Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Music of Emily Dickinson / Phillip George

While American poet Emily Elizabeth Dickinson (December 10, 1830, Amherst, MA - May 15, 1886) was born to a successful family with strong community ties, she lived a mostly introverted and reclusive life. After she studied at the Amherst Academy for seven years in her youth, she spent a short time at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary before returning to her family's house in Amherst. Thought of as an eccentric by the locals, she became known for her penchant for white clothing and her reluctance to greet guests or, later in life, even leave her room. Most of her friendships were carried out by correspondence.

Dickinson was a prolific private poet, though fewer than a dozen of her nearly 1800 poems were published during her lifetime.

The work that was published during her lifetime was usually altered significantly by the publishers to fit the conventional poetic rules of the time. Dickinson's typically titleless poems are unique for the time, with short lines, slant rhyme, and unconventional capitalization and punctuation.

Many of her poems deal with themes of death and immortality, two subjects which infused her letters to friends.

Although most of her acquaintances were probably aware of Dickinson's writing, it was not until after her death in 1886 -- when Lavinia, Emily's younger sister, discovered her cache of poems -- that the breadth of Dickinson's work became apparent. Her first collection of poetry was published in 1890 by personal acquaintances Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd, both of whom heavily edited her work. A complete and mostly unaltered collection became available in 1955 when The Poems of Emily Dickinson was published by scholar Thomas H. Johnson. Despite unfavorable reviews and skepticism of her literary prowess during the late 19th and early 20th century, critics now consider Dickinson to be a major American poet.

Dickinson's poetry has been used as texts for art songs by composers such as Arthur Farwell, Vally Weigel, Ernst Bacon, John Duke, Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter, Samuel Barber, George Perle, Vincent Persichetti, Ned Rorem, Lee Hoiby, Emma Lou Diemer, Robert Muczynski, Betty Roe, Alfred Heller, Sylvia Glickman, Persis Vehar, Robert Baksa, John Adams, Michael Tilson Thomas, Thomas Pasatieri, Nancy Galbraith, Nick Peros, and Tarik O'Regan. Many early settings predate the 1955 complete edition.


Arthur Farwell (March 23, 1872, St. Paul, MN - January 20 1952) was trained as an engineer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, graduating in 1893, but turned towards music by contact with the eccentric Boston-based composer Rudolf Gott. After studying in Boston, he became a pupil of Englebert Humperdinck in Berlin and Félix-Alexandre Guilmant in Paris. Returning to the U.S., he lectured in music at Cornell University from 1899 to 1901, and founded the Wa-Wan Press, dedicated to publishing the works of the American Indianist composers, among whom Farwell himself was a leading figure. His Dickinson settings include The Sabbath and These Saw Vision.


Vally [Valerie] Weigl, née Pick (1894?89?99?, Vienna, Austria - 1982) studied piano, music, and musicology at the University of Vienna and studied theory and composition with her future husband Karl Weigl (1881-1949), whose associates included Pablo Casals, Wilheim Furtwangler, Heinrich Schenker, Arnold Schoenberg, Richard Strauss, and Bruno Walter. In 1938 the Weigls were rescued from the oncoming war in Europe by the Quaker Society of Friends and were brought to the United States, where Vally continued her career as composer and piano teacher.
Her settings of Dickinson include From Time and Eternity and Let Down the Bars.


