Measure by Measure

Oliver Knussen’s Whitman Settings

From poetry into music

By Sudip Bose | May 11, 2017
Oliver Knussen in 2008, directing the Orchestra Mozart (Lelli e Masotti/Flickr)
Oliver Knussen in 2008, directing the Orchestra Mozart (Lelli e Masotti/Flickr)


The last time I played the violin with any seriousness was the early 1990s, when I was an undergraduate at Cornell. At that time, I got to know a group of graduate student composers, whose music I would perform on occasion. The recitals put on by the Cornell Contemporary Chamber Players consisted mainly of this new music, but the programs featured earlier 20th-century works, as well, pieces by Alfred Schnittke, George Crumb, Mel Powell, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Witold Lutosławski, Arnold Schoenberg—I wish I had kept a few of those concert programs to remember all that we had played. I often collaborated with my friend Larry Bitensky, a wonderful composer and pianist, not only on his own music but also on such repertoire staples as the Schoenberg Phantasy and Lutosławski Partita—pieces that presented enormous technical and interpretive challenges. For the unsuspecting listener, music from the mid-20th century and beyond can be enigmatic and perplexing. In the beginning, it was for me, too. I had one advantage, however, as a musician: I could get to know an unfamiliar work from the inside out. By practicing a piece bar by bar, note by note (and I remember many long sessions doing just that, in the top-floor practice room of Cornell’s music building), I could eventually make some sense of the difficult rhythms and harmonic language, what had previously been a great sonic blur. It was also a matter of emotional response: unlike my composer friends, I was not steeped in a theory background—my first contact with any new piece was via the heart, not the brain.

Once, during a road trip to Maine—we were headed to Bates College to perform at a new music festival—I asked Larry to recommend a living composer whose work I really ought to know. (That morning had already begun with my first exposure to Elliott Carter, his String Quartets blaring from the tape deck at seven in the morning.) Larry didn’t think long before suggesting that I get to know Oliver Knussen. It turned out to be great advice. Few contemporary composers have provided such pure pleasure over the years as has Knussen, an artist recognized as much for his conducting and advocacy of contemporary music as for his own varied, meticulous output.

Born in Glasgow in 1952, Knussen spent his childhood not far from London, taking up composition as a teenager. Though his idiom is distinctly his own, we can hear in much of his music traces of the composers who have inspired him—tonal modernists such as Benjamin Britten, Igor Stravinsky, and Maurice Ravel, but also Schoenberg and Alban Berg. His is not an expansive art: his two operas, based on the work of Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are and Higglety Pigglety Pop!) are both in one act, and his three symphonies (the first of which he conducted at the age of 15, with the London Symphony Orchestra, the third having been performed some 100 times) are over in less than 20 minutes. These small worlds teem with fantasy, color, and the most exquisite details—every note does the work of many. Listen to Knussen’s Horn Concerto, for me, the best example of its kind since Richard Strauss, maybe even Mozart, or his Violin Concerto, just as compelling, revealing a mastery of instrumental color. Not many composers write symphonies and concertos these days, and part of Knussen’s accessibility, I think, is his willingness to embrace and comment upon the forms inherited from an earlier age.

Any of the works I just mentioned, or the lovely Ophelia Dances, would be a great place to begin a Knussen journey, but the piece I return to most often—perhaps because of my fondness for the texts on which they are based—is the Whitman Settings, in the recording the composer made with the London Sinfonietta and the singer Lucy Shelton, the work’s dedicatee. Written initially in 1991 for soprano and piano and later reworked for full orchestra, this vocal symphony in miniature uses four short poems by Walt Whitman, each concerned with some aspect of the sky or outer space—“grand natural phenomena on small canvases,” as Knussen has described them.

It can be a tricky thing to choose verse for a musical setting that is itself so musical already. Take a single line from “A Noiseless Patient Spider,” Knussen’s second-movement setting:

till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold

Whitman has already supplied so much: a rhythm consisting of three beats and two, a caesura that divides the line’s two contrasting halves—the round, elongated vowels of “need” and “form’d” followed by the harsh, clipped consonants of “ductile anchor.” The most interesting composers will take a poem’s inherent music only as a starting point, creating a sound world that might complement it but challenge it, too. Knussen’s exotic score, with its hints of Berg and Stravinsky, beautifully captures the spaciousness of this particular text (as well as its loneliness and feeling of isolation), despite the concise nature of the utterance. There’s so much movement here, as well: the soprano voice flickering like a firefly, leaping gymnastically to great heights, then plunging into the depths as she traverses the line “Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.” This sense of motion is also felt in the third movement, “The Dalliance of Eagles,” as Whitman’s birds of prey come together, then part, their “talons loosing,” their erotic dance coming to a sudden, puzzling halt only at the end, as the music drops off mid-phrase. Soon, we are in the realm of wide open spaces in the final movement, “The Voice of the Rain,” with its rich and opulent harmonies. It is clear, listening to this music, why Knussen calls his Whitman Settings “the most intricate and kaleidoscopic orchestral score [he’s] ever done.”

But I want to go backward a bit, to the first movement, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.” It begins with a frenetic orchestral introduction, the voice entering with a bell-like sonority amid the vivid colors of the orchestra—brassy, bright, glittering. As the rhythm swirls, I hear hints of Britten’s Peter Grimes and Aaron Copland, too—appropriate, I suppose, given the American subject. Whitman’s speaker describes his bewilderment at the learned astronomer he has gone to hear, a scholar who thrills the gathered crowd but who reduces the wonders of the celestial night to a series of figures and equations:

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick …

Notice how each of these lines grows longer—on the page, we sense the accumulating tedium felt by the speaker, with the repetition of the initial “When” suggesting a dreary monotony. But then comes the most wondrous turn in the sixth line, as the speaker gets up and leaves:

… Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

I love the assonance of “rising” and “gliding,” and all the long vowels in that line, transforming the speaker into some ethereal being, able to soar above his mundane surroundings and out into the night. As we might expect, the mood of Knussen’s music changes here, too. The soprano’s voice becomes liquid, languid, more mysterious, and the tempo slows down. Knussen’s surprise, however, comes at the poem’s conclusion. When I usually arrive at Whitman’s final line—a line of iambic pentameter following seven lines of free verse—I am always delighted, not just by the shock of meter’s sudden appearance but also by the opening foot of two stressed syllables: “Look’d up.” This spondee commands us with authority and forces us to do just that: look up, gaze into the night, commune, along with the speaker, with the mysteries of the spheres. Yet Knussen places his emphasis on the end of the line, on the phrase “at the stars.” As the twinkling of percussion instruments conjures up the night sky, the soprano sings, “at the stars,” then, “the stars,” and finally, simply, “stars.” It’s a bit like the ending of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, with its resigned repetition of the word ewig. Knussen does indeed have us looking up, though he manages it in a very different way than Whitman does. As we look upon the night sky, our gaze is suspended—we expect some revelation that cannot come because now the movement has ended. All of this might seem insignificant, but for me, it’s a marvelous reminder of how a musical setting can alter and reimagine the poem that inspires it.

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