L'Alboni e Walt Whitman



Title: Opera and Opera Singers
Author: Stauffer, Donald Barlow
Print source: J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds.,
"Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia"
(New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Italian opera and opera singers were an important influence on Whitman's creative development during those crucial years in the early 1850s when Leaves of Grass was germinating. Probably no other single influence is more important than this one. When we consider how many poems Whitman calls songs or chants, and how many references he makes to the voice and to singing, we come to realize that music and singing were central to the creation of his poetry. "But for the opera," he declared, "I could never have written Leaves of Grass " (qtd. in Trowbridge 166).

Even a quick glance at Whitman's poems will show the extent to which he thought of them in musical terms: from "Song of Myself" and the numerous other songs, to "Chants Democratic" and hundreds of references to the voice, singing, carols, hymns, choruses, musical instruments and the like. Operatic singing in particular, with its emotions, its atmosphere of close rapport between singer and audience, and its varied styles—particularly recitative and aria—is the ground upon which Whitman built many of his poems. It is possible to conceive of many of the long passages in "Song of Myself" and other poems as recitative in the Italian opera style: not only the catalogs, which rhythmically enumerate his experiences and perceptions, but the narrative or dramatic passages as well. Interspersed throughout these recitative passages are lyrical sections, such as the apostrophe to "voluptuous cool-breath'd earth" in section 21, that approximate operatic arias. Such analogies with recitative and aria are made explicit in"Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," where the mockingbird sings its aria of loss, and in "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," in which the hermit thrush sings its carol of death.

Whitman was particularly responsive to musical influences during the late 1840s and early 1850s, when Leaves of Grass was in its gestation stage and he was regularly attending the performances of Italian opera singers and companies in New York. The moods awakened in him by music played and sung in the streets, in the theater and in private shaped many of the poems he wrote. His own voice, "orotund sweeping and final," was a response to the almost mystical ecstasy he experienced when listening to grand opera and the singing of his favorite tenors and sopranos. In his manuscript notebooks he wrote of "the chanted Hymn whose tremendous sentiment shall uncage in my breast a thousand wide-winged strengths and unknown ardors and terrible ecstasies" (Uncollected 2:85)—a passage he reworked and included at the end of section 26 of "Song of Myself," beginning, "I hear the chorus, it is a grand opera, / Ah this indeed is music—this suits me."

Whitman was first exposed to opera in the 1840s, when the operas of Gaetano Donizetti and Giuseppe Verdi were performed in the Park Theater by companies featuring some of the great Italian singers of the day: Cesare Badiali, Marietta Alboni, Allesandro Bettini and others. Although he had earlier denounced the opera in 1845 as foreign and decadent, he quickly became a passionate convert, around the time when Don Francisco Marti's Italian opera company arrived from Havana in 1847 for a month-long season at the Castle Garden.

He began hearing opera regularly at the Astor Place Opera House from the time it opened in 1847; he also attended productions at the Park and Broadway theaters and others, and after 1854 at the beautiful new Academy of Music. It was during these years that he came to love the lyrical belcanto style of the operas of Giacchino Rossini, Vincenzo Bellini, Donizetti and the early Verdi and became a devoted opera lover. The belcanto style has its origins in the operas of Rossini, but was used by other Italian opera composers, including Donizetti, the early Verdi, and most notably Bellini, whose operas present a challenge to the singer's vocal technique. Bel canto consists of long passages of simple melody alternating with outbursts of elaborate vocal scrollwork, which turns the voice into a complex wind instrument. The desired effect was to heighten the dramatic meaning and significance of the words through attention to pitch, dynamics, melody, and timing. This highly emotional and intense use of the human voice was in Whitman's view the highest form of art.

In a piece in Specimen Days Whitman recalls his opera-going experiences in the early 1850s: "I heard, these years, well render'd, all the Italian and other operas in vogue, 'Somnambula,' 'The Puritans' [both by Bellini], 'Der Freischutz' [Carl Maria von Weber], 'Huguenots' [Giacomo Meyerbeer], 'Fille d'Regiment' [Donizetti], 'Faust' [Charles Gounod], 'Etoile du Nord' [Meyerbeer], 'Poliuto' [Donizetti], and others. Verdi's 'Ernani,' 'Rigoletto,' and 'Trovatore,' with Donizetti's 'Lucia' or 'Favorita' or 'Lucrezia,' and Auber's 'Massaniello,' or Rossini's 'William Tell' and 'Gazza Ladra,' were among my special enjoyments" (Prose Works 1:20).

Whitman was an enthusiastic fan of the great Italian singers who came to New York. His favorite tenor was Allesandro Bettini, who had a deep and lasting effect on him. The voice of Bettini, who performed the title role of Ernani and sang in Donizetti's La Favorita in August 1851, moved Whitman to tears; "the singing of this man," he wrote, "has breathing blood within it; the living soul, of which the lower stage they call art, is but the shell and sham" (Uncollected 1:257). Bettini is almost certainly the tenor whom Whitman describes in section 26 of "Song of Myself." Another of his favorites was the great Cesare Badiali, in Whitman's opinion the "superbest of all superb baritones" in the world: "a big, coarse, broad-chested, feller, invested, however, with absolute ease of demeanor—a master of his art—confident, powerful, self-sufficient" (Traubel 173). Others include the soprano Angiolina Bosio, who later became the toast of Europe; Giulia Grisi and her husband Giuseppe Mario, who Whitman said was "inimitable" in Lucrezia Borgia. A poem written in Whitman's later years commemorates the death and funeral of another tenor, Pasquale Brignoli, whom he had heard years earlier in many roles in the 1840s and 1850s. The poem, "The Dead Tenor" (1884), acknowledges the strong influence of the singing voice on his own "chants."

