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looking back

dickinson: musical muse

December 09, 2009

“I dwell in possibility.”
-Emily Dickinson

This weekend, LACO pays tribute to the works of a famous poetess through song and music. Soprano Laura Claycomb joins the Orchestra to perform, among the other exciting works programmed for Bel Canto, Copland’s Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson. According to our program notes beautifully written by Christine Lee Gengaro, PhD, Copland “set Dickinson’s poetry with extraordinary sensitivity. Her unusual punctuation and sometimes halting lines are observed with great care in the music. Some of the hallmarks of Copland’s style, the angular lines and occasional wide leaps, along with virtuosic flourishes in the accompaniment, are much in evidence here and help produce very effective settings of Dickinson’s words.”

It turns out that Ms. Dickinson was a musical muse for a variety of composers. In the 1980s, contemporary composer John Adams wrote Harmonium, a choral symphony based on poetry by Emily Dickinson and John Donne. Hear an excerpt here. Her stark yet emotional words have inspired numerous compositions, many of which can be found in this database of poetry set to music . And here’s a fun fact: most of Emily Dickinson’s poems can be sung to the tune of “Gilligan’s Island” because of the meter. Try it:

I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died
I heard a fly buzz when I died;
The stillness round my form
Was like the stillness in the air
Between the heaves of storm.
The eyes beside had wrung them dry,
And breaths were gathering sure
For that last onset, when the king
Be witnessed in his power.
I willed my keepsakes, signed away
What portion of me I
Could make assignable, and then
There interposed a fly,
With blue, uncertain, stumbling buzz,
Between the light and me;
And then the windows failed, and then
I could not see to see.

But what other poems have been set to music in history? Many of Shakespeare’s sonnets inspired composers to pay tribute to the master playwright/poet’s works. Contemporary artists continue to find Shakespeare’s works fodder for creative output – here’s a video of Rufus Wainwright singing Sonnet 20 at the Watermill in Hampton, New York. Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken is one of my favorite poems, and one that is often sung in the form of a choral piece arranged by Randall Thompson in Frostiana: Seven Country Songs. Now if only I could find a YouTube video of the piece of music set to the words of Wordsworth’s Daffodils...sigh…

What is your favorite poem set to music? If you could set any poem to music what would it be? Answer below, and hear Copland’s beautiful interpretations of Dickinson’s poetry this weekend with LACO and Laura Claycomb!

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