composer’s note: When I first read Walt Whitman’s “The Last Invocation” I thought it was a lovely poem about wishing for a peaceful passing on, without conflict. And while that’s true, it’s also a poem full of conflicted feelings, even directly contradicting its own message. The more I live with this short poem, the more weight I give to the last two lines: “(Strong is your hold O mortal flesh, / Strong is your hold O love.)” It strikes me that Whitman is expressing, in most of the poem, an idealized version of his own death, a “glide noiselessly forth” that in reality is impossible, especially for Whitman himself. Even while he’s trying to describe that ideal, his overwhelming love of life shines through it, his love of earthly pleasures resonates in the sound of the words, his pure love overtakes that conflict-less ideal and infuses it with drama and passion and lust for life.
Following that interpretation, my setting of Whitman seeks to reflect that same contradiction, those words about peaceful wafting away engaged in a constant battle with earthly love and passion. So the choral textures are thick and lush with juicy, lusty harmonies, even when the text is professing to be simple and tender. The solo soprano line expresses that unfettered gliding towards the heavens, but is always pulled back into the choral texture by surging emotional outbursts of music. The lovely sound of Whitman’s language is lingered upon a little longer than is comfortable, so that the luscious sound of those words threatens to undermine their very meaning. Aching dissonances in the choral parts abound, and constantly tug at the texture, making sure it never simply floats away. And in the end, as in Whitman’s poem, the lovely vision of a peaceful, untroubled death is trumped by the power and beauty of love on this mortal earth.