Copland - 12 poems of Emily Dickinson

30 April 2019

On 3 June Dominic and I are performing Copland's 12 poems of Emily Dickinson. It is not the first time I have encountered the work - in fact I have performed selections from it with three other pianists since I first picked up the score in December 2016. However, this is my first time tackling the cycle as a whole (for some reason I have never learned the seventh song).

I thought it might be fun to put my musicology degree to good use and share some of my research as I re-immerse myself in the work of Emily Dickinson and Aaron Copland. Think of it as an extended programme note if you will! So, as I sit next to Faber's Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson and my well-thumbed score, let us begin.

What do I know about the work so far? Well, I know the poems that Copland has set; the three major themes running through the selection of nature, life and death, and eternity; and a few biographical facts about Emily Dickinson. I also know that these were the first songs Copland had written in nearly twenty years (this is definitely something I should delve into more).

Yet when I open my new volume of poetry I discover the first thing I thought I knew to be something of a fabrication: the texts. 'Nature, the gentlest mother' in fact begins 'Nature - the Gentlest Mother is' - and thus begins my encounter with the heavy editing that Dickinson's work has undergone. The poem appears in its original form in my volume, including her mysterious yet beautiful use of hyphens and capital letters. There is a complete lack of commas and full stops, which makes the poem sing more fluently to me - what a shame this has been lost in its musical realisation. Even the last line of the poem ends with a hyphen, suggesting that this is not the end of the poetic idea, but simply a point for pause and reflection.

Fewer than a dozen of Dickinson's poems were published during her lifetime, and these were all published anonymously with heavy editing, conventional punctuation and new titles. Her poems started to be published posthumously in 1890, with a complete collection being issued for the first time in 1955.

It is now time to step away from my computer, pick up this volume and dive in.

16 May 2019

I’ve been opening the volume on a random page every day and reading a few pages. Today’s favourite can be found here:

But perhaps more relevant to the Copland settings are these closing verses of poem 564:

His House was not—no sign had He—
By Chimney—nor by Door
Could I infer his Residence—
Vast Prairies of Air

Unbroken by a Settler—
Were all that I could see—
Infinitude—Had'st Thou no Face
That I might look on Thee?

The Silence condescended—
Creation stopped—for Me—
But awed beyond my errand—
I worshipped—did not "pray"—

‘His’ house being God’s… could this be the house in Copland’s ‘the Chariot’; the house that seems a swelling of the ground? The house has no sign, no face - as imperceptible as the roof that is scarcely visible in the song… Even more pertinent: “Because I could not stop for Death, he kindly stopped for me” resonates so closely with “The Silence condescended - Creation stopped - for Me -”. In sum, is the house that the writer calls upon with Death the house of God?

However, this wasn’t actually why I came to write today. I wanted to raise the question of whether it is fair to call Dickinson’s writing ‘childlike’ - an adjective I have heard used a number of times. I think it shares qualities with a child’s way of communicating; it is unapologetically honest, at times it is simple, and she frequently personifies inanimate objects and even concepts - but I cannot understand why this form of communication must solely be in the domain of the child. As adults we learn nuance, we learn how to sugar-coat things. In essence, we learn how to be dishonest. From what I have read so far, Dickinson seems to write what she sees, to see it as her duty to communicate the truth.

As for the personification; yes, it is fanciful. But again, why should flights of fancy solely be the domain of children? To me, her writing is a wonderful, inspiring escape. At times it reads to me as dreams would if we could ever remember them well enough to write them down.

To me these poems are just refreshingly honest. Unflowery, unfussy, unpretentious.

17 May 2019

Today, a singing thing. Namely, as a high soprano how should I navigate all the low notes in these songs? And why are they even there? Reading the texts aloud, the music often follows natural speech rhythms and shaping - so the descent of pitch at the end of a sentence makes perfect sense. Furthermore, Copland is only asking the singer to phonate at speech pitch; it is the sustained nature of the resonance that makes it a little daunting.

Perhaps Copland was being especially clever here. The low tessitura demands that the singer takes a more spoken approach to these texts, something more operatic just wouldn’t ring true I don’t think.

I suppose it’s also worth noting that not many high sopranos have recorded this repertoire… I’m still exploring it, but here’s Barbara Bonney having a go to give me faith: