Vocalism

(2006)

"Vocalism" is a song for soprano and piano with music by John Harbison and poetry by Walt Whitman.

Composer's Note:

"Vocalism is my only setting of Walt Whitman. This “grand aria” (so says the title page) celebrates singing. It is about the power of the voice, as pure sound, to move and change hearers.

The piece pays homage to SongFest, the conclave of singers and pianists that gathers each summer in California, under the direction of Rosemary Hyler. It is dedicated to Marc Stern, Chairman of the Board of the Los Angeles Opera, and his music-loving family, supporters of SongFest and of good singing. I composed Part II in 2004; it was introduced at SongFest 2005, by Amanda Gosier and Rosemary Hyler. The premiere of Part I (2006) was entrusted to Sarah Davis and Susan Gaeddert at SongFest 2007."

-- John Harbison

Vocalism
by Walt Whitman


I.


Vocalism, measure, concentration, determination, and the divine power to speak words;
Are you full-lung'd and limber-lipp’d from long trial? from vigorous practice? from physique?
Do you move in these broad lands as broad as they?
Come duly to the divine power to speak words?
For only at last after many years, after chastity, friendship, procreation, prudence, and nakedness,
After treading ground and breasting river and lake,
After a loosen’d throat, after absorbing eras, temperaments, races,after knowledge, freedom, crimes,
After complete faith, after clarifyings, elevations, and removing obstructions,
After these and more, it is just possible there comes to a man, woman, the divine power to speak words;
Then toward that man or that woman swiftly hasten all—none refuse, all attend,
Armies, ships, antiquities, libraries, paintings, machines, cities, hate, despair, amity, pain, theft, murder, aspiration, form
in close ranks,
They debouch as they are wanted to march obediently through the mouth of that man or that woman.


II.


O what is it in me that makes me tremble so at voices?
Surely whoever speaks to me in the right voice, him or her I shall follow,
As the water follows the moon, silently, with fluid steps, anywhere around the globe.
All waits for the right voices;
Where is the practis’d and perfect organ? where is the develop’d soul?
For I see every word utter'd thence has deeper, sweeter, new sounds, impossible on less terms.
I see brains and lips closed, tympans and temples unstruck,
Until that comes which has the quality to strike and to unclose,
Until that comes which has the quality to bring forth what lies slumbering forever ready in all words.


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