Review of Passions of Bloom: Whitman, Melville, Dickinson, The International Festival of Arts & Ideas
In a work commissioned by the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, Martin Bresnick, a professor of composition at the Yale School of Music, pays homage to a fellow Yale professor. Bresnick’s oratorio, Passions of Bloom, was performed one night only, in a world premiere, at Morse recital hall, with the Yale Philharmonia and Yale choral artists. And it was a stunning event.
Harold Bloom, the eminent Sterling Professor of the Humanities at Yale and a renowned literary critic with a popular readership, has long mused upon the unique contributions of a trio of singular figures who stand as the lights of 19th century American literature: Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson. For Bloom, these three authors are not only superlatively gifted. They each represent a particular aspect of the American psyche that we all—as Americans—must understand to understand who we are. To ponder their words is to ponder what defines America, as a long, evolving myth that began on the eastern seaboard of this continent and which Bloom calls “the American Sublime.”
Bresnick’s libretto draws from the works of all four authors, Bloom included, to provide what Bloom himself might call an agon. Bloom, eighty-five at the time of composing The Daemon Knows (the text used by Bresnick), long ago posited a deep psychological struggle between a major poet and his predecessor poet. That agon, in Bloom’s account, did not include critics struggling with artists, but Bresnick’s selective quotations from Bloom suggest quite effectively that the “mode of memoir,” as a critical decision employed in Daemon, invites a rather lyrical conception of the critic’s relation to his objects of study. The fact that Bloom’s lines are set to music and sung lends credence to a certain bardic power common to both poet and critic. Though if Bloom is explicating his own consciousness he is doing so by means of the poets who take precedence in his mind and to whom his thoughts constantly return.
Consisting of twelve distinct sections, Passions of Bloom begins with an invocation to the sun before Bloom, sung by tenor James Taylor, takes the stage, and ends with a segment called “The Lesson is Done,” in which Bloom and his interlocutors—Whitman (Brian Giebler, tenor), Melville (Paul Tipton, bass-baritone), and Dickinson (Kate Maroney, mezzo-soprano, and Sherezade Panthaki, soprano)—suggest wisdom dawns at last. Throughout, we are given glimpses of Bloom as a student of these authors who continues to teach their works well past the age at which many would retire, if only because he is not done with his imagined dialogue with them. While that dialogue might not seem dramatic to those indifferent to the authors and their critics, Bresnick’s composition finds a means to express the lasting gravitas of what Bloom likes to call “cognitive power.”
In the two central sections, characters from Melville’s Moby-Dick appear, with Ahab (Glenn Miller, bass) in interesting counter-point to his author in section 6, and Ishmael (Thomas McCargar, baritone) adding the distinctive tone of Melville’s narrator in section 7. Miller’s voice, with its deep notes, suits the grandiose mania of Ahab, while McCarger’s lighter tones suggest the wry eye of Melville as Ishmael. As Bloom queries, “Where is Melville the Man in Moby-Dick?”, we see Melville represented by his characters, and, as sung by Tipton, as a figure of dark doubts delivered with robust power.
The strength of the piece is in Bresnick’s way of working with the words, to give them musical settings that can complement Bloom’s changing tones—at times abstract, at times personable, and at times truly inspired—and, at the same time, support the lyrical power of the great writers’ words. Whitman’s lines, as sung by Giebler, particularly in “And I Say to Mankind,” have an almost homiletic quality, while Maroney’s solo as Dickinson in “The Saddest Noise, the Sweetest Noise” is wonderfully effective as a setting for Dickinson’s lines, and the most satisfying rendering of a poet, independent of the critic or other characters. Maroney is then joined by Panthaki, and mezzo-soprano and soprano give a soaring other-worldliness to “I Reason, Earth is Short.”
For the penultimate section, “Bloom’s Daemon,” the two tenors, Taylor and Giebler, take up the main theme of Bloom’s book to let us see how Whitman, more than any other American figure, is the “Adam”—or originating figure—of what Bloom articulates as almost a religion of American literature. In the struggle to comprehend such original figures, Bloom suggests, his “daemon” has written the books and taught the classes. What keeps readers returning to Bloom’s work, for all its grand manner and sweeping generalities, is his heroic sense that reading literature with understanding is a mighty labor, one that not only determines the quality of one’s mind—or soul, as Whitman would have it—but also determines the kind of world in which one lives. Bloom’s daemon is informed by the critic’s need to make sense of what he reads, but it also informs us that how we make sense is who we are.
The concerns of such a work as Bresnick’s may seem rather specialized, but for anyone able to believe that poetry and literature are important to one’s sense of being, one could say that the Passions of Bloom exemplifies the mind’s intense attachment and attention to the written word in its most fervent and deeply American uses. While full enjoyment of Bresnick’s oratorio might presuppose some knowledge of Bloom’s work—which spans six decades—and a penchant for the writers Bloom reckons with, the quality of the lines incorporated, and the distinct tones and musical interplay of the different sections, makes for a riveting listening experience.
At one point, Bloom reflects that he cannot believe the world is best seen as an aesthetic experience, though he would like to. Bresnick’s Passions of Bloom flatters and perhaps fulfills that belief.
The International Festival of Arts and Ideas
Passions of Bloom: Whitman, Melville, Dickinson
Martin Bresnick, composer
Jeffrey Douma, conductor
Libretto drawn by the composer from the works of Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, and Harold Bloom
Brian Giebler, tenor; Kate Maroney, mezzo-soprano; Thomas McCarger, baritone; Glenn Miller, bass; Sherezade Panthaki, soprano; James Taylor, tenor; Paul Tipton, bass-baritone
Yale Choral Artists: Sean Maher, chorus manager; Megan Chartrand, Madeline Heale, Sherezade Panthaki, Sarah Yanovitch, soprano; Eric Brenner, Rachel Colman, Kate Maroney, Megan Roth, alto; Colin Britt, Brian Giebler, Steven Soph, Gene Stenger, tenor; Thomas McCarger, Paul Tipton, Steven Hrycelak, Glenn Miller, bass
Yale Philharmonia: Elly Toyoda (Concertmaster), Elliot Lee, Yurie Mitshuhashi, Marie Oka, violin 1; Rachel Ostler-Abbott (principal), Dio Saraza, Stephen Tang, Laura Park, violin 2; Emily Brandenburg (principal), Isabella Mensz, Alexandra Simpson, viola; Eric Adamshick (principal), Jiyoung Choi, Jesse Christeson, cello; Will Robbins (principal), Kaden Henderson, bass; Felice Dovynov, Helen Park, flute; Graeme Johnson, Eric Braley, clarinet; Alexander Walden, trombone; Sam Um, percussion; Lisa Moore, piano
Morse Recital Hall at Sprague Hall, Yale
June 20, 2017