But his favorite singer by far was the contralto Madame Marietta Alboni, one of the greatest singers of the nineteenth century, who created a sensation in her only New York season in 1852-1853. In the fall she appeared at Niblo's Garden in twelve operas, and gave eleven more performances at other houses in the winter and spring. In addition she gave twelve operatic recitals and was a soloist in Rossini's Stabat Mater. One music critic wrote, "Alboni's performances are as purely and absolutely beautiful as it is possible for anything earthly to be" (qtd. in Faner 29). Whitman was obviously in agreement, since he recalled in Specimen Days that he "heard Alboni every time she sang in New York and vicinity" (Prose Works 1:20). His poem "To a Certain Cantatrice" (1860) is addressed to Madame Alboni, who he says is as deserving of his tribute as heroes, generals, and other "confronter[s] of despots." She is also prominently featured in the poem most richly commemorating his operatic enthusiasms, "Proud Music of the Storm" (1869): "The teeming lady comes, / The lustrous orb, Venus contralto, the blooming mother, / Sister of loftiest gods, Alboni's self I hear" (section 3). Alboni's most profound influence is on the aria of the mockingbird in "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" and the carol of the hermit thrush in "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," both of which are distillations of Whitman's experiences in listening to her singing.

These two poems, in fact, employ a recitative-aria structure quite consciously modeled on Italian operatic style. In "Out of the Cradle" the bird songs are printed in italics in order to emphasize the lyrical quality of the aria, while the recitative parts underline the dramatic content and structure of the poem, which, like Italian opera, tells a tragic story of love, separation, and death. "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" contains more recitative than aria, and does not so clearly distinguish between them. The arias are not italicized, but they have an effect similar to those in "Out of the Cradle." In construction, however, the poem is closer in form to the sonata or symphony than to opera.

The poem in which Whitman mentions opera most extensively is "Proud Music of the Storm" (1869), a kind of musical autobiography, in which he lists the variety of musical influences on his life and poetry. If he resisted the influence of European culture in many ways, he clearly did not when it came to music; he devotes over a third of the poem to the operas of Rossini, Meyerbeer, Donizetti, Verdi, Gounod and Mozart, singling out "Italia's peerless compositions" and the roles of Norma, Lucia and Ernani. "Proud Music" also celebrates Rossini's Stabat Mater (in which he had heard Alboni perform), and the symphonies and oratorios of Beethoven, Handel and Haydn, including The Creation.

His preference was clearly for the passionate Italian style of singing. He had little interest in what the critic Richard Grant White called "the thin, throaty, French way of singing" (qtd. in Faner 63), nor did he share the widespread popular enthusiasm for the dazzling recitals of the Swedish singer Jenny Lind, a creature of P.T. Barnum who became a great celebrity during her 1851-1852 New York season. After hearing her perform Whitman commented on the singing of this "strangely overpraised woman," writing that she "never touched my heart in the least," and that "there was a vacuum in the head of the performance . . . It was the beauty of Adam before God breathed into his nostrils" (Uncollected 1:257).

Another important influence upon Whitman's developing taste for operatic music was George Sand's novel Consuelo (1843), a story of the career of a great singer that he described to many of his friends as a masterpiece. In highly rhetorical and florid passages describing the almost unearthly quality of the heroine's voice, the novel's English translation gave Whitman a language for describing the effect on his readers he desired his poems to create. The reaction of Consuelo's lover to her singing, for example, is described in language that could be Whitman's own describing his poetry: "Music expresses all that the mind dreams and foresees of mystery and grandeur. It is the manifestation of a higher order of ideas and sentiments than any to which human speech can give expression. It is the revelation of the infinite; and when you sing, I only belong to humanity in so far as humanity has drunk in what is divine and eternal in the bosom of the Creator" (qtd. in Faner 47). The novel had much to do with forming his taste for great singing and the experience of listening to it, as well as inspiring in him a mystical response to the glories of the human voice.

In addition to his poems about opera and opera singers Whitman wrote a number of reviews and essays about them. In 1846-1847, when editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, he published thirteen articles on musical subjects. His first critical opera review was of Rossini's TheBarber of Seville in March 1847. His most extended prose piece onopera and the pleasures of opera-going is "Letter from Paumanok," published on 14 August 1851, in the New York Evening Post. Another relatively long essay, "The Opera," appeared in Life Illustrated in November 1855, just four months after the publication of Leaves of Grass. In later years he included reminiscences of his opera-going days in Specimen Days and in an essay, "The Old Bowery," collected in the prose section of Good-Bye My Fancy.


Cooke, Alice L. "Notes on Whitman's Musical Background." New England Quarterly 19 (1946): 224-235.

Faner, Robert D. Walt Whitman & Opera. 1951. London: Feffer and Simons, 1972.

Lawrence, Vera Brodsky. "'Unloos'd Cantabile': Walt Whitman and the Italian Opera." Seaport 26.1 (1992): 38-45.

Pound, Louise. "Walt Whitman and Italian Music." AmericanMercury 6 (1925): 58-63.

Spiegelman, Julia. "Walt Whitman and Music." SouthAtlantic Quarterly 41(1942): 167-176.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 2. New York: Appleton, 1908.

Trowbridge, John Townsend. "Reminiscences of Walt Whitman." Atlantic Monthly 89 (1902): 163-175.

Whitman, Walt. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. 2 vols. New York: New York UP, 1963-1964.

____. The Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman. Ed. Emory Holloway. 2 vols. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page, 1921. 



Where Are We Now?: Whitman, Place and the Memory of the Heart

Rosemary McAndrew Rutgers University-Camden


“…the little thrill which memory will send along my nerves…” 

--Walt Whitman, November Boughs

Reading Whitman is to engage in his metamorphoses, reflect on his memories, and create our own “patterns of attachment.” It is no small contradiction that Whitman establishes a robust sense of place, while he pulls us, his traveling companions, to other sites with his reflections. We have taken “solitary rambles” with this writer, only to discover ourselves taken to another country, another life. We are rewarded for our diligence as readers, with scenes painted in panoramic color and experiences dipped in the cool waters of familiarity. When Whitman remembers, his sense of place is at once democratic and self-centered. When we read Whitman, we are at once reflective of other universal experiences and “in the moment” with the poet in his place.

In J. Gerald Kennedy’s Imaging Paris: Exile Writing and American Identity, the experience of place is described as an “elusive and perplexing phenomenon,” because modern society works against it and yet, he claims, there are clear “patterns of attachment” that form the basis for the experience of place for individuals. Lawrence Buell, in Writing for an Endangered World, echoes this thought, claiming that place is so integral to the human condition that it “shapes human character.” 

