Jennifer Higdon's 'Dooryard Bloom' Jennifer Higdon's Dooryard Bloom derives its title from Walt Whitman's poem on the death of Lincoln. Her work was commissioned by the Brooklyn Philharmonic, which gave the premiere with vocalist Nmon Ford last year.

Jennifer Higdon's 'Dooryard Bloom'

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Jennifer Higdon...

...came to widespread notice with the Philadelphia Orchestra's premiere of her Concerto for Orchestra in 2002. Robert Spano and the ASO commissioned her City Scape and premiered it later that year, but audiences had already begun to discover her colorful and refreshingly accessible musical style through performances of her 1999 work blue cathedral.

Born in Brooklyn, Higdon grew up in Atlanta and attended her first orchestra concerts in the Woodruff Arts Center. She teaches at the Curtis Institute for Music in Philadelphia and leads a professional career as a flutist and conductor.

Nmon Ford...

...has performed throughout the Americas, Europe and Japan, most recently covering in the role of Amfortas in Robert Wilson's production of Wagner's Parsifal with Los Angeles Opera, starring Placido Domingo and conducted by Kent Nagano.

Future engagements include Mahler's Symphony No. 8 with the National Symphony conducted by Leonard Slatkin, the title role of Billy Budd at the Hamburg Opera and the title role in Don Giovanni with the Spoleto Festival USA conducted by Emmanuel Villaume.

Composer Jennifer Higdon. hide caption

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Soloist Nmon Ford. hide caption

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Jennifer Higdon's Dooryard Bloom derives its title from Walt Whitman's poem (also set for soloists, chorus and orchestra in the 1940s by Paul Hindemith). Her work was commissioned by the Brooklyn Philharmonic, which gave the premiere with Nmon Ford last year.

The composer has published her thoughts on the piece:

"A near impossible task, to write about this piece of music which sets Walt Whitman's 'When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd.' Normally, for a composer, the explanation of a piece is a much more straightforward affair. In this particular case, it is extremely difficult, maybe not even possible, for the text discusses and explores so many aspects of grief and loss. As a composer, I am hesitant to tread in this area with words (because Whitman did it so masterfully); I feel that only the musical notes that I write can do so in an appropriate manner. I can tell you, however, that I was moved by all of the stages of grief that Whitman examines in this poem, and that I was struck by the fact that he captures the extreme range of emotions that we all must face at some point.

My title, Dooryard Bloom, is a play of words on Whitman's title. A dooryard is defined as the yard next to the door of a house... which in this poem could mean many things... Is the yard the hereafter? Or is it a place leading to a passage? What is the bloom? The growth of a flower or a view of light? The lilacs blooming... are they representative of death or of life? Or of growth? Or of time passing... lilacs last. The beauty of music is the power to suggest things that even words might not convey. Therefore, take your own meaning from this piece, literally or emotionally or metaphorically... let it be your own dooryard."

All text courtesy program notes for 'A King Celebration' from the Woodruff Arts Center, Atlanta, Ga.

When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd

The text of Walt Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd."

When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd,

And the great star early droop'd in the western sky in the night,

I mourn'd, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.


Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,

Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,

And thought of him I love.


O powerful western fallen star!

O shades of night - O moody, tearful night!

O great star disappear'd - O the black murk that hides the star!

O cruel hands that hold me powerless - O helpless soul of me!

O harsh surrounding cloud that will not free my soul.


In the dooryard fronting an old farm-house near the white-wash'd palings,

Stands the lilac-bush tall-growing with heart-shaped leaves of rich green,

With many a pointed blossom rising delicate, with the perfume strong I love,

With every leaf a miracle - and from this bush in the dooryard,

With delicate-color'd blossoms and heart-shaped leaves of rich green,

A sprig with its flower I break.


In the swamp in secluded recesses,

A shy and hidden bird is warbling a song.

Solitary the thrush,

The hermit withdrawn to himself, avoiding the settlements,

Sings by himself a song.


Song of the bleeding throat,

Death's outlet song of life, (for well dear brother I know,

If thou wast not granted to sing thou would'st surely die.)


(Nor for you, for one alone,

Blossoms and branches green to coffins all I bring,

For fresh as the morning, thus would I chant a song for you,

O sane and sacred death.


