Next week marks the 150th anniversary of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Walt Whitman, mourning the President’s death and the accumulated woes of the just-ended Civil War, which he’d seen first-hand while tending wounded soldiers, wrote one of his best-known poems in response. Since then a number of composers have set “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” to music. German composer Paul Hindemith did so in response to the death of another great wartime president, Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Years later, responding to another national calamity, composer John Adams fulfilled a commission from the New York Philharmonic and wrote “On the Transmigration of Souls” to memorialize the victims of the 9/11 attacks. Also for chorus and orchestra, plus a children’s chorus, “Transmigration” is set to a text drawn from phrases from post-9/11 “missing persons” signs posted in New York City and quotations from the “Portraits in Grief” series that ran in the New York Times in the months after the attack.
Conductor David Hayes, leading the New York Choral Society (NYCS) and the Mannes Orchestra joined by the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, paired these works to revelatory effect on Wednesday night. The program began with “On the Transmigration of Souls,” the shorter of the two works but in one sense the larger: I’ve never seen the Carnegie Hall stage so packed with performers as it was for Adams’s titanic piece of emotionally intense modernism. Behind the full orchestra, which included, for just one example of its breadth, not one but two harpists, stood a sea of singers. Supplementing the NYCS, already a very large chorus, the Young People’s Chorus contributed its distinct tones in a most affecting way.
The piece begins with recorded street noises and a voice intoning the word “Missing,” which give way to churchbell- and foghorn-like tones from the orchestra and the call of an offstage trumpet. Adams is a master of musicalizing unusual and nonmusical sounds. The use of recorded noise in music goes back at least to the middle of the 20th century – right around when Hindemith wrote “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” in fact – but in Adams’s hands the technique is fresh and compelling.
As “Transmigration” built to calamitous densities and volume, the chorus came to sound more angry than mournful, climaxing in a wife’s cry of “I wanted to dig him out. I know just where he is.” The piece then descended into dissonant washes of sound accompanying and also innately evoking vivid laments for murdered loved ones.
A recording of people reading the names of victims – familiar to anyone who’s watched the 9/11 anniversary rituals on television – then plays over sighing strings. The piece closes with the ringing of bells and the plucking of harps in angular rhythms. If any composer can be said to have accomplished “modernism for the masses,” it’s Adams, and this gritty, muscular, and beautiful piece makes a prime case for it.
It felt especially meaningful to hear this great work performed so well by an ensemble with so many young musicians. “Transmigration” debuted just months after 9/11, but today’s beginning music students and their contemporaries have no memory of the attack. Performances like this can help establish a piece as canonical, like Whitman’s poem, and perpetuate its themes, moral and historical as well as musical, into future generations.
The great theme of Abraham Lincoln’s life, abolishing slavery, was inextricably connected to the Civil War and to the President’s assassination at its end. Slavery’s legacy persists in the continuing racial tension in the U.S., highlighted by the current spate of killings of black men by police. Franklin D. Roosevelt died in the late stages of another huge war fought in large part for the freedom of subjugated peoples. Hindemith, who was not Jewish, wrote his musical realization of Whitman’s poem while living in the United States as a kind of refugee from the Nazi regime – the Nazis had classed his music as “degenerate” along with the work of Jewish contemporaries in Germany. Hindemith was pained by FDR’s unexpected death just as Whitman was by Lincoln’s.
In “Door-yards” Hindemith applied modernistic musical language to traditional forms – march, fugue, passacaglia. A century earlier but along similar lines, Whitman had weaved self-consciously “poetic” language into long, flowing passages of free verse unlike any poetry that had come before (or, arguably, that has come since). He was a modernist par excellence.
Fully alert to this convergence of Whitman’s words and Hindemith’s music, as well as to the link between Adams’s piece and Hindemith’s, Maestro Hayes led the orchestra and chorus in a stirring rendition of the latter, so much so that the audience broke into applause before the suite was finished, after the surging seventh movement (“Introduction and Fugue”) with its grim orchestral scales and staccato attacks and the chorus singing with precision and conviction the Mendelssohn-esque musical drama Hindemith created to illustrate Whitman’s celebration of the persistence of nature and humanity in the wake of the most terrible events:
Lo! The most excellent sun, so calm and haughty;
The violet and purple morn, with just-felt breezes;
The gentle, soft-born, measureless light;
The miracle, spreading, bathing all – the fulfill’d noon;
The coming eve, delicious – the welcome night, and the stars,
Over my cities shining all, enveloping man and land.
Instead of the Young People’s Chorus, “Lilacs” featured two fine soloists. Whitman described the song of a gray-brown thrush, and Hindemith gives voice to the related imagery through a mezzo-soprano. Abigail Fischer in her Carnegie Hall debut met this challenge with a lovely tone, well-balanced between liquid and firm, notably in the eighth movement and in her solo in the fifth:
Sing on, there in the swamp!
O singer bashful and tender! I hear your notes – I hear your call
In his own Carnegie hall debut, baritone Lee Poulis showed fine control of his decisive if not oversized voice, handling the larger task of conveying a great deal of the narrative on his own. We had the benefit of his having recently sung the challenging role elsewhere.
The chorus and orchestra were well balanced too, although the horns’ volume was sometimes too much for the strings. I was very pleased at the opportunity to hear this work in performance for the first time. Finely paced, it danced with drama and passion and continued the case for the ongoing relevance of Hindemith’s large and varied oeuvre, no matter what cataclysmic events we are absorbing or whose deaths we are mourning. Subtitled “A requiem for those we love,” it lives on like Whitman’s trinity of the lilac tree, the songbird, and Venus in the western sky.