Such Was The War - excerpts

Choral symphony for baritone solo, chorus and orchestra based on the Civil War poetry, prose and correspondence of Walt Whitman

  • Full orchestra: 3333 | 4331 | timp+3 | hrp | 1 (or2) handbell ringer | baritone solo + 6-part mixed chorus | strings
  • Chamber orchestra: 1111 | 2110 | timp+3 | hrp | 1 (or2) handbell ringer | baritone solo + 6-part mixed chorus | 11111 (or chamber strings)
c 42 minutes
I O Terrible Drums
II Subtle Electric Fire
III I Dream
Listen to a recording
Marcus DeLoach, baritone solo; Gloria Musicae Singers and Chamber Orchestra, Joseph Holt, Conductor (live performance)
p 5, Reh N — Mvt I: (Chorus) Look Down Fair Moon; (Chorus and Baritone Solo) Beat! Beat! Drums!
p 50, Reh E — Mvt II: (Chorus) Whoever you are; O you whom I often and silently come where you are; (Baritone Solo) Lewy; (Chorus) Come Closer to Me
p 69, Reh D — Mvt III: (Chorus) In Midnight's Sleep; I dream
Information on the sheet music
Reviews | Comments

Norman Scribner, Artistic Director, Choral Arts Society of Washington
...a stunning three-movement, 40-minute choral symphony, Such Was The War surely is destined for an honored place in the permanent repertory of our own time... an eloquent and powerful musical statement... The world premiere in the Concert Hall of The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts was by all accounts a resounding success...  [Six years later, in 2009], James Grant's masterfully reworked score received its world premiere in the auspicious National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution here in Washington, DC.  The chamber choir, the twenty instrumentalists, and the audience itself were all deeply caught up in the overwhelming impact of the work. Many [in the chamber choir] felt that this event was one of the most memorable concerts in their entire Choral Arts experience... I consider it an honor that our organization was involved in such a significant occurence as the birth of Such Was The War.  I highly recommend this magnificent opus, in both its full and chamber instrumentations, to all lovers of great choral music.  For all with ears to hear, its message is indeed for the ages.  [ Read the full letter. ]

Baltimore Sun (Tim Smith)
...the choral writing, whether in explosive outbursts that convey the ugliness of war or in exquisitely harmonized reflections on human relations, is assured…the orchestration is vivid throughout…the sincerity is never in doubt, and there's an unmistakable, cumulative power generated by the text and music…Such Was the War makes an honorable contribution to the choral repertoire. 

Washington Times (T. L. Ponick)
…an ambitious new work…a secular requiem reflecting on war and its aftermath…an impressive marriage of poetry and music that signifies a real triumph of modern American tonalism…a work of outstanding power and breadth of emotion…take[s] a musical stand in favor of art that has meaning…it speaks directly to the public without condescension…a splendid piece of choral writing that absolutely deserves a place in a repertoire that has been parched for new pieces worth performing in the past half century.

Sarasota Herald-Tribune (Gayle Williams)
...I haven't the heart to deconstruct what was a profoundly moving artistic creation...My heart is still pounding with the peak moment with the war-torn chorus singing 'dig the trenches and gather the heaps'...  

Commissioned by
  • The Choral Arts Society of Washington, Norman Scribner, Music Director
  • 2003 | Original version for full orchestra
  • 2009 | Chamber version for reduced instrumentation
Program note

In the summer of 2001, I was delighted and honored when Norman Scribner asked me to compose a new work for baritone solo, chorus and orchestra to be premiered by the Choral Arts Society in May of 2003. After considering a variety of poets and writers (primarily American Transcendentalists and writers of English mystical poetry), I chose to design a text around the works of Walt Whitman.

As I read about Whitman and explored his many writings—the poetry of Leaves of Grass, the prose of Specimen Days, Democratic Vistas and other essays, and the extensive trove of correspondence that has been saved and catalogued—a compelling story emerged of Whitman’s Civil War years, when he worked as a volunteer nurse in the Union Army, both in hospital and on the battlefield. After dog-earing literally hundreds of pages of text—eye-witness journal accounts of pitched battles, affectionate letters to family and friends and to wounded soldiers he had nursed to health, poems of electric love and chaotic war—I began the task of fine-tuning a collection of these writings that, when braided together, would present a deeply human portrait of this larger-than-life philosopher/poet. Such Was The War celebrates Whitman the man—the expansive poet, the tireless nurse, the ardent suitor—through his own words.

Central to Whitman’s experience of the Civil War was his relationship with the young wounded soldiers, his “dear, darling comrades,” from whom he absorbed as much attention and affection as he himself radiated to them. In addition to dressing wounds, assisting in surgeries, writing letters home for the soldiers and burying the dead, Walt (as he insisted everyone call him) appeared daily in the hospital as an ebullient presence, striding down the aisles of the wards, handing out to the wounded soldiers tobacco, jellies and jams, sweets and other treats paid for out of his own meager funds or from money he had raised specifically for the young men: “The doctors tell me I provide the patients with a medicine which all their drugs and bottles and powders are helpless to yield,” he wrote. By the end of the Civil War, Whitman and his medicine of loving companionship had tended to the needs of several hundred thousand wounded soldiers from both the North and the South.

While I have taken the liberty, for compositional purposes, of “editing out” excessive wordiness in Whitman’s prose and letters, the texts of his poetry remain pure and are taken from the so-called Deathbed edition of Leaves of Grass (1891-92). Such Was The War is presented in three movements. Following a brief prologue, Mvt. I (O Terrible Drums) marches headlong into battle. Mvt. II (Subtle Electric Fire) finds Whitman in the hospitals, among “these ranks of sick and dying young men.” A disturbing midnight dream in Mvt. III (I Dream) recounts the aftermath of battle on a moonlit field, “where we dig the trenches and gather the heaps.” Throughout the work, Walt’s brave young soldiers—some hale, some helpless—are never far from his thoughts and heart.

Addendum: In 2008, five years after the premiere of Such Was The War, I was re-commissioned by the Choral Arts Society of Washington to fashion a second version of the piece, scored for chamber orchestra and chorus. I seized this opportunity to make revisions to the work as a whole, thus creating two revised versions of Such Was The War: one scored for the original instrumentation of baritone solo with large orchestra and symphonic chorus; and the second scored for baritone solo with a chamber orchestra of 19 players and chamber chorus.

The original work (scored for large orchestra) was premiered by the Choral Arts Society of Washington Chorus and Orchestra on May 16, 2003, at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, with David Arnold singing the role of Whitman; and the revised work, in its scoring for chamber orchestra, was premiered by the Choral Arts Society on March 15, 2009, at the National Portrait Gallery, with Christòpheren Nomura as soloist. Both performances were under the direction of Norman Scribner, Music Director of the Choral Arts Society of Washington.