryard Bloom’d”:
When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d, And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night, I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring, Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west, 5 And thought of him I love.
Stein imitates Whitman’s “dooryard bloom'd” with “stubborn bloom.” Stein’s words: “and even more than that” reverberate with Whitman’s phrasing: “and yet shall mourn with ever.”
The Steiny Road Poet has written about Stein and Whitman before, noting Stein’s pointings to Whitman and traits in common such as emphasis on the human body, deep love of America, and awareness about economics and class.
In the newly minted dark of November 5, 2018 (daylight savings time had just been revoked the day before), Steiny made her way to Washington National Cathedral to hear “I Sing the Body Electoral: Celebrating Walt Whitman,” a program that was divided between concert and political forum. Expectation had overcome the PostClassical Ensemble’s clever title that substituted the word “Electoral” for “Electric” (as in “I Sing the Body Electric”). Meaning that Steiny had her mind focused on hearing texts by Whitman in musical settings.
The concert elements were divided in two parts: Kurt Weill’s songs—“Beat! Beat! Drums!,” “O Capitain! My Capitain!,” “Come up from the Fields Father,” and “Dirge for Two Veterans”—and Curt Cacioppo’s “I, Madly Struggling, Cry.” Baritone William Sharp accompanied by pianist Wan-Chi Su delivered these lyrical settings of Whitman’s impassioned texts with heart-felt interpretations and skills that showed their understanding of how the music and words fit together. When the two parts of the concert concluded, Steiny was absolutely stunned with how deeply the performance had touched her.
While Kurt Weill wrote these four art songs in the 1940’s, Curt Cacioppo composed “I, Madly Struggling, Cry” recently and under commission by the PostClassical Ensemble for the Walt Whitman Bicentennial. In fact, this performance was a world premiere. Cacioppo assembled his libretto from Whitman poems such as “Proud Music of the Storm” and “passage to India” but also other Whitman writings. In introducing the work, Cacioppo said it starts in E Major and then blends to a chromaticism that for him describes the “musical teaming of nations.” The work opens with an emphatic question—"Restriction of Immigration?” and recitative that blends seamlessly into a delicate lyricism. The work is challenging and tests the upper range of a baritone’s voice and William Sharp made those challenges sound as sweet as any tenor’s voice.
Wan-Chi Su and William Sharp
While the musical part of the program seemed organic to the sacred Cathedral space—the Great Choir Chapel, the elements of the political forum seemed to seep in from the early dark night. Some of the audience members rose from their seats and quietly left after the singer and pianist finished.
Here are the speakers and what they discussed:
Lorenzo Candelaria on Whitman and the American Dream
Martin Murray on Whitman, DC, and the Civil War
Brian Yothers on Whitman and immigration
The topics were certainly relevant to the 2018 midterm elections. The speakers kept their talks short and to the point. Lorenzo (Frank) Candelaria had the most compelling personal story as a boy of color growing up along the Tex-Mex border. Still… and that’s exactly it, on the eve of the most important election in United States history, all Steiny wanted was to bask in the music and poetry and to be in that sacred stillness that a sublime performance of great art can render.
Certainly, Kurt Weil, Curt Cacioppo, and Gertrude Stein all heard the music of Walt Whitman’s provocative words.