Author Vivian Perlis has written of Aaron Copland's marvelous settings of Twelve Poems by Emily Dickinson, 'The songs are unusual in style with irregular meters and stanzas, wide jumps in the vocal lines, and difficult passages for the pianist that present special challenges...not an immediately accessible style.' I am a great admirer of these songs and would not disparage them in any way. But I must agree with Perlis's description and would also observe that Copland generally seemed drawn to the dramatic potential of Dickinson's verses.
Vincent Persichetti's approach was somewhat different. His sensibilities favored the gentle lyricism and deeply contemplative elements of Dickinson's poetry, and his delicate and introspective musical settings mirrored this. When Persichetti composed his Opus 77, in 1958, he created four superb musical settings of the quintessential American poet, and it is impossible to imagine a more approachable and useful set of teaching songs for undergraduate students.
These are at once likable and substantive songs that have been fashioned with minimal vocal requirements, high poetic qualities and limited accompaniment demands. The set includes a range of moods; the quiet wonderment of Out of the Morning, the gentle playfulness of I'm Nobody, the loving and assuring When the Hills Do, and the superbly meditative The Grass. Each title was published separately.
The first song of the set is typical. The poem was first printed posthumously, in 1891, in the second volume of the collected poems of Emily Dickinson (1830-86).
Here we can only marvel at Dickinson's masterful play on several of her favorite poetic conceits--innocence, humility, wonderment. Persichetti's response was equally masterful in its concision and simplicity: The entire piano accompaniment is constructed with one elementary device--slowly arpeggiated chords, sustained by continuous pedaling. The vocal line is restrained, conjunct, syllabic and scans the poetry to perfection, using a sequential, gently sloped melodic phrase for each poetic question. The second stanza brings a smoothly handled modulation and change of melodic outline. As the third stanza begins we recognize a return of the opening material and realize that the form has become a subtle example of A B A. A brief reprise, repeating the poem's closing line, closes the form.
OUT OF THE MORNING
Will there really be a morning?
Is there such a thing as day?
Could I see it from the mountains
If I were as tall as they?
Has it feet like waterlilies?
Has it feathers like a bird?
Is it brought from famous countries
Of which I have have never heard?
Oh, some scholar! Oh, some sailor!
Oh, some wise man from the skies!
Please to [sic] tell a little pilgrim
Where the place called morning lies?
Persichetti's occasional willingness to repeat a poetic line to serve his musical needs is one of the few faults with which he can be charged (he does it again in The Grass ). The vocal gamut of Out of the Morning reaches only from D, below the treble staff, up to top space E, and the cumulative gamut of the entire set of four songs is but a half-step more in each direction.
The compositional devices Persichetti uses here so resemble those in one of his earlier songs that the similarity must be noted; those who know the exquisite setting of Hilaire Belloc's Thou Child so Wise, from Persichetti's Opus 75, will recognize the relationship. Incidentally, this is the same Belloc poem the youthful Benjamin Britten set so beguilingly, with the title The Birds. But I digress.
Aaron Copland wrote of his Dickinson settings, '...in seeking a musical counterpoint for the unique personality of the poet, [the composer hopes] he has given the songs, taken together, the aspect of a song cycle.' Though Persichetti did number the songs in his opus, there is no indication he conceived of them as forming a cycle. I find each of these songs convincing as a separate artistic entity and have often used them that way.
A recital grouping interleaving Dickinson settings by such excellent American composers as Copland, Persichetti and John Duke (who composed several sets of Dickinson poetry, one published by Southern Music in 1968, and one written in 1975, which remains unpublished) would certainly be fascinating programming.
Persichetti's four Emily Dickinson Songs, Opus 77, were published in 1958, by the Elkan-Vogel Company of Philadelphia, where the composer was an editor.
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