For Double Chorus and Orchestra
O to make the most jubilant song!
Full of music – full of manhood, womanhood, infancy!
Full of common employments – full of grain and trees.
O for the voices of animals – O for the swiftness and balance of fishes!
O for the dropping of raindrops in a song!
O for the Sunshine and motion of waves in a song!
O the joy of my spirit – it is uncaged – it darts like lightning!
It is not enough to have this globe or a certain time,
I will have thousands of globes and all time.
Above all else, the Last Night of the Proms celebrates music itself – so, to kick off this extraordinary party, I thought it would be a good idea to sing something in praise of music, and the power of song.
Finding the right words is always the biggest challenge in writing for voice, especially if you are trying to avoid those verses (by Dryden and Milton, for example) which have already been splendidly set by famous composers. And poems about the festive, celebratory qualities of music are surprisingly rare: poets are often inspired by music, but tend to concentrate on its gentler abilities to soothe and console.
Not so Walt Whitman. His characteristically exuberant poem A Song of Joys goes on for several pages, ranging across the globe and through all kinds of trades and activities – imagining the joys of the engineer, the horseman, the fireman, the fighter, the mother; all kinds of fishing and boating, swimming and whaling; the joys of the miner, the soldier, the farmer and the orator – and the song which could contain those joys.
I have only set the first nine lines, but I feel they capture the ambitious, ecstatic scope of the poem, and the magnitude of Whitman’s vision.
Text: Walt Whitman
Commissioned by BBC Radio 3 for the BBC Proms 2010
First performance: 11th September 2010, BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Chorus and BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jiri Belohlávek, Last Night of the Proms, Royal Albert Hall.