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A Whitman Triptych: III. Facing West

A Whitman Triptych: III. Facing West

Product Number: 8323

Composer: Conte, David

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The three a cappella choral pieces that comprise “A Whitman Triptych” were composed between 2012 and 2014. "O Setting Sun" was commissioned by the Madison Chamber Choir, Madison, Wisconsin, Anthony Cao, conductor, and was premiered on April 20th, 2012. “What is the Grass” was composed for Cappella SF, Ragnar Bohlin, conductor, and is being premiered on tonight’s concert. "Facing West" was commissioned in celebration of the 75th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge by the International Orange Chorale, Zane Fiala, conductor, and was premiered on May 27th, 2012.

I first set Whitman to music in 1986,when I adapted part of “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed” as the basis for my composition “Invocation and Dance.” I went on to set “Good-Bye, My Fancy” for Male Chorus and Soprano Saxophone in 1992, and “Song of the Open Road” for Mixed Chorus and Piano in 2004. Like so many composers, I have found the visionary quality of Whitman’s verse inspiring; the vigor and intensity of the poetry seem naturally to draw out music.

"Facing West" is drawn from the "Children of Adam" book from Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass." The full title of the poem is "Facing West From California's Shores." Though Whitman never visited California, his biographer Justin Kaplan made the insightful observation that "he imagined California's shores to be the starting point for a journey through time and culture. Here was Walt, 'a child, very old,' facing home again, looking over to it, joyous, as after long travel, growth, and sleep, asking: 'But where is what I started for, so long ago?/And why is it yet unfound?'"

The invitation from the International Orange Chorale to compose a piece in honor of the 75th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge led me easily and naturally to this great poem. The tone of "Facing West" is rich and complex, and draws on one of Whitman's favorite themes of using travel to distant lands as a metaphor for spiritual development. In his poem, Whitman strikes notes of reflection, of longing for adventure, and ultimately ends with a question. The continuing relevance of this question is for me beautifully addressed by the contemporary American writer Edmund White in his 1980 book "States of Desire." To paraphrase somewhat, White writes: "California is where dreams may come true, and the problem it presents is whether, after all, we wanted these particular dreams to be fulfilled - or would we have preferred others? Did we know what price these dreams would exact? Did we anticipate the ways in which they would unsuit us for the business of daily life? Or should our notion of daily life itself be transformed?"

For Americans, California's coast is as far as one can go in establishing new roots and new ways of living. As a transplanted Midwesterner who has made California his home for nearly three decades, I experience the Golden Gate Bridge as a beautiful monument to the aspirations and dreams of a restless and inventive people, qualities that Whitman's poem captures perfectly. -David Conte

Duration: 5:42

Additional Information

Product Number 8323
Available Editions A Whitman Triptych
I. O Setting Sun, 8321
II. What Is the Grass, 8322
III. Facing West, 8323
Facing West: Choral Music of Conrad Susa and David Conte (CD Recording), CD-46-DC
Composer Conte, David
Text Author Whitman, Walt
Voicing & Instruments Soprano and Tenor Soli, SATB Chorus unaccompanied
Season Secular
Character/Topics Americana, Children, Creation/Nature, Hope/Assurance
Difficulty Moderately Difficult
Language of Text English
Historical Period 21st Century
Recording Credits Recorded by Cappella SF, Ragnar Bohlin, director. Used by permission of Carol Rosenberger. From "Facing West: Choral Music of Conrad Susa and David Conte" (Delos Productions).
Publisher E. C. Schirmer Music Company

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