Copland’s Poems of Emily Dickinson

This week I’m listening to 12 poems of Emily Dickinson by Aaron Copland, an American composer, teacher, and conductor who lived from 1900-1990. You can read more about him here

Have you ever read a poem that spoke to you in a way nothing else has? That’s what happened to Copland. He wanted to set some poetry to music for the first time in his life (yeah, he was getting more introspective as he got older), but nothing stuck with him until he read “The Chariot” by Emily Dickinson. Here’s the poem:

Because I could not stop for Death,

He kindly stopped for me;

The carriage held but just ourselves

And Immortality.

We slowly drove, he knew no haste,

And I had put away

My labor, and my leisure too,

For his civility.

We passed the school where children played,

Their lessons scarcely done;

We passed the fields of gazing grain,

We passed the setting sun.

We paused before a house that seemed

A swelling of the ground;

The roof was scarcely visible,

The cornice but a mound.

Since then ‘t is centuries; but each

Feels shorter than the day

I first surmised the horses’ heads

Were toward eternity.

He later said of the poem: “Its first lines absolutely threw me . . . The idea of this completely unknown girl in Massachusetts [Dickinson] seeing herself riding off into immortality with death himself seemed like such an incredible idea! I was very struck with that, especially since it turned out to be true.”

Emily Dickinson was an American poet in the 1800s who rarely left her own home. She was extremely prolific – she wrote almost 1800 poems in her life, but only a small handful of her poetry was actually published during her lifetime. Major themes of her poetry include nature, life and death, church, and the inner workings of the mind. Read more about her here.

Copland wrote the song cycle 12 poems of Emily Dickinson in 1949-1950 starting with “The Chariot”. He wrote of her poetry: “There was something about her personality and use of language that was fresh, precise, utterly unique—and very American. The more I read, the more her vulnerability and loneliness touched me.” Did he know that he was also describing the music he set to her words? Each song has its own character that portrays perfectly the words and the intents of the poet and composer.

The songs are a little unusual. There are irregular meters, changes in stanza length, abrupt stops, and these all serve to convey the poetry. Copland aimed to match Dickinson’s concise and lyrical (yet sometimes abrupt) language with soaring leaps for the vocalist and intrusive imagery in the accompaniment. Let’s take a brief look into each piece (click on the title of the song to read the poem).

Nature, the gentlest mother” is the first song of the cycle. I adore this song! The piano delicately imitates birds and sounds of nature, and the vocal line soars. It’s a conversation between the piano and the singer (nature and poet). Note the prominence of the major 3rd interval.

Next is “There came a wind like a bugle.” This one took me by surprise the first time I heard it. The rushing upward theme introduced in the piano is reminiscent of the wind, and the vocal line could be compared to a bugle call (listen to the clear major 3rd interval with the crisp rhythm when she sings the word “bugle” for the first time). You can hear the wind disrupt the grass (trills) and ring the church bells.

Why do they shut me out of heaven?” has some wonderful sounds. The piano opens with a harsh octave, but then Copland adds some lush, jazzy chords underneath the introspective words. It’s also like a recitative, where the vocalist sings in a rhythm as if she’s speaking.

The contemplative fourth song, “The world feels dusty,” is one of my favorites. I love the stillness in the piano, and even the vocal line seems to suspend while everything slightly and slowly shifts. And it just kind of ends, you know?

Next comes “Heart, we will forget him,” which is also stunning! This one struck me immediately with its bittersweet melody and the subtle and sparse jazzy chords in the accompaniment.

Then comes a very contrasting piece, one about springtime: “Dear March, come in!” This song is a lot more cheerful than the last few in the cycle. The exciting thing about this song is that the voice part is in a 2/4 time signature while the piano is in a 6/8 time signature. The resulting cross-rhythms create a spirited dialogue.

The middle work, “Sleep is supposed to be,” is characterized by a crisp dotted rhythm. The vocal line reminds me a little bit of the first song, but what I love about this one is the counter-ideas in the piano part. It’s like a conversation that grows slightly frantic towards the end.

When they come back” is also about springtime and blossoms, yet the words portray some doubt. I think that is shown in the driving, restless accompaniment. However, the piano calms down for the last stanza; I think that was intentional. 🙂

Next is one of the darkest songs of the cycle: “I felt a funeral in my brain.” The funeral march is apparent from the dark bass at the beginning, and the solemn chordal movement reminds me of church bells. The vocal line and the piano both change keys – and they don’t often end up in the same key at the same time, which creates a sense of anxiety.

The following song is “I’ve heard an organ talk sometimes.” Church bells, third intervals, and subtle shifts in the harmonies drive this song this song.

Going to heaven!” is a little frantic, characterized by a rising motif (that ends in with a major 3rd interval). This one is very  much a conversation between the voice and the piano. But, the last half of the last stanza changes mood and becomes more reflective in nature.

And finally, “The Chariot.” I love this one. The gentleness in nature seems to contradict the words, and the dotted rhythm is similar to that in song #7. And it ends on a major chord, even though the harmony was kind of implied minor throughout the song.

By 1970, Copland orchestrated eight of the original 12 songs.

Which of the 12 songs do you like best?

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