            As Kennedy explains, patterns of “geographical association … reveal the human tendency to regard places as focuses of activity and purpose.”  Whitman draws on his memories of place to show the reader the “ties that bind,” those elusive, fleeting, but nonetheless startling recognitions of place that inform us.  For Whitman, these deep associations are recollections that have shaped his life, each place an episode particularly moving and persistent.

            In the summer of 1880, Whitman left Philadelphia and journeyed to London, Ontario, where he would make his temporary home with Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke, a Canadian psychiatrist, social reformer, and mystic, and his wife, Jessie. His time in Canada would include a trip down the St. Lawrence to the Thousand Islands, Montreal and Quebec, then up the Saguenay to Chicoutini and Ha!Ha! Bay. He also visited and commented on the Asylum for the Insane where Bucke was the Superintendent. Dr. Bucke later became Whitman’s first biographer, edited an edition of Leaves of Grass, and acted as Whitman’s literary executor.

            On June 20th of that summer, while in Ontario, Walt Whitman read a New York Times account of the demise of a church in Brooklyn. St. Ann’s Church, although 1,000 miles from Whitman on that day, was near to his heart, as he recalled a memory from his childhood. Fifty years before, he had attended services, at Sands and Washington Streets, for the men killed in the Brooklyn Navy Yard explosion. Whitman was at his elementary school that day and heard the rumble which “jarred half the city,” when the U. S. steamer Fulton exploded. The “strange and solemn military funeral” started from St. Ann’s with what Whitman remembered as “impressive services...dead march of the band…old soldiers and salutes over the grave, in the ancient cemetery.” The child Whitman was moved to tears. In the summer of 1880, although in Canada, memory placed Whitman in the New York of his boyhood.

Later that month, the New York Times carried another piece. This one, entitled “Walt Whitman at Niagara,” chronicles “some lucky five minutes” at the falls, and becomes the entry “Seeing Niagara to Advantage” in Specimen Days. In this piece, Whitman takes in the scene of the falls, not up close, but purposefully “a mile off.” The reader sees with him the vista that includes “the river tumbling green and white…dark high banks…plentiful umbrage…bronze cedars, in shadow…and tempering and arching all the immense materiality, a clear sky overhead.” [T]his “short, indescribable show” unfolds for Whitman from a train platform, as it crosses a bridge. As this experience “lay[s] away with [his] life’s rare and blessed bits of hours,” we find we have traveled with him back in time to Fire Island and a “wild sea-storm” Whitman witnessed “one winter day.” With this, the first of the remembrances of place in this piece, he begins to catalog for us the special place that the view of Niagara will have for him henceforth.  The view, “[N]ot the great majestic gem alone by itself, but set complete in all its varied, full, indispensable surroundings,” will take its place in a  set of six other place memories brought on by his encounter with it.

“Seeing Niagara to Advantage”

For really seizing a great picture or book, or piece of music, or architecture, or grand scenery -- or perhaps for the first time even the common sunshine, or landscape, or may be even the mystery of identity, most curious mystery of all -- there comes some lucky five minutes of a man's life, set amid a fortuitous concurrence of circumstances, and bringing in a brief flash the culmination of years of reading and travel and thought. The present case about two o'clock this afternoon, gave me Niagara, its superb severity of action and color and majestic grouping, in one short, indescribable show. We were very slowly crossing the Suspension bridge -- not a full stop anywhere, but next to it -- the day clear, sunny, still -- and I out on the platform. The falls were in plain view about a mile off, but very distinct, and no roar -- hardly a murmur. The river tumbling green and white, far below me; the dark high banks, the plentiful umbrage, many bronze cedars, in shadow; and tempering and arching all the immense materiality, a clear sky overhead, with a few white clouds, limpid, spiritual, silent. Brief, and as quiet as brief, that picture -- a remembrance always afterwards. Such are the things, indeed, I lay away with my life's rare and blessed bits of hours, reminiscent, past -- the wild sea-storm I once saw one winter day, off Fire island -- the elder Booth in Richard, that famous night forty years ago in the old Bowery -- or Alboni in the children's scene in Norma -- or night-views, I remember, on the field, after battles in Virginia -- or the peculiar sentiment of moonlight and stars over the great Plains, western Kansas -- or scooting up New York bay, with a stiff breeze and a good yacht, off Navesink. With these, I say, I henceforth place that view, that afternoon, that combination complete, that five minutes' perfect absorption of Niagara -- not the great majestic gem alone by itself, but set complete in all its varied, full, indispensable surroundings.

When Whitman refers to the winter sea storm off Fire Island, we are reminded of a poem in Leaves of Grass. In “From Montauk Point,” Whitman stands again from some vantage point that allows a special view:

I stand as on some mighty eagle’s beak,

Eastward the sea absorbing, viewing, (nothing but sea and sky,)

The tossing waves, the foam, the ships in the distance,

The wild unrest, the snowy, curling caps -- that inbound urge

     and urge of waves,

Seeking the shores forever.

The geography is not quite right, of course, Fire Island being somewhat south of Montauk Point, but the poem gives the reader a time to see a similar event through Whitman’s eyes and acquire another clue about how events are stored away in memory.

            The theatrical world of the Old Bowery is our next stop in his sequence of place memories. In December 1832, at a performance of Richard III, starring British actor Junius Brutus Booth, the line between audience and actor blurred as it would do on occasion in the nineteenth century.  The New York Mirror reported that a holiday crowd of over three hundred overflowed the stage and entered into the spirit of the play. According to Lawrence Levine, in Highbrow Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America, the audience governed the stage as they made a dance in this performance repeat twenty times and, in another scene, a few helped themselves to items from a supper-table. Perhaps this is why, when Whitman saw the elder Booth perform a few years later at the Old Bowery theatre, he wrote, “He illustrated Plato’s rule that to the forming an artist of the very highest rank, a dash of insanity or what the world calls insanity is indispensable.”  In any case, there is no doubt that Whitman relegates Mr. Booth and the Old Bowery to the place where memories of the heart live. In November Boughs, another prose piece by Whitman, he says “To me, too, Booth stands for much else besides theatricals. I consider that my seeing the man those years glimps'd for me, beyond all else, that inner spirit and form -- the unquestionable.”  When Whitman recalls “the elder Booth in Richard, that famous night forty years ago in the old Bowery” in this section of Specimen Days, the memory of place is rich with “patterns of attachment.”    

