Turn To The World • A Whitman Cantata

Turn To The World: A Whitman Cantata (2019)

Duration ca. 17 minutes

Instrumentation: 3(picc.)2.eh.2.bcl.2.cbsn-

This work is in the proof reading stage; Commissioned by the Grant Park Music Festival this work is scored for large orchestra and chorus. The text includes excerpts from Whitman’s Thoughts on social justice, inequality, and corruption.

World-premiere on June 14 and 15, 2019 at the Grant Park Music Festival in Chicago.

Carlos Kalmar conducts the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus in the Grant Park Music Festival’s world premiere of Kareem Roustom’s Turn to the World: A Whitman Cantata, June 14, 2019, Jay Pritkzer Pavilion in Millennium Park. Photo by Norman Timonera.

The Chicago Tribune wrote: “Nothing spotlights the Grant Park Music Festival’s value more significantly than the premieres it commissions, and an impressive one took place on Friday night.  At first glance, “Turn to the World: A Whitman Cantata” – by composer-in-residence Kareem Roustom – might have suggested a look back at the 19th century ethos of poet Walt Whitman. But the Whitman texts the Syrian-American composer quoted seemed carefully chosen to speak to our times. ‘Turn to the World: A Whitman Cantata’ stood as searing social commentary and, as such, should win many performances to come.” 

Adaptistration wrote: “Written for the GPMF, this world premiere introduced a work that was powerful, profound, and perhaps most importantly, relevant.  From beginning to end, the 18-minute work grabbed the listener by the collar and delivered a transformative experience. It was helped in large part by never being afraid to use every element of the full orchestra and chorus to its most powerful effect. It left me feeling like I was a better person than the one who showed up at the beginning of the concert.”

Program notes:

Turn to the World: A Whitman Cantata was commissioned by the Grant Park Music Festival and is dedicated to Maestro Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Music Festival Orchestra and Chorus. Of it, Roustom wrote, “Walt Whitman’s text has inspired many composers, from England’s Frederick Delius (Sea Drift), Gustav Holst (Walt Whitman Overture), Ralph Vaughan Williams (A Sea Symphony) and, more recently, Oliver Knussen (Whitman Settings) to such American composers as Charles Ives, Roy Harris, Ned Rorem and the immigrant/World War II refugee Paul Hindemith (When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d), to name a few. So in this sense, my attraction to Whitman’s text is nothing new. However, my inspiration to set Whitman’s poetry about nationwide, and worldwide, moral and spiritual collapse is, perhaps, new.

“Though Whitman spoke to many subjects in his poetry, I am attracted to the Whitman who had his finger on the pulse of this nation before, during and after the Civil War, who was not afraid to speak out against injustice, corruption and tyranny, and whose forthright and frank criticism sought a path towards a remedy to all these ailments. As [University of Kentucky Professor of Literature] Arthur Wrobel wrote of Whitman’s 1871 pamphlet Democratic Vistas, ‘Whitman assumes several roles: that of a Jeremiah — harsh and uncompromising in his detailing of America’s many spiritual and moral failures; a cultural diagnostician who looks below the surface of America’s body politic to “the inmost tissues, blood, vitality, morality, heart & brain” in order to determine a course of treatment; and a visionary seer who anticipates the unfolding of the Great Republic of the future comprised of superbly developed individuals whose freedom lies in their obedience to eternal spiritual laws.’ In this pamphlet Whitman issues a dire warning: ‘The United States are destined either to surmount the gorgeous history of feudalism, or else prove the most tremendous failure of time.’ Though Whitman states that he is ‘not in the least doubtful … on any prospects of their material success,’ he warns of the dangers of a society of hypocrisy, the ‘depravity’ of greed in business, and a political class that is ‘saturated in corruption, bribery, falsehood, mal-administration.’ Whitman was also ‘distressed,’ as Wrobel wrote, about ‘society’s fragmentation, its fabric seemingly in imminent danger of being torn apart by a divisiveness he attributes to vestiges of feudalism — competing factions and classes, racial and gender tensions, distinctions between mass and polite culture, party politics, and incipient conflicts between labor and capital — as traditional standards retreat before the advance of accelerating change.’

“Though the remedies that Whitman offered in Democratic Vistas, critics wrote, were naive and not very practical, the alarm bells that he rang through his prose and poetry are bold and inspiring. The text that I chose to set comes from the last edition of Whitman’s Leaves Of Grass. Though my work is through-composed, it is cast in four movements. The first movement, As If, uses short poems titled Thought that Whitman had interspersed through various parts of Leaves of Grass. Each of these address issues of social justice and does so with indignation. The second movement, Reversals & Transpositions, is based on short poems found throughout Leaves of Grass, though they would later become part of a longer poem titled Poem of The Propositions of Nakedness. In both these texts, we find Whitman as a Jeremiah, stentorian and full of fire. In movement three, which is based on a poem called Roaming in Thought (After reading HEGEL), we find Whitman the idealist, his words both echoing those of the nineteenth-century transcendentalist minister Theodore Parker and foreshadowing those of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice’). Movement four is based on the poem Turn, O Libertad, in which Whitman urges the nation to turn to the world, not away from it. He tells us that we must also turn away from the faded glories of the past: ‘Turn from lands retrospective, recording proofs of the past.’ Greatness, Whitman tells us, lies ahead of us, not behind, and achieving it requires bravery and unity: ‘— Then turn, and be not alarm’d, O Libertad — turn your undying face, To where the future, greater than all the past, Is swiftly, surely preparing for you.’”

Text by Walt Whitman:

I. As If

(Thought)                                                                                                                                                Of Equality—As if it harm’d me, giving others the
same chances and rights as myself—As if it
were not indispensable to my own rights that
others possess the same;

Of Justice—As if Justice could be anything but the
same ample law, expounded by natural judges
and saviors,                                                                                                                                            As if it might be this thing or that thing, according
to decisions.


Of obedience, faith, adhesiveness;                                                                                          As I stand aloof and look, there is to me something
profoundly affecting in large masses of men,
following the lead of those who do not believe
in men.



LET that which stood in front go behind,

Let that which was behind advance to the front,

Let bigots, fools, unclean persons, offer new propositions,

Let the old propositions be postponed.



LET the reformers descend from the stands where they are forever
bawling—let an idiot or insane person appear on each of
the stands;

Let judges and criminals be transposed—let the prison-keepers be
put in prison—let those that were prisoners take the keys;

Let them that distrust birth and death lead the rest.


(After reading HEGEL)

ROAMING in thought over the Universe, I saw the little that is Good
steadily hastening towards immortality,
And the vast all that is call’d Evil I saw hastening to merge itself
and become lost and dead.


Turn, O Libertad – Poem by Walt Whitman

TURN, O Libertad, for the war is over,
(From it and all henceforth expanding, doubting no more, resolute,
sweeping the world,)
Turn from lands retrospective, recording proofs of the past;
From the singers that sing the trailing glories of the past;
From the chants of the feudal world–the triumphs of kings, slavery,
Turn to the world, the triumphs reserv’d and to come–give up that
backward world;
Leave to the singers of hitherto–give them the trailing past;
But what remains, remains for singers for you–wars to come are for
(Lo! how the wars of the past have duly inured to you–and the wars
of the present also inure:)
–Then turn, and be not alarm’d, O Libertad–turn your undying
To where the future, greater than all the past,
Is swiftly, surely preparing for you.

poet Walt Whitman Walt Whitman