The Wound-Dresser

John Adams

The Wound-Dresser

About this work

The Wound-Dresser is a setting of most of the poem of the same name by Walt Whitman. Scored for baritone and orchestra, the work was written in 1989 and premiered that year by Sanford Sylvan and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra under the direction of the composer. Whitman's poem is part of the series "Drum-Taps," which treated Civil War themes. The poet visited hospitals during the war, nursing and otherwise helping and consoling the wounded. The horror of what he encountered there, and the compassion and selflessness with which he went about his frequently disturbing duties, are embodied in the poem. While he was composing his setting, Adams' own father was dying of Alzheimer's disease. Having watched his mother devote herself to caring for him, Adams was struck by the bond that develops between a caretaker and a dying person. Therefore, there is a particularly personal aspect to Adams' response to the poem. This profoundly moving work begins in an almost matter-of-fact fashion, as the speaker (presumably Whitman) goes about his business of tending to the wounded. Quiet, pulsating chords accompany, with a solo violin soaring over all. The anxiety level rises briefly as the protagonist looks directly into the eyes of one of the wounded. The text then becomes more specific about particular injuries and infections. Broken and missing limbs, deep wounds, gangrene -- he sees them all, and deals with them as impassively as he can, only briefly giving way to his revulsion. The music moves unrelentingly, but with an understated tone, through the horrible imagery. It is occasionally dissonant, but mostly calm and restrained, almost preternaturally so given the grim subject matter. The tones are muted -- strings, trumpet, flute, and synthesizer. The baritone inhabits a fairly narrow range, mirroring the emotional restraint of the piece. Only in a couple of places does the emotion burst forth more dramatically. Toward the end, a solo trumpet sums up the somber military mood. The work ends peacefully with an extended chord, perhaps reflecting Whitman's (and Adams') compassion and sense of hope.

Done