Commissioned by BBC Radio 3 for the BBC Proms 2010. First performance September 11th 2010, Royal Albert Hall on the Last Night of the Proms, by the BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Chorus and BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jiri Belohlávek.

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  • chch
  • 5 min
  • Walt Whitman
  • English

Programme Note

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.