            Another memory is of opera, an art that Whitman proclaimed the “sublimest and most spiritual of the arts.” When he refers to “Alboni in the children’s scene in Norma,” he is referring to Marietta Alboni, the Italian operatic contralto known for her classic Italian bel canto. In the final year of his life, Whitman, commenting on his youthful days from 1835-1860, wrote that he “should like well” if the contralto Marietta Alboni or the tenor Alessandro Bettini, or “the old composer” Giuseppe Verdi “could know how much noble pleasure and happiness they gave me, and how deeply I always remember them….”  In Leaves of Grass his tribute to Alboni is in a section called “Proud Music of the Storm”:

(The teeming lady comes,

The lustrious orb, Venus contralto, the blooming mother,

Sister of loftiest gods, Alboni's self I hear.)

Kennedy makes a distinction between the “psychic or emotion conditions” of place and the “mental images” of place. For Whitman, the place of opera is emotional, as he assigns Booth and Alboni to “life’s rare and blessed bits of hours.” It is, as Kennedy reminds us, “less the retrieval of a bygone time than a recovery of symbolic place” that Whitman undertakes here.

            When next Whitman remembers from his Niagara perch, it is the “night-views,” “on the field, after battles in Virginia,” a scene that reminds us of the power nature has to transform disaster into hope with its beauty. In the section on Virginia, in Specimen Days, Whitman tells of how “The nights are often unsurpassable. Last evening (Feb. 8,) I saw the first of the new moon, the outlined old moon clear along with it; the sky and air so clear, such transparent hues of color, it seem'd to me I had never really seen the new moon before. It was the thinnest cut crescent possible. It hung delicate just above the sulky shadow of the Blue mountains. Ah, if it might prove an omen and good prophecy for this unhappy State.” Virginia may be “[D]ilapidated, fenceless, and trodden with war,” but Whitman sees the natural beauty of the landscape as a symbol of its potential for healing.

            That same reverence for nature is available to us in Whitman’s next memory of the “great Plains, western Kansas.”  In “New Senses, New Joys,” he uses place in the way Edward Relph describes it, as that “projection of human sensibility upon the natural or built environment”:

Talk as you like, a typical Rocky Mountain

canyon, or a limitless sea-like stretch of the

great Kansas or Colorado plains, under favoring

circumstances, tallies, perhaps expresses,

certainly awakes, those grandest and subtlest

element emotions in the human soul…

Here, although grounded in a place, we are transported to a transforming experience of a spiritual nature, or “maybe even the mystery of identity.” Whitman claims that Specimen Days is meant to “illustrate one phase of humanity,” and his references, to specific memories in the Niagara section sometimes look like what Hemingway called “accidents of terrain;” however, place memories run deep and, in Whitman, we can see these specific memories repeated in his poetry and prose.

The last memory of Whitman’s Niagara piece has us “scooting up New York bay, with a stiff breeze and a good yacht, off Navesink.” Navesink, a seaside elevation, on the New Jersey coast, at the lower entrance of New York Bay, is the topic of one of the poems in the “Sands at Seventy” book of Leaves of Grass. The first of eight poems in the “Fancies at Navesink” section begins with “an old St. Lawrence reminiscence.”  The reader has traveled from New York Bay to the St. Lawrence and back; memories of “steaming the northern rapids” come to Whitman in New York Bay, while the Navesink memory comes alive in Niagara. Whitman calls it “a sudden memory-flash,” but later in the poems he describes how memory is as unrelenting as the waves, “in every crest some undulating light or shade—some retrospect.” 

             With Whitman, we appreciate the immense and expanding civilization of his vision, while we are drenched in a specific place. Sometimes it is the physical place in which he stands; other times, it is a memory of place to which he takes us. Yi-Fu Tuan makes the distinction between “space,” which defines distance and allows movement, and “place,” which is experienced and remembered. As we move among Whitman’s works, we can see the emotion and memory that makes place possible. We can also feel the commitment and attachment that are integral to place. Place lives in Whitman’s heart, until he gives it the language of memory.


"I Hear America Singing"

Whitman and the Music of his Time

by David S. Reynolds

Recalling the entertainment experiences of his young manhood, Whitman wrote, "Perhaps my dearest amusement reminiscences are those musical ones." Music was such a powerful force on him that he saw himself less as a poet than as a singer or bard. "My younger life," he recalled in old age, "was so saturated with the emotions, raptures, up- lifts of such musical experiences that it would be surprising indeed if all my future work had not been colored by them."

Whitman regarded music as a prime agent for unity and uplift in a nation whose tendencies to fragmentation and political corruption he saw clearly. For all the downward tendencies he perceived in society, he took confidence in Americans' shared love of music. In the 1855 preface to Leaves of Grass he mentioned specifically "their delight in music, the sure symptoms of manly tenderness and native elegance of soul." As he explained in a magazine article: "A taste for music, when widely distributed among a people, is one of the surest indications of their moral purity, amiability, and refinement. It promotes sociality, represses the grosser manifestations of the passions, and substitutes in their place all that is beautiful and artistic." By becoming himself a "bard" singing poetic "songs" he hoped to tap the potential for aesthetic appreciation he saw in Americans' positive responses to their shared musical culture.

Whitman's immersion into his contemporary musical culture followed distinct phases. An invasion of foreign virtuosos in the early forties piqued his interest in music but, at the same time, drove him to embrace the simpler, more heart-felt indigenous music of the American families and minstrel troupes. His appreciation of these popular forms, in turn, opened the way to Italian opera, which in the fifties actually came close to being a popular art.

He was then writing for the strongly nationalistic Democratic Review, and his nativist politics seemed to have prevented him from fully embracing the foreign musical masters. What he sought was music that sprang from indigenous soil and embodied the idioms and concerns of average Americans.

