Whitman's Expanse: Translating Walt Whitman's Poetry into Vocal Music Across the Twentieth Century

Open Access
Edelstein, Jeremy Daniel
Area of Honors:
Music Education
Bachelor of Music Education
Document Type:
Thesis Supervisors:
  • Christopher A Kiver, Thesis Supervisor
  • Linda Carol Porter Thornton, Honors Advisor
  • choral
  • conducting
  • music
  • poetry
  • Walt Whitman
  • vocal music
  • American music
  • twentieth century
By his death at the end of the nineteenth century, Walt Whitman was already a towering figure in the American literary scene, and his influence spread quickly into the realm of vocal music. Throughout the twentieth century, scores of composers used his texts for a variety of vocal settings—to a surprisingly similar result. Whilst preparing a recital presenting a number of these settings, my score study uncovered a propensity by composers toward the interval of a perfect fourth, even with settings differing in time period, instrumentation, and scale. These composers, paying careful attention to match their music to the tenets of Whitman’s poetry, show sensitivity to the relationship between text and music. To both confirm and bolster this claim, I aimed to broadly establish a compositional language for these composers by providing examples and counter-examples of their music in terms of how it relates to text and subject matter. In doing so, the perfect fourth emerged as a more distinct analogue for the expansive and inclusive poetry of Whitman, and that discovery strived to affirm the power of connecting poetry to musical ideas in vocal music. The literary and poetic heft of Walt Whitman is rich for mining, and these composers mirror the craft, mastery and attention to detail that made Whitman such a monumental American artist. By allowing their artistic sensibility to subsume, in part, that of Walt Whitman’s in setting his poetry, these composers ultimately ended up creating more poignant, universal, and personally transcendent works of art.