That Music Always Round Me

SATB (divisi) a cappella


Recording credit: Bellevue Chamber Chorus, conducted by Fred Lokken

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TEXT

That music always round me, unceasing, unbeginning,
yet long untaught I did not hear,
But now the chorus I hear and am elated,
A tenor, strong, ascending with power and health,
with glad notes of daybreak I hear,
A soprano at intervals sailing buoyantly over the tops of immense waves,
A transparent base shuddering lusciously under and through the universe,
The triumphant tutti, the funeral wailings with sweet flutes and violins,
all these I fill myself with,
I hear not the volumes of sound merely, I am moved by the exquisite meanings,
I listen to the different voices winding in and out, striving,
contending with fiery vehemence to excel each other in emotion;
I do not think the performers know themselves—
but now I think begin to know them.
Walt Whitman (1819–1892)
from Whispers of Heavenly Death (Book XXX of Leaves of Grass)

PROGRAM NOTES

Full Version
That Music Always Round Me was commissioned by the Bellevue Chamber Chorus in Bellevue Washington in celebration of their 20th Anniversary Season and was premiered on a concert entitled “A New World Choral Tapestry.” The text, by Walt Whitman, was originally suggested to me by the group’s Director, Dr. Fredrick Lokken. The commission specified a work that would be celebratory in nature preferably to a text that referred to music in some way. I had been familiar with this poem for a number of years, but had always been hesitant to set it because of its overt musical references, which could run the risk of becoming cliché or trite unless very carefully set to music. Even after I had read through the text again and had “lived with it” for a while, I still found myself musically uninspired by it. As a result, I turned to some other texts that did inspire me, which, as it turned out, came up short of meeting the criteria for the commission.

Thankfully Fred encouraged me to take another look at the Whitman text. This time I considered it from a different perspective. Rather than interpreting the text and its musical images so literally, I thought of the poem in the context of two themes that Whitman uses in so many of his works: a kind of cosmic mysticism and the holistic, spiritual connection of the individual to all of humanity and indeed to the whole of the cosmos. This different reading opened the floodgates and immediately the first section of the work took shape.

The opening bars represent “that music” of which Whitman speaks, “unceasing, unbeginning,” which at first the poet “did not hear.” The poem speaks of a gradual epiphany, a revelation born of the poet’s realization of all that surrounds him and of his connection to it, which becomes fully revealed at the text “But now the chorus I hear and am elated.” As the opening bars unfold, the textless “music” is gradually punctuated by quiet utterances of “that music,” as the poet becomes aware of his surroundings, gradually growing to ecstatic exclamations. The effect is akin to a fog lifting to reveal the bright, shining light of day.

At this point the fast middle section begins with its references to the various members of the “chorus,” accompanied by the “music” motive of the opening bars (now transformed), and followed by the “transparent base shuddering lusciously under and through the universe,” which is vividly painted by the musical setting. The fast middle section culminates on the text “all these I fill myself with.” The final section of the work alternates quiet, introspective passages with louder, more ecstatic music that finally culminates with one final realization on the part of the poet, ending with a final reference to the opening line of the poem.

Abridged Version
That Music Always Round Me was commissioned by the Bellevue Chamber Chorus in Bellevue Washington in celebration of their 20th Anniversary Season. The text, by Walt Whitman, was originally suggested to me by the group’s Director, Dr. Fredrick Lokken. The commission specified a celebratory work to a text that referred to music in some way. Rather than interpreting the text and its musical images literally, I thought of the poem in the context of two Whitmanesque themes: a kind of cosmic mysticism and the holistic, spiritual connection of the individual to all of humanity and indeed to the whole of the cosmos.

The opening bars represent “that music” of which Whitman speaks, “unceasing, unbeginning,” which at first the poet “did not hear.” The poem speaks of a gradual epiphany, a revelation born of the poet’s realization of all that surrounds him and of his connection to it, which becomes fully revealed at the text “But now the chorus I hear and am elated.” As the opening bars unfold, the textless “music” is gradually punctuated by quiet utterances of “that music,” as the poet becomes aware of his surroundings, gradually growing to ecstatic exclamations. The effect is akin to a fog lifting to reveal the bright, shining light of day.

At this point the fast middle section begins with its references to the various members of the “chorus,” accompanied by the “music” motive of the opening bars (now transformed), and followed by the “transparent base shuddering lusciously under and through the universe,” which is vividly painted by the musical setting. The fast middle section culminates on the text “all these I fill myself with.” The final section of the work alternates quiet, introspective passages with louder, more ecstatic music that finally culminates with one final realization on the part of the poet, ending with a final reference to the opening line of the poem.