He discovered such music in the family singers and minstrel troupes that became immensely popular in the mid-forties. In a series of newspaper articles written from 1845 to 1847 he rejoiced over what he saw as the distinctly American qualities of the new family groups. The Cheneys, a quartet of three brothers and a sister from New Hampshire, thrilled him when he first heard them in November 1845 at Niblo's Theatre. In an article for the Brooklyn Star he raved: "For the first time we, on Monday night, heard something in the way of American music, which overpowered us with delightful amazement." He declared that they "excel all the much vaunted foreign artists, not excepting Templeton, whom we saw there." He revised and expanded the article four times to include other singing families, particularly the famous Hutchinsons. In all its versions, the message was the same: what he termed the "art music" of the foreign musicians was overly elaborate and fundamentally aristocratic, while the "heart music" of the American families was natural and democratic. As he wrote: "Simple, fresh, and beautiful, we hope no spirit of imitation will ever induce them to engraft any 'foreign airs' upon their 'native graces.' "

It is worthwhile to look especially at his favorite singing family, the Hutchinsons, whom he singled out for praise in his articles on music. The most popular family group before the Civil War, the Hutchinson singers consisted of three brothers--Judson, John, Asa--and their younger sister Abby, part of a talented family of thirteen boys and girls from New Hampshire. Naturally gifted vocalists who accompanied themselves with string instruments, they gave their first public concert in 1839, and, with additions and substitutions of different family members, they remained popular for nearly four decades. They became international celebrities and played to packed houses everywhere. They were invited to perform at the White House by President Tyler, and their circle of friends included Frederick Douglass, Edwin Forrest, Longfellow, and, eventually, Lincoln. Their catchy songs ran the gamut of popular idioms, from the sentimental to the sensational, and promoted a variety of reforms, particularly temperance and antislavery.

Whitman found in the Hutchinsons a winning artlessness. "Elegant simplicity in manner," he wrote of them, "is more judicious than the dancing school bows and curtsies, and inane smiles, and kissing of the tips of a kid glove a la [Rosina] Pico."Like them, in his poetry he would strive for naturalness and what he called "a perfectly transparent, plate-glassy style, artless," characterized by "clearness, simplicity, no twistified or foggy sentences."

He also valued the fact that the Hutchinsons sang about common American experience and the ordinary lives of average individuals. In the Eagle he noted that they "are true sons of the Old Granite State [New Hampshire]; they are democrats." Their signature song, "The Old Granite State," gave all thirteen siblings' names along with their convictions and political views. The premiere song of Whitman's favorite group, then, made singing oneself and "singing America" commonplace in the public arena. Whitman, comparably, wove autobiographical details into his poems: "Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos."

The Hutchinsons also developed the stylistic device of solo and group singing-- male and female solos by each of the four singers, for the verses, were interspersed with choral refrains. Judson, a high second tenor, often took the melody line. John, a versatile baritone, glided easily into a falsetto, while Abby sang a rich contralto and Asa a resonant bass. Whitman was powerfully stirred by the rich vocal mixtures the singing families introduced, capturing them in his poem "That Music Always Round Me":

[N]ow the chorus I hear and am elated,

A tenor, strong, ascending with power and health, with glad notes of daybreak I hear,

A soprano at intervals sailing buoyantly over the tops of immense waves,

A transparent base shuddering lusciously under and through the universe, [...]

I hear not the volumes of sound merely, I am moved by the exquisite meanings,

I listen to the different voices winding in and out, striving, contending with fiery vehemence to excel each other in emotion[.]

Another form of American music that appealed to Whitman was the minstrel song. Minstrel troupes were generally white performers in blackface who gave caricatured versions of African American customs and dialects. For decades America was inundated by touring groups with names like the Sable Minstrels and the Virginia Harmonists.

Whitman took avid interest in the minstrel troupes that proliferated in the mid- forties. In an 1846 article, "True American Singing," he praised a minstrel group called the Harmoneons: "Indeed, their negro singing altogether proves how shiningly golden talent can be spread over a subject generally considered 'low.' Singing with them is a subject from obscure life in the hands of a divine painter: rags, patches, and coarseness are imbued with the great genius of the artist, and there exists something really great about them."

Particularly intriguing is the possible relationship between Whitman and the leading minstrel songwriter, Stephen Foster. Whitman once commented that songs like Foster's "Old Folks at Home" were "our best work so far" in native music. The first American to earn a living from songwriting, Foster first gained wide popular success in 1847 with "Oh! Susanna," followed in the next five years with "My Old Kentucky Home," "Beautiful Dreamer," "Old Dog Tray," and many others.

Foster broke with the almost uniformly racist tone of previous minstrel fare, portraying African Americans as capable of sorrow, fear, hope, pain, and nostalgia. This gesture toward the humanization of blacks is also visible in Whitman's verse, when he wrote in "I Sing the Body Electric" of the "passions, desires, reachings, aspirations" of the auctioned slave.

With the rise of Foster, American music became popular and participatory to an unprecedented degree. In the days before such passive entertainments as radio and television, musical culture was shared in ways that are sometimes forgotten. People would hear melodies and sing them constantly aloud to themselves, creating, as it were, their own musical programs. Whitman himself did this. Often when alone he sang popular ballads or martial songs in a low undertone, and while sauntering he hummed snatches of popular songs or operas. In this sense he was little different than most of his contemporaries. Foster's music sprang naturally from American's lips in the early 1850s. The song Whitman especially liked, "Old Folks at Home" (with the famous lyrics, "Way down upon the Swanee River"), became the national favorite of 1852, sung by virtually everyone.

There was historical justification, then, for Whitman's confidence that music was commonly loved and even performed by many Americans. "I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,/Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong"--and so forth, as he goes on to describe the singing of the mason, the boatman, the shoemaker, the wood-cutter, the wife, all "singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs."

The popularity of the singing families opened the door to an appreciation for the opera. Unlike today, when most popular music is rooted in soul, jazz, or country forms, the music of the family singers was closely linked to the opera. By the same token, most "elite" musicians gave adventurously varied programs.

Nothing revealed the mixture of elite and popular cultural levels as vividly as the American tour of the Swedish singer Jenny Lind in the early 1850s. The "Swedish Nightingale" was a dexterous, classically trained vocalist who gave a varied program that juxtaposed high arias with a grab bag of popular ballads, comic songs, folk tunes, and patriotic numbers. Her two-year tour of America that started in New York in 1850 in was a combination of craftsmanship and hype unequalled in American musical history, orchestrated by the master showman P. T. Barnum. The darling of the public, Jenny Lind did not fare as well with reviewers, among them Whitman, who caught her last New York concert. "The Swedish Swan," he wrote, "with all her blandishments, never touched my heart in the least." Although he conceded she had "vocal dexterity," he found her "scientific" style a frigid failure.

