Thursday, July 18, 2013

Aaron Copland's "Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson"

Continuing my series of program notes:

Aaron Copland (1900-1990)
Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson

Nature, the gentlest mother
There came a wind like a bugle
The world feels dusty
Heart, we will forget him
Dear March, come in
Sleep is supposed to be
Going to Heaven
The Chariot

1846 or 1847 daguerrotype of Emily Dickinson
With works such as Appalachian Spring, Rodeo and Fanfare for the Common Man, Aaron Copland’s music became the quintessential expression of ‘the American’ in music. This could be considered ‘big skies’ music – bold vigorous rhythms, declamatory themes, bright orchestral colours. As subject matter the poems of Emily Dickinson, a New England recluse, might seem a change of direction. Yet these too are quintessentially American. Indeed, Martha Graham had based what Irving Kolodin called ‘the first authentically American Ballet’ on Dickinson’s poetry (Letter to the World, with music by Hunter Johnson) the year before she commissioned Copland's Appalachian Spring.

Copland began setting Dickinson’s poetry in March 1949 with The Chariot, the poem in which Dickinson imagines herself accepting a ride in Death’s coach. From there Copland conceived settings of three poems, then six. A year later, he had completed 12 (each dedicated to a different composer friend), placing them in order after they were written. These were first performed by Alice Howland in New York on 18 May 1950 with the composer at the piano. There has been much discussion of the angularity of the vocal part, the poet’s voice, in these settings with praise for the way in which Copland uncannily captures Dickinson’s unique punctuation (even though he worked from the ‘cleaned up’ texts pre-dating the 1955 authorised edition of her works). With his orchestration of eight of the songs in 1958, Copland uses the orchestra to amplify the metaphorical role that Copland biographer Howard Pollack describes the piano accompaniment as having.

The poems concern death, nature both benign and malevolent, and the poet’s own struggles with faith. ‘Nature, the gentlest mother’ is followed by the destructive force of the wind coming in like a bugle. Copland’s orchestration becomes warmer with strings as we approach the central numbers of the set: ‘The world feels dusty’ and ‘Heart, we will forget him’. ‘Dear March’, balancing ‘There came a wind’, celebrates springtime ‘whimsically portrayed as a house caller’ in the words of Pollack, who also says ‘[‘Sleep’] affirms an exalted, messianic vision of life and death’. In ‘Going to Heaven’ Dickinsons expresses her own doubts about heaven, but takes comfort in the fact that deceased friends (or relatives) had faith. In ‘The Chariot’, she envisions her own funeral ride to the cemetery.

With this work Copland seems to have reached the heart of Dickinson’s poetry. He spent months researching what he called the ‘unique personality’ of a woman who, in her 30s. had started communicating with people through a closed door rather than face-to-face and he visited Dickinson’s home in Amherst, Massachusetts to get a sense of the extraordinary mind, the ‘undiscovered continent’, that sustained her in her isolation. In some ways, he felt that his work the previous year on The Heiress, for which his film score won an Academy Award, prepared him for entering the mind of an isolated, unmarried young woman. Said the soprano, Phyllis Curtin: ‘It is my conviction, after having sung these songs hundreds of times, that nobody has ever understood her as Aaron does. It was Aaron who found the musical voice for Emily Dickinson, and the times when I sang them best, I had the feeling that she was speaking.’

Yet this work also marked a change for Copland. The public statements of Appalachian Spring and Fanfare for the Common Man had given way to private utterance. It is noteworthy that around this time Copland made his first foray into the cerebral possibilities of 12-tone technique in his Piano Quartet. The Eight Poems proves there’s more to overt Americana than meets the eye, or ear. A complex psychological underplay is going on here beneath a spare, New England exterior.

Gordon Kalton Williams, © 2013

This note first appeared in program booklets of orchestras associated with Symphony Services International ( Please contact me if you would like to reprint this note in a program booklet. If you would like to read more of my notes on this blog please see:

Edward Elgar's Froissart, published 2 July 2013
Aaron Copland's A Lincoln Portrait, published 3 July 2013
Franz Waxman's Carmen-fantaisie, published 6 July 2013
Jan Sibelius's Oceanides, published 8 July 2013
Richard Wagner's Tristan and Isolde: Prelude and Liebestod, published 12 July 2013

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