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Whitman Tropes

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Richard Toensing

Richard Toensing

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General Info

Year: before 2005
Duration: c. 22:00
Difficulty: (see Ratings for explanation)
Publisher: Janet Braccio
Cost: Score and Parts - Unknown


1. Psalm 148, part 1 – 1:25
2. Trope 1 – 2:05
3. Psalm 148, part 2 – 2:05
4. Trope 2 – 2:00
5. Psalm 148, part 3 – 0:40
6. Trope 3 – 3:55
7. Psalm 148, part 4 – 0:20
8. Trope 4 – 2:20
9. Psalm 148, part 5 – 1:15
10. Trope 5 – 4:25
11. Coda (Psalm 104:24) – 1:40


Full Score
Oboe I-II
Bassoon I-II-III
B-flat Soprano Clarinet I-II-III-IV
B-flat Trumpet I-II-III-IV
Horn in F I-II-III-IV
Trombone I-II-III
String Bass
Percussion I-II-III-IV

(percussion detail desired)

Solo High Soprano


None discovered thus far.

Program Notes

In the context of this music, “trope” refers to the practice in the Medieval Roman Catholic Church of texts that were more-or-less “embroidered onto” the received text of portions of the Mass sung as plainchant. The Mass opens with “Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison, Kyrie Eleison” (“God have mercy upon us, Christ have mercy upon us, God have mercy upon us”). A trope might include such words as “God, Creator of all, Father of all mercies, Preserver of all people, have mercy upon us.” The added “material,’” if one may describe it thus, would not necessarily add a different meaning to the text, but over time it became apparent—at least to the Church Fathers—that a great deal, perhaps too much, of this embroidery was happening. Finally, the Council of Trent (lasting from 1545 to 1563) removed tropes and the practice of adding works to the Mass, however appropriate they might have seemed to some.

In Whitman Tropes, Toensing revisits the ancient practice of embroidering text upon Scripture: in this instance, employing words of the American poet, Walt Whitman (1819-1892). Much of Whitman’s poesy has been set to music -- Hindemith’s setting of When lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d is perhaps the most well-known example -- but Toensing chose extracts from Whitman’s Specimen Days. This “jumble” (as Whitman describes it) of both prose and poems is a later work of Whitman’s and something of an autobiography of the poet; indeed, it perhaps is the closest we have to an actual Walt Whitman autobiography. Published in 1882, but containing material written as early as during the years of the American Civil War, Specimen Days contains poems which, among other things, maintain the quality of earlier Whitman poetry. Toensing juxtaposes text from Psalm 148 in the Old Testament (as well as a brief quotation from Psalm 104) with words from Whitman. The work is in five parts, with a quotation from Psalm 148 immediately followed by, and sometimes blended with, Whitman’s verse.

Although it is not known when the psalm was written, nor who wrote it, Psalm 148 is the third “hallelujah” psalm, a psalm calling upon the reader to give praise to God, primarily for His creation. The flow of the Biblical text into that of Whitman’s is achieved in a smooth and seamless manner, with the soloist singing the sacred text and then expressing the works of a man who, while not Christian in the sense that word was understood in his day, expressed his thoughts and feelings in an elaborate, but still strikingly similar, manner. The music deftly matches the text, moving from moments of quiet, barely suppressed ecstasy to outbursts of joy; from the quiet of the dawn to the building of storms and great winds. The work concludes with a bold, forthright declaration of praise from Psalm 104, the band joining with the soloist in music well-fitted to the words: O Lord, how manifold are thy works, in wisdom hast thou made them all!

- Program Note by Jeff Bowell for Albany Records CD Night Songs

This work was commissioned by the New England Conservatory of Music. The NEC recording of the Toensing work won the American Prize, Ernst Bacon Award for American Music Performance, College/University Ensemble Division, 2019-20.


State Ratings

None discovered thus far.


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Works for Winds by This Composer