Whitman’s haunting poem describes moonlight illuminating horrific scenes, a graphic imagery of death and eternal peace. The song opens in the key of E minor, with the voice and piano entering almost simultaneously. The text is comprised of only four phrases, but Rorem’s use of text painting throughout the song enhances Whitman’s message in miniature form. For instance, Rorem uses a descending melodic line in conjunction with the phrase “Look down, fair moon” as representation of the moon shining downward; likewise, in the phrase “Pour softly down night’s nimbus floods, on faces ghastly, swollen, purple,” Rorem uses syncopation and accents on the words “faces ghastly,” “swollen,” and “purple” to emphasize the gruesomeness of the scenario. The apex of the song is marked by the highest pitches sung by the vocalist as well as by an accompaniment that intensifies chromatically.
The song was dedicated to bass-baritone Donald Gramm.
–Stephanie Poxon, Ph.D.
Look Down, Fair Moon
by Walt Whitman
Look down, fair moon and bathe this scene,
Pour softly down night’s nimbus floods, on faces ghastly, swollen, purple;
On the dead, on their backs, with their arms toss’d wide,
Pour down your unstinted nimbus, sacred moon.