Come, sweet death! be persuaded
O beautiful death!
In mercy, come quickly.
The Wound Dresser
by Sarah Cahill
The Wound-Dresser was first performed in February 1989 by baritone Sanford Sylvan and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra conducted by the composer. The work takes as its text Walt Whitman’s poem of the same title, part of a sequence about the Civil War entitled “Drum-Taps.” Whitman assumed the task, during the war, of visiting the sick and wounded soldiers crowding the hospitals. He talked with them, wrote letters for them, nursed them, and comforted them. “The Wound-Dresser,” says Adams, “is the most intimate, most graphic, and most profoundly affecting evocation of the act of nursing the sick and dying that I know of. It is also astonishingly free of any kind of hyperbole or amplified emotion, yet the detail of the imagery is of a precision that could only be attained by one who had been there.”
Adams chose to omit the prefatory section of the poem, in which the narrator as an old man is asked to talk about his experiences, to “be witness again, paint the mightiest armies of earth./ Of those armies so rapid so wondrous what saw you to tell us?/ What stays with you latest and deepest?” The main body of the poem, then, is a flashback in which the narrator tells not of wondrous armies but of the suffering war victims. By beginning his piece with the hospital scene- “Bearing the bandages, water and sponge”- Adams places us firmly in the immediate present. “It was mostly a matter of tone,” he explains. “The first section is an overture to the actual event, the vision, and seems very dated, but the moment Whitman says ‘Bearing the bandages,’ he is speaking very plainly.”
There is a powerful tension in Whitman’s poem between the physical and the metaphysical, between bodily sickness, which he records with almost scientific detachment (“From the stump of the arm, the amputated hand/ I undo the clotted lint”) and a spiritual transcendence of the corporeal. Whitman the attentive nurse coexists with Whitman the visionary, and Adams is acutely sensitive to this dual role in his setting.
The instrumental character changes between stanzas almost like panels of a painted screen. A plaintive rocking figure in the violins creates a ghostly atmosphere to evoke the “dreams’ projections” through which the poem is filtered. A solo violin in its highest register hovers above the baritone’s opening lines; at the beginning of a later stanza the voice is paired with a solo trumpet, which seems to echo from the distant battlefield. From the elegiac restlessness of the opening, the mood is gradually transformed to one of warmth and affirmation.
Adams had already shown his sensitivity to language in his 1981 chorus-and-orchestra work Harmonium, which sets poems by Emily Dickinson and John Donne, and in Nixon in China, using Alice Goodman’s libretto. With the opera he particularly concentrated on transferring the natural rhythms of speech exactly into music. The obvious danger of setting a poem is that the poem’s own music- its inflections, its dips and curves, its pauses and cadences- will be impeded by the music accompanying it, a danger to which many contemporary composers have succumbed. Adams, however, has recreated the rhythms of Whitman’s Wound-Dresser so that the poem retains its integrity: the music enhances and deepens, rather than distorts, Whitman’s lines. For example, a phrase like “But a day or two more” becomes two sixteenth notes, a triplet, and a half note ( ), with a slight melodic rise on “day or two” to reflect that of the spoken phrase.
The narrator struggles with grief, with perseverance (“I am faithful, I do not give out”), and with revulsion at the horrors he confronts daily (“Cleanse the one with a gnawing and putrid gangrene, so sickening, so offensive”), all of which force an emotional climax in the middle of the poem. The music too becomes highly agitated and feverishly charged; the trumpet solo, paired with the voice, develops from stately quarter-notes to an erratic, disturbed comment on the text, punctuated by a steady percussive toll. The piece ends on a strong, comforting note, with an extended tender chord. Whitman’s sympathy and compassion for the dying soldiers shines through. The honest portrayal of hope in the face of suffering, gentle attendance and direct human contact, was as much an act of courage in Whitman’s time as it is in our own, and Adams has captured both the blunt realism and the inspiration of Whitman’s humane vision.
While Whitman wrote The Wound-Dresser more than a century ago and about an event which may seem remote to us, few of us remain untouched by its message. We are caregivers or patients, our friends and relatives may be afflicted by cancer, AIDS, or the illnesses of old age, but whatever our individual situations, The Wound-Dresser resonates with immediacy. While he was working on the piece, Adams’ own father was dying of Alzheimer’s disease and his mother was devoting her life to caring for him. “I was plunged into an awareness,” remembers Adams, “not only of dying, but also of the person who cares for the dying. The responsibility is tragic and also incredibly exhausting, and the bonding that takes place between the two is one of the most extraordinary human events that can happen- something deeply personal of which most of us are completely unaware.” But The Wound-Dresser, he points out, encompasses far more than either Whitman’s or his own experience: “It is a statement about human compassion that is acted out on a daily basis, quietly and unobtrusively and unselfishly and unfailingly. Another poem in the same volume states its theme in other words: ‘Those who love each other shall become invincible…’”