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Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson

Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson

Selected Composition

 

Aaron Copland, Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson

 

 

Program Notes

 

Aaron Copland (1900 - 1990) is arguably America's greatest composer, and Emily Dickinson is arguably America's greatest poet. How fitting, therefore, that Copland set 12 of her poems to music. This song cycle began for Copland when he first encountered Dickinson's poem "The Chariot"; Copland wrote of the experience: "The first lines absolutely threw me!" He completed the song cycle in 1950, and it is considered one of his greatest achievements.

 

Here is the complete text of Dickinson's poem, "The Chariot":

 

The Chariot
 

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 'tis centuries; but each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses' heads
Were toward eternity. 

 

Emily Dickinson (1830 - 86) was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, and she spent most of her life there. She worked tirelessly at her poetry, but saw little of it published during her lifetime. After her death, her family discovered forty volumes of 1,800 poems that she had written. Her stature as poet has grown decade by decade since.

 

What would she have made of these songs? I think she would have loved them. For me, the best way to hear them is to take out one's copy of Dickinson's poems and read the texts of these songs before they are sung, then concentrate on the music. The twelve poems that Copland employs are:


1. Nature, the Gentlest Mother
2. There Came a Wind Like a Bugle
3. Why Do They Shut Me Out of Heaven?
4. The World Feels Dusty
5. Heart, We Will Forget Him
6. Dear March, Come In!
7. Sleep is Supposed to Be
8. When They Come Back
9. I Felt a Funeral in My Brain
10. I’ve Heard an Organ Talk Sometimes
11. Going to Heaven!
12. The Chariot
 

 

Note that "The Chariot," though it was the first song composed, is the last song in the completed cycle.

 

Here is a link to the American soprano Barbara Bonney singing these songs, from of her album American Songs:

 

Aaron Copland, "Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson"

 

 

Coda

 

Today begins Copland Week in this blog. Follow my posts and hear with me some of the treasures of humanity.

 

 

 

 

I created "I Shall Not Live in Vain," the image above, in 2006. It is based on Mandelbrot fractals. The title is from Emily Dickinson's poem, "If I Can Stop One Heart from Breaking":
 

If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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