The prolific American composer-conductor-pianist Ernst Bacon (May 26, 1898, Chicago, IL - March 16, 1990) composed over 250 songs over his career, received three Guggenheim Fellowships, and won the Pulitzer Prize for his Symphony No. 1. His 67 Dickinson settings include cycles --

Songs of Eternity (Dickinson and Walt Whitman)
My River
From Emily's Diary
The Last Invocation (Whitman, Dickinson)
Quiet Airs

-- and individual poems --

A drop fell on the apple tree
A spider
A Threadless Way
A wind like a bugle
Alabaster wool
And this of all my hopes
As if some little Arctic flower
As if the sea should part
As Well as Jesus?
From Blank to Blank
How still the bells
I dwell in possibility
If bees are few
I'm nobody
In the silent west
Is there such a thing as day?
It's all I have to bring
It's coming -- the postponeless Creature
Let down the bars
My river runs to thee
No dew upon the grass
Not what we did, shall be the test
O friend
On this Wondrous Sea
Our share of night to bear
Poor little heart!
She went
She went as quiet as the dew
Simple days
So bashful
Summer's lapse
The banks of the yellow sea
The bat
The crickets sang
The daisy follows soft the sun
The divine ship
The gentlest mother
The grass
The heart
The Imperial Heart
The little stone
The mountain
The Postponeless Creature
The Sea
The simple days
The Sun went Down
The swamp
There came a day
This and my heart
To make a prairie
Unto Me?
Velvet people
We never know
Weeping and sighing
What soft, cherubic creatures
When roses cease to bloom
Wild nights
Winter afternoons
With the first Arbutus


John [Woods] Duke (July 30, 1899, Cumberland, MD - 1984) enjoyed great popularity in the middle of this century. As pianist, he supported his composer-peers in premiering works by Roger Sessions and Walter Piston, including the former's Sonata No. 1 at one of the Sessions-Copland concerts. As composer, he was fascinated by the "strange and marvelous chemistry of words and music," and in his master classes and writings he devoted a great deal of thought to the art of song and singing.

Asked why, as a pianist, his compositions included so few piano works and so many songs, Duke replied: "I think it is because of my belief that vocal utterance is the basis of music's mystery."

Six Poems by Emily Dickinson (1968)

Good Morning, Midnight
Heart! We Will Forget Him!
Let Down the Bars, O Death
An Awful Tempest Mashed The Air
Nobody Knows This Little Rose
Bee, I'm Expecting You

Four Poems (1975)

New Feet Within My Garden Go
The Rose Did Caper on Her Cheek
Have You Got A Brook In Your Little Heart?
I Taste a Liquor Never Brewed

These Are the Days (1979)


Aaron Copland (November 14, 1900 – December 2, 1990) set 12 Poems of Emily Dickinson (1950) as:

I've Heard an Organ Talk Sometimes
The Nature Gentlest Mother
There Came A Wind Like A Bugle
Why Do They Shut Me Out of Heaven?
The World Feels Dusty
Heart, We Will Forget Him
Dear March, Come in!
Sleep Is Supposed to Be
When They Come Back
I Felt A Funeral in My Brain
The Chariot

It was The Chariot that first captured Copland’s imagination. "I fell in love with one song, The Chariot, Copland said, "and continued to add songs one at a time until I had twelve. The poems themselves gave me direction, one that I hoped would be appropriate to Miss Dickinson’s lyrical expressive language."

This cycle marks the beginning of a brief period during which Copland composed vocal music almost exclusively. It was his first major vocal piece, and some consider it one of the great 20th-century song cycles.

Copland echoed Dickinson’s concise yet lyric language with abrupt leaps in the vocal line that matched her unique dashes and pauses. Vivian Perlis noted, "The songs are unusual in style with irregular meters and stanzas, wide jumps in the vocal lines, and difficult passages for the pianist that present special challenges." To better capture Dickinson’s psyche Copland visited the poet’s home, soaking up the atmosphere of the room where she spent most of her hours, writing.

Following the first performance, which took place in New York in May of 1950, Copland wrote in a letter to Verna Fine (wife of Irving): "The songs went well with composer friends and audience but got roasted in the press. . . . I’m pleased with them -- and everybody seemed to think it was a real song-cycle -- which pleases me also."

While only the seventh and 12th songs are thematically related, harmonic features and word painting lend uniformity to the settings. The interval of a third dominates the songs in both vocal and paino parts, as do chord progressions of descending fourths. The songs are transparent, with the piano part often consisting of only two lines.

