Field where General Reynolds fell, Gettysburg, negative by T.H. O'Sullivan, positive by A. Gardner, July 1863. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
from Five Poems of Walt Whitman, 1957
By Ned Rorem, b. 1923
Composed in 1957 in France, "Look Down, Fair Moon," is Ned Rorem's musical portrait of Walt Whitman's poem, included in a collection entitled Drum-Taps, a sequence of 43 poems about the Civil War. Whitman's haunting poem describes moonlight illuminating horrific scenes in the aftermath of the Civil War, a graphic imagery of death and eternal peace. The song opens in the key of E minor, with the voice and piano entering almost simultaneously. The text is comprised of only four phrases, but Rorem's use of text painting throughout the song enhances Whitman's message in miniature form. For instance, Rorem uses a descending melodic line in conjunction with the phrase "Look down, fair moon," as representation of the moon shining downward; likewise, in the phrase "Pour softly down night's nimbus floods on faces ghastly, swollen, purple," Rorem uses syncopation and accents on the words "faces ghastly," "swollen," and "purple" to emphasize the gruesomeness of the scenario. Furthermore, the apex of the song is marked by the highest pitches sung by the vocalist as well as by an accompaniment that intensifies chromatically.
"Look Down, Fair Moon," is contained in a collection of Rorem's songs, the Five Poems of Walt Whitman, which was published by Boosey and Hawkes in 1970. The song was dedicated to Donald Gramm, who has recorded the song for the Phoenix label. The stark lament has also been championed by mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, recorded for the Erato label in 2000, and by baritone Thomas Hampson for Angel Records in 2005.