I find a great deal of inspiration in the works of American poet Walt Whitman. Whitman broke with the artistic conventions of his time, embracing a free verse that renders his poetry fluid and untamed, full of possibility and energy, and as vast as the frontier.
President Abraham Lincoln likewise answered the call to a new, more literal freedom, “a new birth of freedom” for the enslaved and oppressed. So powerfully did this ideal resonate with Whitman that he gave it considerable voice in his writings, and, after Lincoln’s assassination, composed a beautiful poem in Lincoln’s memory, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”
I have set the opening of this lengthy poem to music. Like Whitman’s verse, the music in simple and straightforward. It is in a major key, though it is punctuated by dissonances that accentuate the poem’s bittersweet quality; “ever-returning spring,” for all its beauty, becomes an annual reminder of that national loss in the spring of 1865. Nevertheless, Whitman’s energy and sense of possibility still find their place within his mourning, as the spring, full of new life and hope, is also a reminder that Lincoln’s ideals live on without him.