In 1958, Copland orchestrated eight of the twelve, ironically, not including his beloved Chariot.

Nature, the gentlest mother
There came a wind like a bugle
Why do they shut me out of Heaven?
The world feels dusty
Heart, we will forget him
Dear March, come in!
Sleep is supposed to be
When they come back

The work is the subject of a full length study by Larry Starr as The Dickinson Songs of Aaron Copland ( CMS Sources).


Elliott [Cook] Carter[, Jr.] (b. December 11, 1908, New York, NY) studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris in the 1930's, and then returned to the United States. After an early neoclassic phase, he has developed, since 1950, a signature atonal, rhythmically complex style.

Heart Not So Heavy As Mine (1938)

Musicians Wrestle Everywhere (1945)


Samuel [Osborne] Barber [II] (March 9, 1910, West Chester, PA – January 23, 1981) has also set Let down the bars, O Death (1936)

LET down the bars, O Death!
The tired flocks come in
Whose bleating ceases to repeat,
Whose wandering is done.

Thine is the stillest night,
Thine the securest fold;
Too near thou art for seeking thee,
Too tender to be told.


Composer-theorist George Perle (b. May 6, 1915, Bayonne, NJ) was a student of Ernst Krenek, who composes in a style which he characterizes as "twelve-tone tonality." Perle's former student Paul Lansky describes it thus: "Basically this creates a hierarchy among the notes of the chromatic scale so that they are all referentially related to one or two pitches which then function as a tonic note or chord in tonality. The system similarly creates a hierarchy among intervals and finally, among larger collections of notes, 'chords.' The main debt of this system to the 12-tone system lies in its use of an ordered linear succession in the same way that a 12-tone set does."

In 1968, Perle cofounded the Alban Berg Society with Igor Stravinsky and Hans F. Redlich, who had conceived the notion.

His 13 Dickinson Songs (1977-1978) include I like to see it lap the miles, I know some lonely house off the road, and There Came A Wind Like A Bugle


Vincent [Ludwig] Persichetti (June 6, 1915, Philadelphia, PA - August 14, 1987) trained many noted composers at the Juilliard School, including Philip Glass, Hall Overton, Richard Danielpour, William Schimmel, Peter Schickele, and Ronald Caltabiano.

Emily Dickinson Songs, op. 77 (1957)

Out of the morning
I'm nobody
When the hills do
The grass
Let down the bars, O Death (1936)


Ned Rorem (b. October 23, 1923, Richmond, IN) received his early education at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, the American Conservatory, and Northwestern University. He later Curtis Institute and the Juilliard School. He lived in Morocco and France from 1949 to 1957).

After a Long Silence, for voice, oboe, and strings (1982, to texts of William Butler Yeats, George Herbert, Thomas Carew, Robert Burns, Queen Elizabeth I, Thomas Hardy, William Blake, Ernest Dowson, Emily Dickinson)

Swords and Plowshares, for four solo voices and orchestra (1990, to texts of Arthur Rimbaud, Lord Byron, W.H. Auden, W.B. Yeats, Archibald MacLeish, E.A. Robinson, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Denise Levertov, Psalm 133

Poems of Love and the Rain includes two settings of Love's Stricken, "Why" as No. 4 and 14.

Women's Voices includes as No. 8 What Inn Is This.


Lee Hoiby (b. February 17, 1926, WI) was a child prodigy, studying with notable pianists Gunnar Johansen and Egon Petri. Among his early influences was Pro Art quartet leader Rudolf Kolisch, son-in-law of Arnold Schoenberg. Hoiby played with Harry Partch’s ensembles, and studied at Mills College with Darius Milhaud and at the Curtis Institute with Gian Carlo Menotti. The introduced Hoiby to opera, and involved him in the Broadway productions of The Consul and The Saint of Bleecker Street. He has set Dickinson's A Letter and There Came a Wind like a Bugle.


