In the mid-20th century, American composer Ernst Bacon (1898-1990) was well known. His Symphony in D Minor was awarded a Pulitzer Scholarship in 1932. In the ’30s, he was appointed head of the WPA Federal Music Project in San Francisco and founded the Carmel Bach Festival. In that decade he also composed half of his total output of 67 Emily Dickinson art-songs, a genre in which he was a pioneer. Ernest Bloch wrote: “Your songs seem to me the true and delicate expression of a very fine sensibility which has found its subtle medium – there is no doubt that you are a born song-writer.”
Born in Chicago of an Austrian mother and MidWestern father, Bacon is something of an American Schubert. Besides about 250 art songs, he composed orchestral, chamber, and choral works, along with a few operas and ballets. In 1946 Virgil Thomson, reviewing an all-Bacon vocal and chamber music concert in Times Hall, called him “one of America’s best composers.” Included on this program were a half dozen of his Appalachian folk song settings for unison and SA chorus and his cantata for women’s voices (SSAA), From Emily’s Diary. A later cantata for women’s voices, Nature, is also based on Emily Dickinson poems.
Besides many lively and spirited SATB pieces, published by Lawson-Gould, Peer International, Belwin-Mills, Shawnee Press, Rongwen, Summy-Birchard, Edward B. Marks, Theodore Presser, and Mercury Music, Bacon composed dozens of SA pieces, many published and many still in manuscript. Some of these were written for the San Francisco Boys Chorus, which was founded and for 25 years conducted by Ernst’s sister, Madi Bacon.
Much of Ernst Bacon’s music, however, is in danger of being lost and forgotten. His fertile imagination kept him busy composing ever-new works, taking little time to promote the existing ones. His preference for living in hilly areas – where he enjoyed long, mostly solitary walks – kept him away from New York City, where most of the major careers of his generation were secured. And most of all, the tyranny of the musical avant-garde in the last 4 decades of his life drove him underground. Ignored as an outcast for being a melodist whose sophisticated harmonies were not atonal, he pursued his own path of imagination and integrity in relative isolation.
Since Bacon’s death, a revival of his music has been under way, slowly but steadily. Bacon’s choral music, however, has not yet been revived and needs to be rescued from near oblivion. With the Walt Whitman bicentennial coming up in 2019, this would be a good time to perform his short oratorio (46 minutes), By Blue Ontario, written to various Whitman texts. This stirring and quintessentially American piece was composed and premiered at Syracuse University in 1958 and then performed again in 1969 (at the time of the Whitman sesquicentennial) by the MIT Choral Society and Orchestra. (View a live recording of that performance here.) Other pieces on this Whitman-themed program included Vaughan Williams’ On the beach at night alone, Holst’s Dirge for Two Veterans, and Delius’s Songs of Farewell, Nos. 2,, 3, and 5. A recent work that would also be a good companion piece is Jeffrey Van’s powerful and moving A Procession Winding around Me (four Civil War poems for mixed chorus and guitar).
Following are some excerpts of writings by Ernst Bacon about the influence of language on musical style, especially pertaining to Walt Whitman.
“I have long been of the opinion that poetry is the basis of musical melody: and that many of the greatest changes in musical style have resulted from the need to give musical expression to types of language, whether poetry or drama, hitherto unused… A new music arose from the introduction of the German language into the Protestant church service. The Italian theatre, when it introduced song, produced something unique in music… To the native musical writer of today, poetry, English and American, could be the simplest and most reliable guide to an indigenous style. Its meters and its subject matter would decide the geometry of its melody, its curves and cadences, its pace and the cast of its forms. You can’t write fifty songs to Whitman and still sound like a Frenchman. You can’t do a cycle of Emily Dickinson in the manner of Hugo Wolf.”
“Whitman revealed himself to me with his all-embracing sympathy and generosity, his Biblical eloquence, his poetic geography and love of place, his respect for the commonplace, and his vast faith in democracy…….’Whitman,’ Alfred North Whitehead said, ‘seems to me to have been one of the few very great poets that ever lived. Much of what he says is so new that he even had to invent a form for saying it.’ A composer approaching this grand prophet feels no fear. His greatest concern is that he may not achieve sounds worthy of Whitman’s great lines.”
“Worthy does not mean equal to, but respectful of, and in tune with. Great poetry may invite music, but seldom needs it. It is rare when a composer measures up to the greatest of poets: as Schubert did with Goethe in some songs; or as Verdi did with Shakespeare in Othello; or Moussorgsky in Boris. Most great songs and music dramas look to lesser texts; for it is natural for the music to take first place, and it is no less unnatural and improper that music should stand before poetry greater than itself.”
“However, a composer sometimes sets the greatest poetry to music as a form of tribute. And it is in this spirit that I have dared to choose Walt Whitman’s lines for my new work for chorus and orchestra, By Blue Ontario.”
Visit The Ernst Bacon Society for more resources, including videos, reviews, music clips, and photographs.