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Walt Whitman and the music he liked

Walt Whitma Archives

Walt Whitman was born on May 31, 1819, in West Hills, on Long Island, New York. He was the second son of Walter Whitman, a house-builder, and Louisa Van Velsor. In the 1820s and 1830s, the family, which consisted of nine children, lived in Long Island and Brooklyn, where Whitman attended the Brooklyn public schools.

At the age of twelve, Whitman began to learn the printer’s trade and fell in love with the written word. Largely self-taught, he read voraciously, becoming acquainted with the works of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and the Bible.

Whitman worked as a printer in New York City until a devastating fire in the printing district demolished the industry. In 1836, at the age of seventeen, he began his career as teacher in the one-room schoolhouses of Long Island. He continued to teach until 1841, when he turned to journalism as a full-time career.

He founded a weekly newspaper, The Long-Islander, and later edited a number of Brooklyn and New York papers, including the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

In Brooklyn, he continued to develop the unique style of poetry that later so astonished Ralph Waldo Emerson. In 1855, Whitman took out a copyright on the first edition of Leaves of Grass,

When he wrote Leaves of Grass in 1855, he already was not only into sentimental ballads, folk songs, and hymns popular in his time, but also with the music of Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi, Auber, Meyerbeer, Weber, Mendelssohn, and Gounod as well. I have noticed, and many more knowledgeable people than me has written about it, realized that his poetry is full of musical terms throughout it. Academicians has shown us that opera, oratorio, symphony, chamber and instrumental music influenced his writings. Robert Strassburg has said that “[h]is orchestral “Proud Music of the Storm” celebrates all the passionate chants of life.”

As a journalist he wrote reviews on music that he heard or attended in the concert halls and theaters in New York and Brooklyn. His reviews provided much information about the history of American music during the middle of the nineteenth century. Strassburg wrote that Whitman “preferred sentimental ballads like “My Mother’s Bible,” “The Soldier’s Farewell,” and the “Lament of the Irish Emigrant,” with their easy unison melodies and simple harmonies.”

He was able to attend some operas performance from Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdi, and ” he complained about “the trills, the agonized squalls,, and the gurgling death-rattles’ (qtd. in Brasher 109)” to name a few.

On Strasburg’s essay, he From the middle 1840s on, whenever opera companies from London, Paris, Milan, Havana, and New Orleans appeared in the New York theaters, Whitman was present. His love for “heart-singing” gave way to his love for “art-singing”: “I hear the chorus, it is grand opera, / Ah this indeed is music—this suits me (“Song of Myself,” section 26).

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