Emma Lou Diemer (b. November 24, 1927, Kansas City, MO) received both her B.M. (1949) and her M.M 1950) from the Yale School of Music. She studied composition in Brussels, Belgium on a Fulbright Scholarship from 1952 to 1953, returning to the United States to receive her Ph.D from the Eastman School of Music in 1960. She was professor of theory and composition at the University of Maryland 1965-70, and served on the faculty of the University of California from 1971 to 1991.

Three poems by Emily Dickinson (1993)

The birds begun at four o'clock
Bee, I'm expecting you
I suppose the time will come


William Jay Sydeman (b. 1928, New York, NY) was educated at Manhattan’s Mannes School of Music, and has received commissions from the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the Tanglewood Music Center, and the Boston Symphony. In 1970, Sydeman left New York -- and composition -- teaching at a teenage drug rehabilitation center in rural California, spending two years in Los Angeles’ commercial music industry, and another year studying Steiner education in England, before settling in Hawaii, where he composed liturgical music for a Tibetan Buddhist temple.

In 1981, Sydeman returned to teaching at the Steiner College in Fair Oaks, CA, and composition.
He moved to Nevada City, CA, in 1988. His three Emily Dickinson settings are Hope Is a Thing with Teathers, I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died, and I Taste a Liquor Never Brewed.


Elaine Hugh-Jones (b. 1927, London, UK) studied composition with Lennox Berkeley and was an official accompanist for the BBC for 37 years. She taught at Malvern Girls’ College and lMalvern College until her retirement in 1997. Her writing is almost entirely vocal and choral work including song cycle Songs of War (2003), to texts of Wilfred Owen, and the Dickinson setting Members of the Resurrection.


Robert Muczynski (b. March 19, 1929, Chicago, IL) studied composition with Alexander Tcherepnin at DePaul University in Chicago, where he received the Bachelor of Music degree (1950) and the Master of Music degree (1952), both in Piano Performance. Muczynski has taught at DePaul, Loras College (Dubuque, IA), Roosevelt University (Chicago), and the University of Arizona (Tucson). His works include a setting of I Never Saw a Moor (1967)


Betty Roe (b. 1930, London, England) studied at the Royal Academy of Music. She was (1968-78) Director of Music at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA), and worked extensively as a session singer with leading London groups and ensembles. Her cycle Delight (1999) includes Dickinson's Delight Is as the Flight, Answer July and I Taste a Liquor.


Alfred Heller (b. 1931, New Yorker, NY) was a protégé of Heitor Villa-Lobos, and worked with the late Brazilian composer on several of his later later compositions.

For Arleen (1990)

I'm nobody
In the silent west


Sylvia [Foodim] Glickman (1932 - January 16, 2006)Sylvia Foodim Glickman (1932 - January 16, 2006) grew up in New York City, where her mother enrolled her in music school at the age of 3. She graduated from the High School of Music and Art in 1950, and earned a bachelor's degree in 1954 from the Juilliard School of Music, where she also received a master's degree in 1955. She studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London on a Fulbright scholarship. She married Harvey Glickman, a political science professor, in 1956. Sylvia taught piano at the New England Conservatory of Music, Haverford College, Princeton University, and Franklin and Marshall College. In 1988, she founded Hildegard Press (after Hildegard von Bingen) and in 1991, was coeditor with Martha Schleifer of a 12-volume reference, Women Composers: Music through the Ages. Amongst here works is the Dickinson setting It will be Summer.


Persis Vehar (b. 1937) holds degrees from Ithaca College (BM) and the University of Michigan (MM). She studied composition with Warren Benson, Ross Lee Finney, Roberto Gerhard and Ned Rorem, and attended seminars with Milton Babbitt, John Cage and Roger Sessions. Vehar's Dickinson settings include How Happy is the Little Stone and The Martyrs Even Trod.


