Thanatopsis

for Lyric Baritone, Mixed Chorus and Orchestra

John Melby

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Text: William Cullen Bryant
Publisher: Merion Music, Inc.
Print Status: Rental

Quick Overview

William Cullen Bryant (1794?1878) is considered by many to be the first great American poet. His poetry is noteworthy for its dignified and stately style and its frequent use of imagery involving nature. Like Wordsworth, whose work exerted a great influence on Bryant (who in fact is often called ?the American Wordsworth?), Bryant frequently evokes mental images of landscapes and finds in nature the moral and spiritual significance that in many other poets is encountered only in works that are overtly religious in character. In fact, one of the most interesting aspects of ?Thanatopsis? (literally, ?a view of death?) is that it can be interpreted in very different ways, depending on whether or not the reader him/herself is a religious person. Indeed, it seems to me that taken at face value, the only place in the poem one might with some justification interpret to be clearly of a religious character occurs near the end of the poem with the words ?but, sustained and soothed / By an unfaltering trust? ? and even in this case, should the reader choose to interpret ?Nature? as the entity in which the poet places his ?unfaltering trust? (and given Bryant?s other poems, I think this is the most appropriate context), s/he need not invoke any religious images at all.

Bryant was born in 1794 in Cummington, Massachusetts, into a family of Unitarian background. Although his first poem was published when he was only thirteen years old, the reading public found it difficult to believe that a work as profound as ?Thanatopsis? could have been written, as it was, in 1811, when its author was only seventeen years of age. (Later, in 1821, Bryant made two additions to the original version of the text?an introduction and the closing stanza that begins, ?So live, that when thy summons comes . . .?) Nearly all of his most important poems were written prior to 1826; from then until the end of his life, Bryant?s activities as a newspaper editor and political activist left him relatively little time for writing poetry.

My reasons for setting this poem are two: 1) because I have always greatly admired the eloquence with which Bryant deals with a subject that seems increasingly important as I become more and more (to use the words recently suggested by one of the more ridiculous of the self-appointed guardians of that most un-American of Americanisms, ?political correctness?) ?chronologically gifted?; and 2) because ?Thanatopsis? was a favorite poem of my father, whom I heard read the poem many times and with whom I often discussed it. My father, who died in 1989, was quite an accomplished singer ? a baritone, which also explains my choice of a baritone as the soloist. I have tried to give the poem a setting of which he would have approved. Whether or not I have been successful, I shall never know. Whether or not it has meaning for others is not for me, but for them, to judge.

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Additional Information

Composition Date 1999
Duration 00:55:00
Orchestration Solo Lyric Baritone, SATB Chorus; 4(Picc. Alto Fl.) 4(E.H.) 5(Eb Cl./B.Cl./Cb.Cl.) 4(Cbsn.) - 6 4(B.Tpt.), Flugelhorn, 5(2AltoTbn./ B.Tbn.) 1; Timp. 3Perc. Cel. 2Hp. Str. (minimum 12.12.8.8.5