Emily Dickinson: the poet who offers composers potentially limitless possibilities

Philip Clark Tue 21st March 2017

Philip Clark celebrates the American poet who was a kindred spirit of the composers she has inspired

As an intellectual loner, a disrupter of poetic convention, an instinctual progressive, a sensual philosopher, an obstinate believer in the validity and vitality of her own work, a transformer of small-town 19th-century America into impassionedly passionate poetic visions that – even to 21st-century eyes tuned into James Joyce, Gertrude Stein and EE Cummings – read like a jittery spillage of words ripped into by hollering silences, composers have long considered Emily Dickinson as one of their own.

When, in 1950, Aaron Copland was beginning his song-cycle Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson, he visited the Dickinson homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts, where Dickinson lived out a peculiarly reclusive existence until her death in 1886. Standing by her tiny writing table placed near a window in her bedroom, Copland looked out “to see what she saw out of that window”. Emily would have seen an archetypal American street scene of the time, he concluded, complete with avenues of trees and a Congregational church. But we remain mesmerised by Dickinson today precisely because she didn’t document the ordinary and the everyday; like Charles Ives (born eight years after she died), Dickinson remodelled the forms and syntax of her age, retelling and elevating them with unheralded intensity.

Viewed with a composerly eye, Dickinson’s work already suggests a system of notation that is there for the encrypting. Some poems occupy only a few aphoristic lines; others stretch to an assemblage of verses, but her words hang so freely off the page they might just flake away in your hands. Dickinson’s use of dashes – all different lengths, some rising, some falling – and her defiance of apostrophe etiquette feel like dissonant, fragmented punctuation; or, to borrow terminology from avant-garde musicians who harness nuances of timbre and touch by pushing instrumental technique far beyond established norms, like “extended techniques”.

Dickinson writes words, but gives equal weight to the resonant spaces in between. She scatters language in the same breath as she generates it. She licenses to composers potentially limitless possibilities, while posing the question: how can those freedoms be incorporated into a compositional approach that neither stifles her open-ended structures, nor becomes so obscure that the true essence of her expressive intentions are lost? It is the opposite problem facing a composer setting, for argument’s sake, a sonnet, where the challenge is to weigh up the expectations of the form against the impulses of their imagination.

Those looking for a musical way in can find guidance aplenty within Dickinson’s poetry. Her 1862 poem, the first line of which reads “Better – than Music! For I – who heard it – ”, depicts music transcending boundaries humans place around sound, surmising that such music might already be embedded within Emily’s own being (“let me not spill – its smallest cadence”). Written the same year, “Of all the sounds dispatched abroad” evokes the “phraseless melodies” of wind in the trees, while “Musicians Wrestle Everywhere” riffs on a similar theme. Music is music but can also be the collective consciousness of all sounds around us; birdsong, children rattling tambourines, hymns intoning from the pulpit. “Some – say – it is ‘the Spheres’ – at Play!” Dickinson concludes, as though one child’s tambourine allows us a glimpse at the music of the spheres.

Wisconsin-born, Munich-based composer Gloria Coates has grappled with Dickinson’s challenges longer than most. The 15 songs anthologised on “Vitality Begun”, a 2000 release on Cavalli Records, were written over a 35-year period, while Coates has also extrapolated structures for instrumental works from Dickinson’s poems. Her deployment of tonal chords without their harmonic function, her stuttering silences and incorporation of the inside of the piano into a unified “meta-piano” concept, thereby extending the everyday pianistic palette, brilliantly evokes those “phraseless melodies” that resonate beyond music.

“In my setting of ‘In falling timbres buried –’,” Coates explains, “I use Dickinson’s dashes as points for the singer to take symbolic audible breaths; the poem is about a person being buried alive. The strings inside the piano are used as an echo of remembrance in ‘I held a Jewel in my fingers –’, and her questioning about life after death I express with the resonance of the piano. I go to these poems when I am grieving and need consolation. I find levels of meaning and feeling in her poems expressed by words but also through implication and symbolism.”

While researching her Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds, biographer Lyndall Gordon (who, full disclosure, happens to be a member of my wife’s family) traced Dickinson’s feel for metre and rhythm to a possible physiological source. “Emily’s broken rhythms and her off-rhymes perhaps suggest a jolting, arrhythmic, discordant music,” says Gordon. “Cristanne Miller, another Dickinson scholar, writes of Dickinson’s subversive grammar and disruptive punctuation. Dashes push her words apart, inserting silence and unspoken communication, as though the given language is inadequate. A poem like ‘I tie my Hat – I crease my Shawl’, one I keep turning to, seems domestic and small-scale. She has to put flowers in a vase. But then an explosive couplet tells of a completely different life: ‘And yet – Existence – some way back – Stopped – struck – my ticking – through –’”

“This outburst is intensely violent, and there is a lot of evidence, in the poems and in the medication she was prescribed, to indicate Emily suffered from epilepsy. I don’t want to make a crass case that suggests the poetry and sickness are equivalent. But an epileptic seizure results from a swerve in the normal pathways of the brain that gives the sufferer access to thinking not open to most of us. In poems that deal with upheavals and volcanoes, she demonstrates an extraordinary creative capacity to take her illness and transform it into something visionary.”

Carlton Lowenberg’s 1992 book Musicians Wrestle Everywhere, an inventory of every Dickinson setting he could lay hands on, lists 1600 settings by nearly 300 composers, from all points along the stylistic spectrum: post-Schoenbergians George Perle and Leon Kirchner rub shoulders with the neo-tonality of Vincent Persichetti and John Adams. Copland’s 12 songs are invariably cited as an exemplar of Dickinson setting, but I wonder how powerfully they now speak. Is Copland’s neo-classical elegance – his motor rhythms and smartly conceived melodies with their functional accompaniment – really bold enough to penetrate Dickinson’s spirit? John Adams’s sparse, allusive take on “Because I could not stop for death” in his choral and orchestral Harmonium (1981) does capture Dickinson’s otherworldliness, as does the fractured, bruised soundscape of Italian “modernist” Giacomo Manzoni’s 1988 Dieci versi di Emily Dickinson (documented on the Stradivarius label). Good Dickinson music, it seems, transcends stylistic allegiance.

Perhaps the problem with setting poetry is that word “setting”. Putting music to poetry frames the poem, freezing it in a time that may, but equally may not, have anything to do with a poet’s original intention. And the peculiarities of Dickinson’s working methods would suggest that composers need to be extra-vigilant about the danger of unwittingly allowing music to tame her message. Lyndall Gordon explains that parallel arguments rumble on about how best to represent the poems in book-form. “It’s easy to forget,” she elucidates, “that from her canon of nearly 1800 poems only 10 were published during her lifetime, and only one of those with her consent. Print conventions impose inaccuracies on the poems. The three-volume Franklin edition published in 1998, which is now widely questioned, used her first lines as titles, which Dickinson never did. The poems plunge in, and at the bottom of the page there are often variants of words. She created numerous drafts, and no one knows which draft she preferred.”

In her biography, Gordon records an old Dickinson family friend remembering “Emily…coming through the glass door of the library (to) improvise strange music on the piano.” A sepia memory that musicians intending to set Dickinson ought to wrestle with – everywhere.

This article originally appeared in the August 2010 issue of Gramophone. To find out more about our latest subscription offers, please visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe

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