Emily Dickinson—It’s What We’re Singing

The following is a guest post by Pat Padua, Digital Conversion Specialist in the Library of Congress’ Music Division, on the occasion of Emily Dickinson’s 187th birthday (December 10).

Copland, Aaron. [Nine poems of Emily Dickinson sketches]. Library of Congress Music Division.

“I play the old, odd tunes yet, which used to flit about your head after honest hours.” One of the most iconic of American poets, Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) explained in a letter to John Graves, a distant cousin who would visit the Dickinsons, the musical inclinations that would emerge in the wee hours. Of those visits, Graves’ daughter wrote years later that Emily’s playing woke them up—“I improvise better at night,” the poet said.

To celebrate her birthday, let’s consider the way her distinct meter has been set to music. It is perhaps fitting that Aaron Copland (1900-1990), one of the most American of composers, wrote settings for a dozen of her poems. Completed in 1950, the song cycle is a rare example of Copland composing for voice and piano. He is perhaps best known for scoring the Agnes de Mille ballet “Rodeo,” an expression of American optimism whose popularity is such that just a few notes invoke an advertising campaign for beef in the 1990s (it’s what’s for dinner).

Copland’s settings for Dickinson are more challenging, though one can almost imagine that tag line scanned in a rhythm that would suit the poet. Here, he taps the poet’s themes of the American wilderness; you can hear the piano mimic the “too impetuous bird” of “Nature, the Gentlest Mother.” On recordings of “There Came a Wind Like a Bugle,” a startling voice announces the brassy breeze.

Bacon, Ernst, and Emily Dickinson. Wild Nights. Library of Congress Music Division.

Yet it is on “I Felt a Funeral, in My Brain,” that we hear the internal horror that is often associated with Dickinson’s stark poetry. “Mourners to and fro/ Kept treading – treading – till it seemed / That Sense was breaking through –”. Like a sinister calliope, a circular piano figure turns dirge-like in a concise program that charts the poem’s mental journey.

Ernst Bacon (1898-1990) published his settings of Dickinson some years earlier, and they are more conventionally pretty. “So Bashful When I Spied Her” invokes a simpler drama, yet the frenetic piano that accompanies “Wild Nights” aptly conveys the frenetic passion: “Might I but moor – tonight – / In thee!” (Read the poem here. Listen to a recording here.)

We don’t know what Dickinson’s own musical improvisations were truly like. We know she saw the “Swedish Nightingale” Jenny Lind perform in 1851; she wrote to her brother Austin that “Herself and not her music was what we seemed to love,” showing Dickinson to be perhaps an early critic of the cult of personality. Yet she reportedly moved to a different kind of music in her poetry. As she wrote around 1860, “Musicians wrestle everywhere.”

The Library of Congress holds Copland’s Dickinson sketches, Bacon’s settings, as well as settings composed by Arthur Farwell (1872-1952).

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Sources:

https://www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org/

Richard Sewall, The Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974.

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