Critic Harold Bloom has observed that “Only a few poets in the language have surpassed [Walt Whitman’s poem] ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’.”
I believe that it is Whitman’s greatest poem, which is saying something. Close rivals for that distinction among Whitman’s poetry might be “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” and “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.”
I have posted here (above) two musical settings of “Lilacs.”
German composer Paul Hindemith, who lived in the United States for over a decade, set Whitman’s text to music to mourn the death of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The work, an oratorio, was titled “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d: A Requiem for those we love” (1946).
I have heard this work performed live once, at Carnegie Hall. It never fails to move me. The ninth track on the recording posted here, “Sing on! you gray-brown bird,” brings tears to my eyes.
The recording posted here is by the Robert Shaw Chorale, which commissioned the work, with the mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani. It is my favorite performance.
Also posted here is American composer Roger Sessions’s setting of the poem (1977), a cantata. It is noted in a Wikipedia entry that
The University of California at Berkeley commissioned American neoclassical composer Roger Sessions to set the poem as a cantata to commemorate their centennial anniversary in 1964. Sessions did not finish composing the work until the 1970’s, dedicating it to the memories of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. and political figure Robert F. Kennedy. Sessions first became acquainted with Leaves of Grass in 1921 and began setting the poem as a reaction to the death of his friend, George Bartlett, although none of the sketches from that early attempt survive. He returned to the text almost fifty years later, composing a work scored for soprano, contralto, and baritone soloists, mixed chorus and orchestra. The music is described as responding “wonderfully both to the Biblical majesty and musical fluidity of Whitman’s poetry, and here to, in the evocation of the gray-brown bird singing from the swamp and of the over-mastering scent of the lilacs, he gives us one of the century’s great love letters to Nature.”
This recording is of a performance conducted by Seiji Ozawa.
— Roger W. Smith