Arts Blog

An Emily Dickinson Playlist

Music is a natural complement to the poetry of Emily Dickinson (1830-1886). Her lyrical voice is often cast in the singable meters of American hymnody: for example, just try singing this Dickinson text to the tune of “Amazing Grace:”

The Bee is not afraid of me.
I know the Butterfly.
The pretty people in the Woods
Receive me cordially —

The line between music and text can blur in Dickinson’s poetry. Not only does poetry sing for Emily Dickinson, but music talks as well:

I’ve heard an Organ talk, sometimes —
In a Cathedral Aisle,
And understood no word it said —
Yet held my breath, the while —

It’s no wonder that composers are often drawn to Emily Dickinson. In honor of National Poetry Month, here is a playlist featuring just a few of the pieces inspired by her work.

Dickinson’s idiosyncratic punctuation and syntax led to a variety of editorial changes in printed versions of her poems. The poems quoted in this article are mostly taken from The Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson. In some of these musical works, the text set to music differs slightly.

Heart, We Will Forget Him

From Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson by Aaron Copland

Aaron Copland composed this song cycle in 1950, and it is among the best-known musical settings of Dickinson. The cycle became a recital staple for many singers, including the late American soprano Phyllis Curtin, who admired Copland’s sensitivity to Dickinson’s unique syntax: “It is the pattern of Emily’s remarkable speech that Aaron understood absolutely.

Heart! We will forget him!
You and I — tonight!
You may forget the warmth he gave —
I will forget the light!

When you have done, pray tell me,
That I may straight begin!
Haste! lest while you’re lagging
I remember him!

Summer of Hesperides

From Three Pieces after Emily Dickinson by Mary Howe

Three Pieces after Emily Dickinson (1941) is a work for string quartet by American composer and pianist Mary Howe. Howe, a student of Nadia Boulanger, was an important musical force in early 20th-century Washington, D.C.: she was a co-founder of the National Symphony Orchestra and the Chamber Music Society of Washington. Along with Amy Beach, Howe also co-founded the Society of American Women Composers in 1925. “Summer of Hesperides” is inspired by the last line this Dickinson poem:

Except the smaller size
No lives are round —
These — hurry to a sphere
And show and end —
The larger — slower grow
And later hang —
The Summers of Hesperides
Are long.

I Went to Heaven

From Nine Songs by George Walker

American composer George Walker had a strong affinity for vocal music. His Lilacs, for voice and orchestra, won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1996 – the first won by an African-American composer. Walker’s many art songs include several Emily Dickinson settings, including “I Went to Heaven,” from his 1991 cycle of Nine Songs.

I went to Heaven —
‘Twas a small Town —
Lit — with a Ruby —
Lathed — with Down —

Stiller — than the fields
At the full Dew —
Beautiful — as Pictures —
No Man drew.
People — like the Moth —
Of Mechlin — frames —
Duties — of Gossamer —
And Eider — names —
Almost — contented —
I — could be —
‘Mong such unique
Society —

The most triumphant Bird I ever knew or met

From Of Being Is a Bird by Augusta Read Thomas

Of Being Is a Bird (Emily Dickinson Settings) is a 2015 work for soprano and orchestra by American composer Augusta Read Thomas. “The most triumphant Bird I ever knew or met” is the third movement in the cycle. This exuberant setting portrays the bird’s delightfully unpredictable flight patterns, and its contrapuntally treated melodies show the stylized influence of birdsong.

The most triumphant Bird I ever knew or met
Embarked upon a twig today
And till Dominion set
I famish to behold so eminent a sight
And sang for nothing scrutable
But intimate Delight.
Retired, and resumed his transitive Estate —
To what delicious Accident
Does finest Glory fit!

Quotation of Dream: “Say sea, take me!”

By Tōru Takemitsu

Quotation of Dream (1991) for two pianos and orchestra is a neo-impressionist work inspired by the ocean. Water, in all its forms, is a common theme in the music of Japanese composer Tōru Takemitsu. This work, which the composer wrote for Paul Crossley and Peter Serkin, explores its extra-musical theme with quotations: musical quotations from Debussy’s tone poem La mer, and a subtitle quoted from Emily Dickinson’s “My river runs to thee.”

My River runs to thee —
Blue Sea! Wilt welcome me?
My River wait reply —
Oh Sea — look graciously —
I’ll fetch thee Brooks
From spotted nooks —
Say — Sea — Take Me!

I Never Saw a Moor

From Seven Dickinson Songs by Emily Lau

American composer Emily Lau is the founder of The Broken Consort, an innovative chamber ensemble that is in residence with Portland’s own Big Mouth Society. Lau’s Seven Dickinson Songs come from The Broken Consort’s 2019 album, Isle of Majesty. “I Never Saw a Moor” is a haunting, neo-Renaissance work scored for early instruments and percussion, which beautifully captures the mystery of Dickinson’s rather metaphysical text. You may have heard Emily Lau’s Dickinson settings recently on our show Club Mod!

I never saw a Moor —
I never saw the Sea —
Yet know I how the Heather looks
And what a Billow be.

I never spoke with God,
Nor visited in Heaven —
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the Checks were given —

Chorus: “Hope” is the thing with feathers

From Letters from Emily by Grant Edwards

Letters from Emily is a new oratorio by Portland composer Grant Edwards, which premiered in 2019. The work sets twenty-seven Dickinson poems to music, and one is referenced in the title:

This is my letter to the world
That never wrote to me,—

Edwards explains, “Our lives are our ‘letters to the world’—a world which promises nothing in return. The sun sets, the sun rises, love is gained and lost, sanity is exposed as madness (and vice-versa)—yet, at times, hope flies in from where we least expect it.

The ninth movement is an exhilarating chorus on one of Dickinson’s most beloved poems.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—

And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—
And sore must be the storm—
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm—

I’ve heard it in the chillest land—
And on the strangest Sea—
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb—of Me.

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