What Whitman wanted was music that was at once sophisticated and soulful, that had both "art" and "heart." He found such music in the great opera singers who came to America in the early fifties. New York was graced by a succession of touring opera stars. Whitman enjoyed the musical quickening. Once averse to the opera, in 1847 he declared in the Eagle that "the Italian opera deserves a good degree of encouragement from us." He heard at least sixteen of the major singers who made their New York debuts in the next eight years.

Among the male singers, the ones he most admired were the Italian baritone Cesare Badiali and the tenor Alessandro Bettini. The large, broad-chested Badiali, who first appeared in New York in 1850, Whitman called "the superbest of all the superb baritones in my time." Bettini made it clear to him that art music need not be distinct from heart music. "The fresh, vigorous tones of Bettini!" Whitman wrote in 1851. "His voice has often affected me to tears. Its clear, firm, wonderfully exalting notes....[T]he singing of this man has breathing blood within it; the living soul, of which the lower stage they call art, is but the shell and sham." It was almost certainly Bettini to whom he paid tribute in this passage in "Song of Myself": "A tenor large and fresh as the creation fills me,/The orbic flex of his mouth is pouring and filling me full." Another tenor he heard in the early fifties, Pasquale Bignole, remained so vivid a memory that upon Bignole's death in 1884 he wrote a eulogistic poem, "The Dead Tenor," reviewing by name his major operatic roles and recreating the effect of his singing:

How much from thee! the revelation of the singing voice from thee!

(So firm--so liquid-soft--again that tremulous, manly timbre!

The perfect singing voice--deepest of all to me the lesson:--trial and test of all) [...]

Fernando's heart, Manrico's passionate call, Ernani's, sweet Gennaro's,

I fold thenceforth, or seek to fold, within my chants transmuting.

Among all the opera stars, the one that shone brightest for him was Marietta Alboni, the great contralto who also sang soprano roles. "For me," he said, "out of the whole list of stage deities of that period, no one meant so much to me as Alboni." A short, plump woman with a low forehead and black hair, Alboni , after several European tours, arrived in New York in the summer of 1852. Her opening on a sweltering June 23 at Metropolitan Hall was a complete triumph. She had sung only two lines when shouts of "bravo, bravo" swelled from the audience as her strong, sumptuous tones filled the air. At the end, she laughed giddily at the long, tumultuous cheering and waving of hats and handkerchiefs. "There was never a more successful concert," raved the next day's Herald. "[Her voice has] the finest, softest, and richest texture, depth and great purity, with a most remarkable sympathetic touching quality." In the months that followed the triumph continued. Between that summer and the next spring in Manhattan she appeared in ten operas and gave twelve concerts of operatic selections. She also toured other cities and states. Whitman later wrote that he heard her "every time she sang in New York and vicinity." "She used to sweep me away as with whirlwinds," he said.

It was not Alboni's talent alone that stood out. What made her special were her combined artistry, soulfulness, and egalitarianism. A consummate artist, she was nonetheless down-to-earth and thoroughly human in her delivery. Whitman never forgot the way she got so caught up in her roles that real tears poured down her cheeks.

The rapture Alboni inspired in him had more direct poetic consequences as well. "I hear the trained soprano (what work with hers is this?)," he writes in "Song of Myself." "The orchestra whirls me wider than Uranus flies,/It wrenches such ardors from me I did not know I possess'd them." Although he included in his poems the names of several operas, opera characters, and classical composers, he named just one singer: "(The teeming lady comes,/The lustrous orb, Venus contralto, the blooming mother,/Sister of the loftiest gods, Alboni's self I hear.)"

He was intrigued by Alboni's appeal to all classes. He had long sought a music that was at once sophisticated and populist, and he found it at last in Alboni. "All persons appreciated Alboni," he noted, "the common crowd as well as the connoisseurs." He was fascinated to see the upper tier of theaters "packed full of New York young men, mechanics, 'roughs,' etc., entirely oblivious of all except Alboni."

Opera was now his chosen preference in music, and he did what he could to enhance its appeal for the general public. In his article "The Opera" published in 1855 in Life Illustrated he tried to instill in the unsophisticated a love for opera. He warned the uninitiated that the opera was "very far different from what you were used to--the church choir, or the songs and playing on the piano...or any performances of the Ethiopian minstrels, or the concerts of the different 'families.'" Then, finally, he got to the music itself: "A new world--a liquid world--rushes like a torrent through you. " He ended the piece by calling for an American music that might rival Europe's: "This is art! You envy Italy, and almost become an enthusiast; you wish an equal art here, and an equal science and style, underlain by a perfect understanding of American realities, and the appropriateness of our national spirit and body also."

In light of the new musical vistas opened up by the opera, he knew he would have to forge a new kind of singing, one that highlighted American themes but also integrated operatic techniques. "Walt Whitman's method in the construction of his songs is strictly the method of the Italian Opera," he would write in 1860, and to a friend he confided, "But for the opera I could not have written Leaves of Grass." Opera devices indeed run through his poetry. Many of the emotionally expressive, melodic passages, such as the bird's song in "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" or the death hymn in "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," evoke the style of the aria. The more expansive, conversational passages in his poetry suggest operatic recitative.

Whitman's poetry, then, was most profoundly influenced by what he called "the great, overwhelming, touching human voice—its throbbing, flowing, pulsating qualities." Of the 206 musical words in his poems, 123 relate specifically to vocal music, and some are used many times. "Song" appears 154 times, "sing" 117, and "singing" an "singers" over 30 times each.	In his poems, too, he mentions no fewer than 25 musical instruments, including the violin, the piano, the oboe, and the drums. One senses a musical influence in his poem "Song of Myself," which, like a symphony, shifts between pianissimo passages and torrential, fervent ones. Perhaps particularly apt to compare with Whitman is Anthony Phillip Heinrich, one of America's leading classical composers before the Civil War. Rebelling against the symmetries of Mozart and Haydn, Heinrich, known as "the log-house composer of Kentucky," imported into his music indigenous American idioms and a rambling form linked stylistically to frontier humor and the tall tale. His joyous, egalitarian brand of music mixed the classical with the vernacular, as Whitman did in his poems. In the early fifties, Heinrich wrote an intriguing composition, Barbecue Divertimento, containing a section called "The Banjo," a free-form extravaganza that juxtaposes staid European-based passages with snatches from "Turkey in the Straw" and "Yankee Doodle." That Whitman envisaged strikingly similar mixtures of "high" European music and vernacular American music is shown in this note: "American opera.--put three banjos, (or more?) in the orchestra--and let them accompany (at times exclusively,) the songs of the baritone or tenor--." In this regard, both Heinrich and Whitman were precursors of Charles Ives.


