for SSAATTBB choir
duration c. 3:30

“A Clear Midnight” – Walt Whitman (from “Leaves of Grass,” 1881)

This is thy hour O soul,
The free flight into the wordless,
Away from books, away from art
The day erased, the lesson done.

Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing,
Pondering the themes thou lovest best,
Night, sleep, death, and the stars.

Program Note:

Despite having sung in choirs since I was in the 4th grade, I have always had difficulty writing choral music, largely due to the seeming dearth of texts that are musically suggestive in addition to having inherent rhetorical worth in their particular literary category. Upon first reading, this poem struck me conceptually. At face value, it describes a journey taken by the soul. To determine what kind of journey is taken, I looked to the last line of the poem for elucidation. These four words themselves describe a transition, a gradual journey: night gives way to sleep, which conceptually represents death, and death gives way to the great unknown—the stars. Therefore, the soul’s “free flight into the wordless” could be a pensive meditation while awake at night (e.g. stargazing), a dream while asleep, or the soul’s final flight from the body at death. I think this poem beautifully illustrates the connection between these three possibilities.

When I had resolved to set this to music (essentially immediately upon reading it), the melody and harmonies for the first line came to me rather quickly. My harmonies throughout the piece are quite dense—as one of my composition professors, Justin Merritt, put it “quite French-sounding”. This wouldn’t be too surprising, as I had just returned from studying composition in Paris with the EAMA program. I thought a quality of lushness represented the nebulous world of the soul well. The first two lines of the poem, to me, are exciting: the speaker is addressing his or her soul, which is about to embark on its journey. The next two lines represent a change in tone, with the adverb “away.” “Away,” “erased,” and “done” all signify a form of departure. I selected this point for a sectional break in the piece, where I switch harmonically to a minor mode. The loudest, most discordant point of the piece is “the day erased.” I felt that this verb was the most destructive of them all, and if the speaker of the poem is not dreaming, this is the point that most suggests death. This section winds down peacefully.

I used the stanza break in the poem as another section break in my setting. I also took this opportunity to bring back the music of the first 2 measures, only this time transposed down a minor third. There is some definite text-painting here: the word “thee” in the alto “emerges” from the final chord of the previous section (m. 27). In m. 31, the alto line again emerges from the previous sonority, softening dynamically into the word “silent,” which is followed by actual musical silence: a rest.

I felt that the last line was important enough to understanding both the piece and the poem that it deserved its own section of sorts: although separated from the previous two lines of text by a fermata and a rest, the soprano retains the same B-flat, keeping these two sections unified within the larger division of the stanza. The 1st sopranos, 1st tenors, and 1st basses each toll B-flats in their own octaves throughout the closing section. To me, this provides a sense of impending fate, like the tolling of church bells. The final cadence seems as if it would come on the downbeat of m. 42, however everything gives way to the octave B-flats in the soprano and tenor. Then, the true cadence takes place. The final sonority is a mystical-sounding D-flat major chord with added 9th, sharp 11th, and 13th scale degrees; to me, this sound evokes the mysterious unknown of the stars.

Performance History:

5.10.147:00pmHoly Family Catholic Church, Mason City, IASeason ConcertUna Vocis Choral Ensemble