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Bernard Herrmann’s “Whitman” — A Subversive Yet Inspirational Entertainment for Today

In 1944, Bernard Herrmann collaborated with the producer Norman Corwin on “Whitman,” a half-hour dramatic presentation invoking America’s iconic poet to rally the home front during World War II. It was heard by millions of listeners. It’s a classic exemplar of a forgotten creative genre: the radio drama. 

The clip at the top of this column samples a moment of hypnotic eloquence: Herrmann’s treatment of Whitman’s famous meditation on the graveyard grass – witness to Civil War dead, young and old. This derives not from the original broadcast, with Charles Laughton, but from a new PostClassical Ensemble Naxos CD, featuring William Sharp as Whitman and PCE eloquently conducted by Angel Gil-Ordonez. The remarkable visual treatment, by Peter Bogdanoff, derives from PCE’s latest “More than Music” film: “Beyond Psycho– The Musical Genius of Bernard Herrmann.”

Here is the entire film, which features commentary by Angel and myself — plus Whitman scholar Karen Karbiener, Murray Horwitz on radio drama, Dorothy Herrmann on first seeing Psycho with “Daddy,” and Alex Ross on Herrmann’s insufficiently appreciated legacy. 

Here is more on the CD, which also features terrific performances of Herrmann’s Clarinet Quintet (my favorite chamber work by any American) and his Psycho Narrative for string orchestra (not to be confused with the better-known, and far inferior, Psycho Suite) – a portrait of Herrmann “in the round.” As readers of this blog may recall, I consider Herrmann the most under-rated 20thcentury American composer. Here is something Alex Ross says in our film:

“Bernard Herrmann was absolutely one of the most original 20th-century composers of any country. I’m very happy that this CD is expanding our sense of Herrmann’s achievement, bringing a little known score to light . . . What strikes me about this combination of Herrmann pieces is that the emotional range is huge. It’s a very great talent that’s on display here, one that we’re very far from appreciating and celebrating in full.” 

Here is something Murray Horwitz says in our film:

“In 1944, radio was IT – the first instant mass medium. Corwin’s radio dramas reached as many as 60 million listeners – that’s nearly half the American population. . . . This confluence of fine art and a mass medium is something we’ve lost today.” 

And here, from the film, is Bill Sharp:

“When I hear Whitman’s words illuminated by Herrmann’s music, I really find it quite overwhelming. It speaks to us today on so many levels – when you hear ‘The President and all the government are here for you, not the other way around.’ . . . It’s just incredibly beautiful. I think that for modern audiences and presenters, it could be a magically wonderful thing to hear, very different from what audiences expect.”

And, finally, here is Walt Whitman, supported by Bernard Herrmann, extolling American democracy, “a teeming nation of nations” – words that today sound both inspirational and  subversive:

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