Tag Archives: Paul Hindemith “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d: A Requiem for those we love”

“Sing on! you gray-brown bird”



“Sing on! you gray-brown bird”

movement eight from When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d: A Requiem for those we love

composed by Paul Hindemith.

text from Walt Whitman’s poem of the same name

Words and music fitting for our present time.



Sing on, sing on you gray-brown bird,
Sing from the swamps, the recesses, pour your chant from the
Limitless out of the dusk, out of the cedars and pines.

Sing on dearest brother, warble your reedy song,
Loud human song, with voice of uttermost woe.

O liquid and free and tender!
O wild and loose to my soul—O wondrous singer!
You only I hear—yet the star holds me, (but will soon depart,)
Yet the lilac with mastering odor holds me.

Now while I sat in the day and look’d forth,
In the close of the day with its light and the fields of spring, and
the farmers preparing their crops,
In the large unconscious scenery of my land with its lakes and
In the heavenly aerial beauty, (after the perturb’d winds and the
Under the arching heavens of the afternoon swift passing, and the
voices of children and women,
The many-moving sea-tides, and I saw the ships how they
And the summer approaching with richness, and the fields all busy
with labor,
And the infinite separate houses, how they all went on, each with
its meals and minutia of daily usages,
And the streets how their throbbings throbb’d, and the cities pent
—lo, then and there,
Falling upon them all and among them all, enveloping me with the
Appear’d the cloud, appear’d the long black trail,
And I knew death, its thought, and the sacred knowledge of

Then with the knowledge of death as walking one side of me,
And the thought of death close-walking the other side of me,
And I in the middle as with companions, and as holding the
hands of companions,
I fled forth to the hiding receiving night that talks not,
Down to the shores of the water, the path by the swamp in the
To the solemn shadowy cedars and ghostly pines so still.

And the singer so shy to the rest receiv’d me,
The gray-brown bird I know receiv’d us comrades three,
And he sang the carol of death, and a verse for him I love.

From deep secluded recesses,
From the fragrant cedars and the ghostly pines so still,
Came the carol of the bird.

And the charm of the carol rapt me,
As I held as if by their hands my comrades in the night,
And the voice of my spirit tallied the song of the bird.


“I will try to remain calm. I will try to concentrate my attention on the sound of the wind and the buzzing of the bees outside my window, the scent of the hoya blossom, … and the sight of the cherry trees in bloom.” — Ella Rutledge, March 30, 2020


posted by Roger W. Smith

   April 2020

musical settings of Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”







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

  October 2017