Robert Baksa (b. 1938, New York, NY) grew up in Tucson, Arizona. He studied composition at the University of Arizona with Henry Johnson and Robert McBride, and studied with Lucas Foss at the Berkshire Music Center. Since 1962 he has been living in New York City. His Emily Dickinson Songs (1967/1999) include Poor little heart!, Who robbed the woods?, and This is my letter to the world.


At 11, William Elden Bolcom (b. May 26, 1938, Seattle, WA) entered the University of Washington to study composition privately with George Frederick McKay and John Verrall. He later studied with Darius Milhaud at Mills College (M.A.), Leland Smith at Stanford University (D.M.A.), and Olivier Messiaen at the Paris Conservatoire (2éme Prix de Composition). Winner of a Pulitzer Prize, he is a professor of music composition at the University of Michigan. His sole Dickinson setting is The Bustle in a House.


Michael Tilson Thomas (b. December 21, 1944, Los Angeles, CA) is an American conductor, pianist, and composer -- currently the Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony.

Poems of Emily Dickinson (2000) was written for and inspired by Reneé Fleming. The composer notes,

"We had a conversation over tea one day in late 2000, and she described to me a project she was developing in collaboration with the actress Claire Bloom and the director Charles Nelson Reilly that would include readings from Dickinson’s letters, recitations of her poems, performances of song-settings by various composers, and a script to give everything some dramatic continuity. She asked if I had ever written any Dickinson songs. I told her I hadn’t, and that seemed to be the end of it. But in the next few days two or three songs came quickly into my mind; I’m well acquainted with Dickinson’s poetry, and read it constantly. So I composed a couple of songs and sent them to Reneé. She was very appreciative, but she said she couldn’t use them as by that time the evening was fully programmed. But then she changed her mind, and Fame and Of God We Ask One Favor got their premieres only a few weeks later.

Originally I thought of calling this cycle Short Poems of Emily Dickinson, since I deliberately selected shorter poems, and specifically short poems that had an acerbic rowdry cast to them. I appreciate the range of her poetry, but what you hear quoted, and what composers seem most drawn to set, are nearly always what you might call her 'touchy-feely' poems. As a result, people often overlook the fact that there are a lot of sardonic, bitter, quite cutting observations in her poetry. I wanted to focus on more of that aspect of her work, on its ironic quality, on its social criticism—and also on the sense of appreciation for just being alive, which is so much a part of her work. Dickinson is really a remarkable figure. Somehow her isolation gave her the essential distance to be able to see things clearly, to perceive reality and the essential nature of things. Such qualities are enduring.

[In Nature Studies,] three poems [To make a prairie, How happy is the little Stone, and The Spider holds a Silver Ball] flow together as a continuous song, and then at the end the first poem is recapitulated with strands of music that come from the other two. This movement is also a play on words, with Nature Studies inviting a musical interpretation of the word 'studies,' as in 'études.' So each of those three settings is based on a famous technical study -- or at least one musicians would recognize -- relating to some instrument. The first is based on Dohnányi’s piano étude for extended arpeggios, and the second on some, or probably on numerous, Czerny or Hanon studies involving substitute finger passages, again for piano. The third refers to a famous trombone étude involving extended range by Robert Marsteller. He was the principal trombonist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic when I was growing up, and you can hear this particular étude still played backstage by brass players to this day. In my settings, however, this 'studies' are played by diverse instruments, and not by the instruments they originally related to." [G. Schirmer]


Thomas Pasatieri (b. October 20, 1945, New York, NY) began composing at age 15 and, as a teenager, studied with Nadia Boulanger. He entered the Juilliard School at age 16 and became the school's first recipient of a doctoral degree. Pasatieri has taught composition at Juilliard, the Manhattan School of Music, and the Cincinnati College-Conservatory. From 1980 through 1984, he held the post of Artistic Director at Atlanta Opera. He has composed 19 operas, and his Dickinson cycle Far From Love, for soprano, clarinet, piano, violin, and cello (1976), includes Let Down the Bars, O Death as its fifth setting.