All over bouquets of roses,

O death, I cover you over with roses and early lilies,

But mostly and now the lilac that blooms the first,

Copious I break, I break the sprigs from the bushes,

With loaded arms I come, pouring for you,

For you and the coffins all of you O death.)


Sing on there in the swamp,

O singer bashful and tender, I hear your notes, I hear your call,

I hear, I come presently, I understand you,

But a moment I linger, for the lustrous star has detain'd me,

The star my departing comrade holds and detains me.


O how shall I warble myself for the dead one there I loved?

And how shall I deck my song for the large sweet soul that has gone?

And what shall my perfume be for the grave of him I love?


Sing on, sing on you gray-brown bird,

Sing from the swamps, the recesses, pour your chant from the bushes,

Limitless out of the dusk, out of the cedars and pines.


Sing on dearest brother, warble your reedy song,

Loud human song, with voice of uttermost woe.


O liquid and free and tender!

O wild and loose to my soul - O wondrous singer!

You only I hear - yet the star holds me, (but will soon depart,)

Yet the lilac with mastering odor holds me.


Then with the knowledge of death as walking one side of me,

And the thought of death close-walking the other side of me,

And I in the middle as with companions, and as holding the hands of companions,

I fled forth to the hiding receiving night that talks not,

Down to the shores of the water, the path by the swamp in the dimness,

To the solemn shadowy cedars and ghostly pines so still.


Came the carol of the bird.

And the charm of the carol rapt me,

As I held as if by their hands my comrades in the night,

And the voice of my spirit tallied the song of the bird.


Come lovely and soothing death,

Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,

In the day, in the night, to all, to each,

Sooner or later delicate death.


Prais'd be the fathomless universe,

For life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious,

And for love, sweet love - but praise! praise! praise!

For the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding death.


Dark mother always gliding near with soft feet,

Have none chanted for thee a chant of fullest welcome?

Then I chant it for thee, I glorify thee above all,

I bring thee a song that when thou must indeed come, come unfalteringly.


Approach strong deliveress,

When it is so, when thou hast taken them I joyously sing the dead,

Lost in the loving floating ocean of thee,

Laved in the flood of thy bliss O death.


From me to thee glad serenades,

Dances for thee I propose saluting thee, adornments and feastings for thee,

And the sights of the open landscape and the high-spread sky are fitting,

And life and the fields, and the huge and thoughtful night.


The night in silence under many a star,

The ocean shore and the husky whispering wave whose voice I know,

And the soul turning to thee O vast and well-veil'd death,

And the body gratefully nestling close to thee.


Over the tree-tops I float thee a song,

Over the rising and sinking waves, over the myriad fields and the prairies wide,

Over the dense-pack'd cities all and the teeming wharves and ways,

I float this carol with joy, with joy to thee O death.


To the tally of my soul,

Loud and strong kept up the gray-brown bird,

With pure deliberate notes spreading filling the night.


Loud in the pines and cedars dim,

Clear in the freshness moist and the swamp-perfume,

And I with my comrades there in the night.


Passing the visions, passing the night,

Passing, unloosing the hold of my comrade's hands,

Passing the song of the hermit bird and the tallying song of my soul,

Victorious song, death's outlet song, yet varying ever-altering song,

As low and wailing, yet clear the notes, rising and falling, flooding the night,

Sadly sinking and fainting, as warming and warming, and yet again bursting with joy,

Covering the earth and filling the spread of the heaven,

As the powerful psalm in the night I heard from recesses,

Passing, I leave thee lilac with heart-shaped leaves,

I leave thee there in the door-yard, blooming, returning with spring.


I cease from my song for thee,

From my gaze on thee in the west, fronting the west, communing with thee,

O comrade lustrous with silver face in the night.


Yet each to keep and all, retrievements out of the night,

The song, the wondrous chant of the gray-brown bird,

And the tallying chant, the echo arous'd in my soul,

With the lustrous and drooping star with the countenance full of woe,

With the holders holding my hand nearing the call of the bird,

Comrades mine and I in the midst, and their memory ever to keep, for the dead I loved so well,

For the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands - and this for his dear sake,

Lilac and star and bird twined with the chant of my soul,

There in the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim.