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Kurt Weill, Four Walt Whitman Songs

by Byron Adams

Written for the concert A Walt Whitman Sampler, which will be performed on October 17, 2018 at Carnegie Hall.

Born March 2, 1900, in Dessau, Germany
Died April 3, 1950, in New York City
Composed in 1942–47
Premiered in 1947 for Concert Hall Records, with tenor William Horne and pianist Adam Garner
Performance Time: Approximately 18 minutes

Unlike some émigrés who fled Europe ahead of the Nazi menace, Kurt Weill never indulged in backward glances or nostalgia. Even before he became an American citizen on August 27, 1943, Weill had proudly declared in a radio broadcast that he had “never felt as much at home in my native land as I have from the first moment in the United States.” Musicologist Kim H. Kowalke has related that in 1937, Weill declared to the playwright Paul Green, “I have the feeling that most people who ever came to this country came for the same reasons which brought me here: fleeing from the hate, the oppression, the restlessness and troubles of the Old World to find freedom and happiness in a New World.”

That same year, Green sent a copy of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass to Weill as a celebratory gift. The choice of poet was hardly at random, as Green gave Weill the work of the most American poet imaginable, a book that eloquently welcomed aspiring future citizens of the United States just like Weill. The composer had certainly encountered Whitman in Germany—German readers were familiar with Leaves of Grass through a number of expert translations. In 1926, years before his emigration, Weill saluted an upcoming broadcast recitation of Whitman’s verse in Der deutsche Rundfunk: “Walt Whitman was the first truly original poetic talent to grow out of American soil.”

After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Weill quickly composed three settings of Whitman’s Civil War poems: the first, “Beat! Beat! Drums!” is martial and defiant; the second, a setting of Whitman’s famous poem, “O Captain! My Captain!” is touching and poignant, with gentle echoes of Mahler’s Lieder; and the last, “Dirge for Two Veterans,” is both bluesy and deeply moving. In 1947, Weill revisited Whitman with a setting of “Come Up from the Fields, Father.” He positioned this as the third of his Four Walt Whitman Songs, which were recorded by tenor William Horner for Concert Hall Records. (“Another émigré composer to America, Carlos Surinach, orchestrated “Come Up from the Fields, Father” in Weill’s manner.)

Byron Adams is a Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside.