I've recently become fascinated with this composition, based on the Walt Whitman elegy upon the death of Lincoln. Sessions composed the cantata, one of his largest works, in 1971. It's scored for soprano, contralto, baritone, mixed chorus and orchestra, and dedicated to the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Coming from a composer known for being academic and difficult, this work is surprisingly heartfelt. The composer's eccentric melodicism is at its most ravishing.
The cantata has three movements. Its brief prelude begins on the theme that conjures up the fragrant lilacs throughout the work. As the soloists and choir soar through Whitman's poetry, we also hear the flute, piccolo and xylophone introducing the vaulting motif that evokes the song of the hermit thrush, the soul of the piece. The longer second movement is a funeral march that develops the themes of death and loss. Themes describe the train that carries the coffin of the fallen as well as the 'Sea-winds, blown from east and west.' The vast finale is a meditation on mortality that ends by disappearing suddenly into the shadows that haunt most of Sessions's nocturnal work.
You might not be familiar with Lilacs because it only seems to have been recorded once, on this New World Records 1977 performance by the Boston SO under Seiji Ozawa. Florence Quivar isn't the most emphatic mezzo you've ever heard, and the Tanglewood Chorus sometimes lacks intensity. However, Esther Hinds and Dominic Cossa are terrific. The BSO demonstrate real focus throughout this unconventional cantata. It's a real delight.