The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: “The Wound Dresser” combines Walt Whitman’s poetry and John Adams’ music to create a moving tribute to the toll of all wars, says baritone Paul Rowe who sings it Thursday night with the UW Chamber Orchestra.

October 4, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, the University of Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below), under the baton of director James Smith, will perform a FREE concert that is open to the public.

It is too bad it on not on a night that will draw a bigger audience.

The program features some memorable and unusual music, the kind of works that conductor Smith often likes to explore to the appreciation of both the student performers and the audience.

It includes Maurice Ravel’s rarely heard orchestration of Robert Schumann’s famous and popular piano cycle “Carnaval.” (It is a natural for the same composer whose orchestration of Mussorgsky’s piano cycle “Pictures at an Exhibition” has become standard).

Also on the program is 20th century French composer Francis Poulenc’s rarely heard Sinfonietta. Poulenc, who combines lightness and bittersweet poignancy, is a much underrated and much underperformed composer.

But in this fall season of war and remembrance, when we have been commemorating the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, perhaps no work will garner – or should garner  — more attention than contemporary American composer John Adams’ “The Wound Dresser,” which is based on a poem by the young Walt Whitman (below).

You name the turmoil and upheaval: It makes a perfect tribute at the time of the 10th anniversary of 9/11 as well as of deadly turmoil and wars in the Middle East and elsewhere, whether they are the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or the Palestinian-Israeli discord, or the Arab Spring or civil wars in Africa.

The Ear asked Rowe to write about what the text means to him. What he writes in words, as you can see, is as eloquent and clear and moving as what he sings with notes.

For more information and the text of Whitman’s poem, visit:

Here is the essay by Paul Rowe (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot):

In 1862, the American poet Walt Whitman of Brooklyn, New York, received word that his brother, George, was missing in the Civil War following the battle of Fredericksburg in Maryland. He immediately traveled to Washington, D.C. to search the hospitals that had been set up to care for the many wounded all over the capital.

He was one of many family members, mothers, fathers, siblings and more who journeyed to the site of battlefields and hospitals in search of wounded loved ones. Nothing in their lives could have prepared them for the scenes of horror.

This experience proved to be pivotal one for the 42-year-old Whitman.  Not only would he continue to serve as a nurse for countless American soldiers, he would also go on to write some of the most moving poetry and prose about the Civil War and its human side.

“The Wound Dresser” appeared in 1865 in a book of war poems entitled “Drum Taps.” This volume was followed almost immediately by a sequel that was written following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in April, 1865.

In “Drum Taps” and the sequel, Whitman speaks in a new, darker voice with direct references to the wounds suffered and the loss of a generation of young men.

This is a different tone from the original edition of “Leaves of Grass” published in 1855. This first version of his most famous book is a celebration of life in all its facets and of American energy and the beauty, strength and ambition of the American people.

This new tone of Whitman’s is a most effective protest of war while continuing to celebrate the vigor of America’s youth.

In 1989, America was in the grips of another kind of war during which the country would suffer a great loss of life, particularly of young men. The AIDS crisis inspired many works of art as it swept through the population.

“The Wound Dresser” belongs to this repertoire and is one of the more extended and touching portraits of this turbulent time. The war poetry of Whitman has been set by many composers to express protests over many different wars and the war on the AIDS virus was no exception.  His sympathetic and warm feelings for the young men he nursed, added to his celebration of sexual love in all forms, make this a natural connection.

Adams (below) chose not to set the entire poem that casts the scene as one of a memory being offered by an older person (presumably Whitman, himself) to questioning young people. The piece begins with the reminiscence in which the old man recalls caring for the wounded in the hospital.

It was the wound dresser’s job to change dressings and clean the damaged area. Given the lack of anesthetic and primitive surgical practices of the day, this must have been a horrific experience for all concerned.

The sense of the powerlessness and misery is expressed by the use of unusual harmonic combinations and interesting pairings of instruments including a bugle-like trumpet and a hovering synthesizer as well as the use of extreme ranges especially in the string writing.

“The Wound Dresser” was first performed by American baritone Sanford Sylvan in 1989 and has become a part of the concert repertoire.

The vital protest against the waste of life, wherever it occurs, is always timely. With American involvement in two wars right now and the continued suffering of the poor and unfortunate all over the world, “The Wound Dresser” gives eloquent and poignant voice to the concerns of thoughtful people everywhere.

Posted in Classical music

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