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On January 29, 30, and 31, 1976, Sir Georg Solti conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus’s first performances of Roger Sessions‘s When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d. The work had been chosen as part of the CSO’s recognition of the U.S. Bicentennial celebrations.

According to Arrand Parsons’s program note, in Walt Whitman‘s poem, three symbols appear: “the ‘great star,’ representing the assassinated Lincoln; the lilac, which usually is interpreted as human love; the thrush, representing the soul which has as its song the carol of death, a carol Whitman accepts as his own when he says ‘the voice of my spirit tallied the song of the bird.’ Sessions has arranged the score into three continuous parts. The first part sets the mournful mood and presents the symbolic elements: the ‘powerful western fallen star,’ the lilacs, and the song of the thrush. In the second part, the poet describes Lincoln’s funeral train slowly moving from Washington to Springfield, and his burial. The poet describes the land and its people, and a central and high point is the alto solo in which the ‘carol of the bird’ reflects on death. At the end, the symbols are united.”

The composer also contributed to the program note: “My cantata When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d was composed principally between 1967 and 1969; the orchestral score was finished in the autumn of 1970. The work was commissioned by the Committee for Arts and lectures of the University of California at Berkeley, in celebration of the University’s centennial in 1968; but it also represents, for me, the fruition of an idea that had been in my mind for very many years. Even during my adolescent years—the period of the First World War—the poem, written under the spell of one of the most tragic moments of our history, with its moving evocation of the rich American landscape in spring, with its lilacs, its forests, and its thrushes, and of the Civil War, had touched me very deeply; and in 1921 I even made a number of musical sketches for a possible musical setting of it. I was not satisfied with these sketches, however, and concluded that I was not ready at that time to undertake such a work. I never forgot it, however, and when the proposal was made that I write a work involving chorus and possible solo voice, it became clear to me that the time had come for me to write this work. I have to confess that only after having made many preliminary sketches and having become thoroughly involved in the music did I fully realize what its dimensions must be.

“The dedication to the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King and of Robert Kennedy was, of course, the result of the fact that their political assassinations occurred while I was working on the second part of the cantata.

“I have used as my text Whitman’s poem in its entirety with only occasional brief cuts, which the musical setting as I conceived it seemed to demand. These cuts are mainly in the third section, though to a lesser extent in the second also. They all occur at moments where verbal elaboration or repetition, though very powerful and very characteristic in the text as such, seemed to me redundant in the context of a musical setting.”

For these performances, soprano Sarah Beatty, mezzo-soprano Josephine Veasey, and baritone Dominic Cossa were the soloists; and the Chicago Symphony Chorus was prepared by Margaret Hillis. The second half of the program included the first CSO and CSC performances of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex. Reviews of the performances are here and here.

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