City of Orgies, Walks and Joys! song on a poem by Walt Whitman, for two singers (mezzo and tenor, other arrangements available), piano and violin (2011) c. 6 min. Commissioned by the 5 Boroughs Music Festival, premiere in Brooklyn, Oct. 6, 2011 at the Galapagos Space. Also: November 12, 2011 Queens Town Hall; January 12, 2012 at Baruch Performing Arts Center; May 31, 2012 at Bronx Museum of the Arts; June 2, 2012 at Staten Island Museum
Recorded on GPRRecords, “Five Borough Songbook”
When I was asked to write a song for the Five Boroughs Music Festival celebrating some aspect of New York City, I immediately thought of looking in Walt Whitman’s poetry, and very quickly I came across this poem, which I felt would make the basis for a good song. I reworked it a bit.
Here is the original:
CITY of orgies, walks and joys!
City whom that I have lived and sung in your midst will one day make you illustrious,
Not the pageants of you—not your shifting tableaux, your spectacles, repay me;
Not the interminable rows of your houses—nor the ships at the wharves,
Nor the processions in the streets, nor the bright windows, with goods in them;
Nor to converse with learn’d persons, or bear my share in the soiree or feast;
Not those—but, as I pass, O Manhattan! your frequent and swift flash of eyes offering me love,
Offering response to my own—these repay me;
Lovers, continual lovers, only repay me.
I deleted the second line and reworked a bit here and there. When I first encountered, many years ago as a student, settings of Whitman in which the composer had reworked the poetry, I was deeply shocked at the “violence” being done to the poet’s work, and indeed when I have set Whitman before,
I have remained as faithful to the text as possible. With this work, however, I join the ranks of those who have felt the need to adapt Whitman’s occasionally periphrastic — or idiosyncratic — diction so that music might have a chance of penetrating those endlessly rolling verses. Whitman’s poetry has always invited music — it seems to want to be sung — and composers keep taking the bait. Unlike other great poetry that resolutely resists musical setting, Whitman’s works both recited and sung. Whitman loved music and I’m sure would be quite pleased that over the years so much of his poetry has inspired so many songs.
It took me some time to hit on the right inspiration — to find the right music — to set these lines of poetry. Originally I was dead set on a song for baritone and piano, in some kind of ecstatic and gushing style, to match the effusion of the poetry, but I made no headway. Moreover, it seemed to me that the opening phrase, “City of orgies,” could be set in so many ways, I was bewildered in which direction to go. Then, when I suddenly sang it in a honky-tonk style, just out of playfulness, and imagined two singers, one male and one female — befitting Whitman’s insistence on his own sexual all-inclusiveness, and the particular theme of lovers and cruising, which is the central, crucial pointof the poem — moreover adding a violin obbligato in the style — the writing of the song took off! Then, as I was sketching, the melody of the old Lutheran hymn “Wachet auf” (Sleepers awake), well known to anyone familiar with Bach’s cantatas, came unbidden wanting to enter the fray, so I let it, making the omposition — literally, the putting-together — amusingly turn out as a kind of honky-tonk Bach aria, a duet with obbligato accompaniment and a cantus firmus! Perhaps better, and irreverently, “infirmus,” as the tune gets twisted a bit. I leave the theological implications to others.