Holst, Vaughan Williams and Walt Whitman

By Tudor, Philippa | Musical Times, Winter 2018 | Go to article overview

Holst, Vaughan Williams and Walt Whitman


Tudor, Philippa, Musical Times


The poems of Walt Whitman (1819-92), and in particular his Leaves of grass, first published in 1855 and expanded and revised by the American poet almost up to his death, soon inspired new generations of English composers. These included Charles Wood, who made settings of at least five of Whitman's poems, and Charles Villiers Stanford, who composed his first setting of Whitman's poetry in 1884, the year he was appointed Professor of Composition at the newly founded Royal College of Music in London. Ten years later, Professor Stanford's composition pupils at the Royal College of Music included Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav von Holst, who first met in i895 and whose friendship lasted until Holst's death nearly 30 years later.i Vaughan Williams was already familiar with Whitman's poetry, having been introduced to it by Bertrand Russell in i892,2 the year of the poet's death. Vaughan Williams began to set this poetry to music in 1902, and continued to be attached to, and influenced by, Whitman for the rest of his life.3 Whilst Vaughan Williams's monumental and ground-breaking Sea symphony and cantata Dona nobis pacem have ensured the appreciation of this influence, the impact of Whitman's poetry on Gustav Holst has been less appreciated. This article draws on recently rediscovered settings by both composers in examining their choices of Whitman's texts, and the inter-relationship between Holst and Vaughan Williams in their development and performance.

Vaughan Williams was two years older than Holst, and entered the Royal College of Music, where he was to meet his lifelong friend, in i890. Unlike Holst, he had the financial means to enable him to study for a Cambridge degree, and when he went up to study history at Trinity College Cambridge in i892 he continued his weekly composition lessons at the Royal College of Music. At Cambridge Vaughan Williams also studied for a BMus degree with Charles Wood. Vaughan Williams was later to write that Wood 'was the finest technical instructor I have ever known', although he did 'not think he had the gift of inspiring enthusiasm or of leading to the higher planes of musical thought'.4 Wood had, however, started to compose his own settings of some of Walt Whitman's more conventional poems: Darest thou now, O Soul (1891), By the bivouac's fitfulflame (1897), Ethiopia saluting the colours (1898), O captain! My captain! (1898),5 and Dirge for two veterans (1901). Vaughan Williams was later to compose music to four of the five poems chosen by Wood, whose inspiration and influence on his pupil may thus have been greater than he recognised.

Three of the poems selected by Wood came from Whitman's Drumtaps collection, whilst O captain! My captain! was included in the Sequel to drum-taps, first published in 1865. Unusual amongst Whitman's poems for being written in conventional metre and rhyme, O captain! My captain! gained quick and wide popularity. For Vaughan Williams, however, the lure of Walt Whitman's poems was linked to their potential for the young composer to push musical and philosophical boundaries at the start of the new century. Conventional metre and rhyme were not what he was looking for in Whitman's poetry, and O captain! My captain! was the only poem chosen by Wood not subsequently set by Vaughan Williams. As the latter wrote in his essay on Good Taste, published in 1902:

Good taste is, without doubt, the stumbling block in the path of the 'Young English school of composers.' These 'rising young musicians' lack neither good teachers nor good models, nor good concerts, nor good opportunities of bringing their works to a hearing; nevertheless, all their promise seems to be nipped in the bud by the blighting influence of 'good taste.' [...] Good taste is a purely artificial restriction which a composer imposes on himself when he imagines - rightly or wrongly - that his inspiration is not enough to guide him.6

Describing his life around the year 1903, Vaughan Williams's second wife wrote some 60 years later:

Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, in several editions, from a large volume to a selection small enough for a pocket, was his constant companion. …

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