John [Coolidge] Adams (b. February 15, 1947, Worcester, MA) began composing at ten and first heard his music performed at 13 or 14. He studied with Leon Kirchner, Roger Sessions, Earl Kim, and David Del Tredici at Harvard University (BA 1971, MA 1972) and was the first student ever to be allowed to submit a musical composition for an undergraduate thesis. He taught at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music from 1972 till 1984, and continues to reside in Berkeley.

Harmonium, for chorus and orchestra (1980-1981), was written for the first season of Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco, and first conducted by Edo de Waart on April 15, 1981. The work is based on poetry by John Donne and Emily Dickinson and is regarded as one of the key compositions of Adams's minimalist period.

Negative Love (John Donne)
Because I could not stop for Death (Dickinson)
Wild Nights (Dickinson)

Timothy Johnson has discussed various aspects of the harmonic language of Harmonium in detail, and K. Robert Schwarz has noted the influence of the musical techniques of Steve Reich on Harmonium, and also has commented on the less schematic and more "intuitive" manner of Adams' composition in the work.


William [Palmer] Hawley (b. November 4, 1950, New York, NY) was born into the family of an English professor and poet. He studed at Ithaca College School of Music and the California Institute of the Arts (B.F.A., 1974; M.F.A., 1976) under Morton Subotnick, Harold Budd, James Tenney, Earle Brown, and Morton Feldman), but turned toward earlier as well as more recent musics, including those of India and East Asia.

Three Dickinson Songs (1985)

Six Dickinson Settings (1987)

I. There Came a Day at Summer's Full
II. A Valentine
III. As if the Sea Should Part
IV. I Have a Bird in Spring
V. It's Like the Light
VI. On This Wondrous Sea

Four Reveries (1995) (Rossetti, Shelley, Dickinson, Browning)
III. My River Runs to Thee

Safe In Their Alabaster Chambers (1995)

Three New England Songs (1998):
II. Summerwind (Emerson, Dickinson)
III. We Learned the Whole of Love

The Snow That Never Drifts (2002)

How Still the Bells (2004)


Nancy Galbraith (b. 1951 in Pittsburgh, PA) is an American postmodern/postminimalist composer. Her settings of The Sea of Sunset and Wild Nights, which comprise Two Emily Dickinson Songs, were commissioned by The Providence Singers.

The texts are

This is the land the sunset washes,
These are the banks of the Yellow Sea;
Where it rose, or whither it rushes,
These are the western mystery!

Night after night her purple traffic
Strews the landing with opal bales;
Merchantmen poise upon the horizons,
Dip, and vanish with fairy sails.

Wild Nights

Wild nights! Wild nights!
Were I with thee,
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!
Futile the winds
To a heart in port,
Done with the compass,
Done with the chart,
Rowing in Eden!
Ah! the sea!
Might I but moor
To-night in thee!


Nick Peros (b. March 17, 1963) is a Canadian classical composer with a catalogue including symphonic, orchestral, choral, vocal and chamber works. His Dickinson settings include:

Bring me the sunset in a cup
I taste a liquor never brewed
So set its sun in thee
When roses cease to bloom, sir


Tarik [Hamilton] O'Regan (b. January 1, 1978, London, UK) is partly of North African heritage, and currently lives in New York, NY, and Cambridge, UK.

His Two Emily Dickinson Settings (2007), commissioned by Craig Hella Johnson and Conspirare for their September 2007 concert series in Texas, were designed to frame an evening's program as a compositional "inhalation" and "exhalation," a crescendo and decrescendo, or a prelude and postlude. Each setting uses a solo soprano and tenor, their voices referencingpolarities of "sun" and "shade" and "love" and "hate."