 by David S. Reynolds 1999


Una epigrafe per Marietta Alboni al Teatro “Bonci” di Cesena


Lelio Burgini, mi invita a ricordare il tributo ideale che Walt Whitman, il maggiore poeta americano volle dedicare alla voce di Marietta Alboni ( 1826-1894 ) che si considerava cittadina cesenate per le origini familiari, anche se nata a Città di Castello, e alla quale gli amici del Coro Alboni, presieduto da Bruno Benvenuti, hanno fatto dedicare la Piazzetta antistante alla Barriera. Sarebbe opportuno che questa epigrafe, in lingua originale, fosse affissa a quella che fu la sua casa d’angolo di Via Mura della Barriera Ponente, o almeno al Bonci, nostro tempio musicale. Ne trascrivo il testo. La versione italiana di Enzo Giachino è dalle edizioni Einaudi di Foglie d’erba. E’ inserita alla pag. 16, nelle Dediche. Erano le Inscriptions, iscrizioni sulla pietra o sulle monete.



To a Certain Cantatrice/


Here, take this gift,/

I was reserving it for some hero, speaker, or general,/

One who should serve the good old cause, the great idea,

the progress and freedom of the race,/

Some brave confronter of despots, some daring rebel;/

But I see that what I was reserving belongs to you/

 just as much as to any./




A una cantante /


Eccoti questo dono,/

Io lo serbavo per qualche eroe, oratore o generale./

Per qualcuno che avesse servito la buona vecchia causa,/

la grande idea, il progresso e la libertà della razza,/

Per qualche eroe che avesse affrontato despoti,/

per qualche audace ribelle;/

Ma vedo che quanto serbavo a te appartiene non meno che/

a ciascuno di essi./


Lelio Burgini mi invia anche alcuni pezzi di critica musicale, scaricati da Internet per documentare l’amore di Whitman per l’opera italiana ed in particolare l’ammirazione per la voce di Marietta Alboni, contralto rossiniano insuperabile. Whitman l’aveva sentita, critico musicale e giornalista, a New York nel 1852. Già nel suo commento finale alla traduzione di Michele Massarelli del libro di Arthur Pougin su Marietta Alboni, per le edizioni Il Pontevecchio di Cesena, 2001, Lelio Burgini ne aveva evocato i rapporti con Cesena ( “Cesena ha più dolci ricordi”, pagg. 117-121 ).Ma il problema dei rapporti Whitman-Alboni e musica europea è molto più complesso. Non basterebbe un volume a chiarirlo. Whitman ha inserito la sua vita nella sua opera. Le Foglie d’erba apparvero nel 1855, quando aveva trentasei anni. Erano versi liberi per un poeta libero, che si faceva ritrarre in maniche di camicia e il cappello alle ventitré, una sfida in ogni senso alla tradizione “feudale” di ogni cultura precedente, specie l’ europea. Era un inno a se stesso mentre cantava la marcia democratica dell’America che si liberava dalla schiavitù. La marcia di liberazione di se stesso equivaleva alla marcia di liberazione del suo popolo. L’edizione di Foglie d’erba del 1889, l’anno della sua morte, comprende quattrocento poesie, un involucro di esperienze che si aggiunsero alle prime dodici del 1855.Betsy Eikkila, che i lettori possono trovare anche in Internet, sostiene che nel “Canto di me stesso”, Sing of Myself, confluiscono e si bilanciano tutte le contraddizioni di un’epoca: “Whitman tesse un modello globale di unità nella diversità. Questo modello di molti e uno - il “e pluribus unum” che fu il sigillo rivoluzionario della Repubblica americana – è l’architrave di Foglie d’Erba. Io presento “Canto di Me stesso” come un dramma dell’identità democratica in cui il poeta cerca di bilanciare e riconciliare i maggiori conflitti nel corpo politico dell’America. Il conflitto tra “la persona separata” e “nella massa”, individualismo ed eguaglianza, libertà e unione, il Sud e il Nord, la fattoria e la città, il lavoro e il capitale, il bianco e il nero, la femmina e il maschio, la religione e la scienza. Ognuno può discutere una delle sezioni individuali del poema in relazione a questo conflitto”. Non mi risulta che la critica nostrana si sia posta da questo punto di vista. Una conclusione è in Democratic Vistas, Prospettive democratiche, un suo saggio del 1871. Whitman lotta con le tensioni centrali e i paradossi dell’esperienza americana del Nuovo Mondo. Questi conflitti gli appaiono più urgenti anche dopo il periodo della Guerra Civile quando la forza scatenata del mercato capitalistico e la dinamica della civilizzazione moderna appaiono girare fuori controllo. “Chi imbriglia il Potere? Il Leviathan?” . E’ la domanda che conclude lo studio del Whitman e apre il nostro sul ” Modern World”, sul nuovo mondo. Per questo Whitman resta il “bardo della democrazia americana”, il cantore della “razza delle razze” nel senso più ampio del termine. In questa prospettiva democratica va interpretato il suo rapporto con l’opera europea e la dedica all’Alboni come ad un’eroina, impareggiabile interprete della Cenerentola di Rossini.La “Cinderella” per il Whitman americano era il sogno di riscatto da ogni servitù, di individuo e di popolo. 

Pietro Castagnoli



di Roberto Mercadini

Ammetto che non ne sapevo niente, fino a poco tempo fa. Sono venuto a conoscenza della cosa in maniera un po’ contorta (come al solito). è andata così. Giordano Conti ha scritto un libro. Si intitola La Romagna e l’Altrove. È un'accurata, documentatissima galleria di personaggi romagnoli che hanno compiuto grandi imprese in giro per il mondo. Dal medioevo ad oggi. Sorprendente. Partecipo alla presentazione del volume con la mansione di lettore. Scelgo due brani. Uno di questo è quello sull’Alboni (che prima, confesso, non avevo neanche mai sentito nominare). Alla fine della presentazione mi si avvicina un signore. Mai visto prima. È felice che si sia parlato del grande contralto cesenate, mi dice di essere un suo grande fan, e membro di un’associazione musicale a lei dedicata. Il suo entusiasmo è incontenibile. Insiste per regalarmi un CD dove è incisa la stessa canzone per 4 ore e mezza. La Paloma. In decine di versioni diverse. E di chi è la prima registrazione della storia in assoluto? Di Marietta Alboni! È lui a raccontarmi la storia di Whitman. Ignoro il suo nome. Ma lo ringrazio.

Io amo i giganti.

A me, per esempio, è sempre dispiaciuta la brutta fine che ha fatto Golia.

A voi no? Rifletteteci.

Golia era –riporto le parole delle Scritture- "un uomo d’armi fin dalla sua giovinezza" (Samuele 17, 33). Possiamo immaginare, dunque, cosa sia stata la sua vita: disciplina, abnegazione, fatica, duri addestramenti, pericoli. E poi?

Ripercorriamo l’episodio fatale. Ne vale la pena.

Nel tragico giorno due eserciti sono schierati sulla piana del Terebinto: gli israeliti, i filistei. Golia esce dalle file dei filistei. Propone, al posto della battaglia, un singolo scontro fra campioni. Così uno solo morirà. Uno solo darà la vittoria al suo popolo. E si eviterà il massacro. È coraggioso e saggio, Golia. Ma dalle file degli israeliti si fa avanti "ein ish", nessuno. In compenso fra di loro gironzola un bambino ("na’ar", in ebraico, è un ragazzo dai 10 ai 15 anni. Quindi, per favore, dimenticate gli omaccioni di Michelangelo e di Bernini). Si chiama Davide. E’ troppo piccolo per combattere. Cosa ci fa lì, allora? Deve prendere la paga dei fratelli più grandi e portarla al padre. È, come ogni bambino, curioso e petulante. Ficca il naso nella cosa (assai più grande di lui). Vaneggia di affrontare lui stesso il gigante. È una follia. Ma gli israeliti sono disperati. Alla fine lo lasciano andare.

Davide non possiede la minima cognizione in fatto di armi. Si fa avanti stringendo in mano un bastone. Cosa che offende Golia profondamente. Poi il bambino, nella sua insipienza, fa una scelta totalmente demenziale: carica una frombola (arma usata per far piovere piogge di pietre sulle file nemiche lontane e ancora serrate, ma del tutto inservibile in un duello faccia a faccia).

Ma la mano di Dio guida il proiettile di Davide, così che si conficca dritto dritto nella scatola cranica di Golia. Ed egli cade nella polvere. Morto. Umiliato da un bambino. Con quale colpa, poi?

Be’, francamente meritava di meglio.

Io amo i giganti. Amo coloro che sono, in un modo qualsiasi, più grandi del normale, del giusto, del conveniente; quelli che tracimano, che travalicano, che trasbordano. Di solito la pagano cara, tutta questa grandezza.

I giganti, in genere, non stanno a loro agio nella vita di tutti i giorni, con quelli della misura giusta (e men che meno coi bambini, ovviamente). Però sono molto felici fra loro. E, nonostante li dividano distante colossali, trovano il modo d’incontrarsi, prima o poi. Di riconoscersi. Di esultare l’uno dell’altro. In barba a Davide.

Per esempio?

Ecco la storia di due giganti. Hanno colmato, pur di trovarsi, la distanza fra Cesena e Broadway.

Il primo gigante (gigantessa, per la precisione) è Marietta Alboni: una delle più grandi cantanti liriche che la storia ricordi. Forse, in assoluto, il più grande contralto d’ogni tempo. Marietta è sovradimensionata in tutto: nel talento musicale, nell’istinto scenico, nella potenza vocale. E nel peso corporeo, naturalmente. Ci sono arrivate, su tutto ciò, frasi impietose, comiche e –per me- entusiasmanti. Lei stessa parla così di se stessa bambina: "ero tanto larga quanto alta, un vero baule" e ancora "[A soli nove anni] la mia voce aveva acquistato un tale sviluppo che, quando mi sentivano senza vedermi, tutti avrebbero giurato di ascoltare una ragazza di diciassette anni".

Il suo primo maestro, tal Bagioli, si compiace di lei così: "non è affatto sgraziata questa grossa palla: cammina, parla, gesticola sul palcoscenico come se in tutta la vita non avesse fatto altro". Il contrasto fra la stazza e l’incantevole delicatezza della voce spinge i commentatori ad ardite metafore zoologiche: "è un elefante che s’è ingoiato un usignolo" scrive Emiliana de Girardin. E quando interpreta la cenerentola di Rossini: "questa robusta Cenerentola avrebbe schiacciato, se l’avesse voluto, le sue magre e spregevoli sorelle" (Pougin).

A 26 anni, ormai osannata in tutto il pianeta, compie una tournee negli Stati Uniti. A Broadway, fra le miriadi di spettatori che la applaudono, c’è un tizio. Ha 33 anni; e non ha ancora combinato granché nella vita. Per ora sbarca il lunario arrabattandosi fra vari mestieri: giornalista, tipografo, falegname, muratore. Si chiama Walt Whitman. Scriverà una delle più magnifiche raccolte poetiche di ogni letteratura: Foglie d’erba: 700 pagine di liriche –a volte- interminabili, composte di versi –molto spesso- così lunghi da non stare in un rigo solo. Un titano. Borges (che se ne intendeva) scrive di lui "Per un certo tempo considerai Whitman non solo un grande poeta, ma l'unico poeta. Infatti pensavo che tutti i poeti del mondo fino al 1855 [prima edizione di Foglie d’erba] non avevano fatto che servire da introduzione a lui". I giganti si cercano e si riconoscono, si diceva. L’ignoto (provvisoriamente) gigante americano riconosce la celeberrima (ai tempi) gigantessa cesenate. In Foglie d’erba parla di lei. Fa il suo nome nella poesia Musica grandiosa della tempesta:

Arriva la signora scrosciante

Il globo lucente, la Venere contralto, la madre rigogliosa

Sorella dei più alti dei, ascolto l’Alboni in persona.

Fu immensa musica. E’ immane poesia. In barba a Davide.




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