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The Music in the Words: Rhythm, Pitch and Phrasing in Two Worlds

Heavenly Hurt: songs of love and loss

Emily Dickinson, poems

Alice Parker, music

A Lecture for the Emily Dickinson International Society - Amherst, MA - August 4, 2018

Five years ago I was commissioned by a local choral group to write a piece on lines from a local poet. The work should be 15 to 30 minutes in length, with or without accompaniment. I was happy to accept the invitation, and immediately suggested Emily Dickinson as the poet. I reviewed some of her poems with the conductor and was soon well launched into compiling the text. I had previously set many of Emily’s poems, and love their wit and brevity. So much is left out! What remains is the core of the thought, lying on the printed page without context or a living voice. The music can supply exactly that: a voice filled with mood, atmosphere, tempo, beat, and a careful unrolling of the lines (not too fast, not too slow). The music lays bare the emotional content of the poem so that the listener may be drawn into its depths.

Emily uses an astonishing vocabulary in her work: scientific terms, magical metaphors, outlandish juxtapositions – all sounding very simple. Yet one must dig and dig to get to the heart of her message, appreciating the curiosity and abandon that lie hidden within the deceptively calm forms. I discovered that the way I set the rhythm of the words within the measures of music was key to releasing the lines. The rhythm of speech is more important than the choice of odd pitches or intervals. So, in setting her words, I chose simple modes or scales so that the layers of rhythmic complexity could unfold unhindered by difficult pitches. I wanted the listener to hear Emily’s voice speaking clearly through the music.

As a singer I read the poems differently from word-people. I’m interested in how they feel in my throat as I say them aloud: I’m singing vowels and consonants. The rhythm of the spoken words will be the rhythm of the song, including pauses and silences between movements. The shape of the poem is at the heart of the music. How many verses and lines? How many syllables in each line? Much of my own life has been spent in working with traditional hymn forms in both text and music. I recognized these in Emily’s work from the start: her easy adoption of common meter (8686), or the more rhapsodic 886 886. She makes these old, restrictive forms glow with new life as she twists and slithers between their bonds. I, too, have felt the tight restriction of those tiny forms, and learned how to surmount them by looking within -- going deeper into simplicity -- rather than expanding into larger, less focused forms.

It can take me months to assemble the text for a multi-movement work like Heavenly Hurt. I need an opening poem that will make clear the purpose and scope of the suite. There’s a certain Slant of light kept recurring in my mind. Its final word gave me the focus for the poems to follow. But before I can begin writing down the music, I need to have the text of the entire work completed. I spent weeks compiling poems, copying them out and cutting them apart so I had many small papers like quilt pieces, able to be assembled in different groupings.

The shape of the poems is the shape of the music to come. I plan the sequence as carefully as the menu for a feast. What is the starting taste, and what is refreshing and satisfying to follow it? Where is the main course, and (oh, so difficult) how can it come to a balanced conclusion? As I recite the poems aloud, memorizing each one, the music hidden within them becomes more clear. I hear musical forms: scherzo, chorale, lament, fugue. I hear the varying speeds and moods of the movements, and even which voice will be singing a line. But I don’t notate yet: it is all fluid until the final poem snaps into place. Then the music that has been accumulating in my head is ready to be written down.

Along the way it has become clear that a piano accompaniment is in order, so the voices have some backing as they recite the lines. Only when I began to write the first phrases of music did the cello present itself, as if even the piano needed a spokesperson, a melody to be shared with the choir. It weaves in and out of the seven movements, which form a kind of triangle. One and Seven trace the bottom line, with Four at the top between them. All the forces participate in numbers I, III and VII. On the slanting sides are the soloistic lighter sounds of the women’s or men’s voices, with cello or unaccompanied. IV stands as a centerpiece: a traditional chorale, with minimum piano accompaniment.

This movement astonished me when I heard the old hymn-tune for O sacred head now wounded sounding beneath “Behind Me – dips Eternity –.” It immediately took off in its own direction, so I felt justified in using it. Furthermore, it wanted to repeat itself three times, rather than yielding to variation. It seemed that I was journeying to the center of Emily’s world, to have a simple three-verse hymn as the central point of this work: simplicity at the heart of complexity.

And the last poem was also a revelation: how those stark verbs lent themselves to easy fugal imitation, one echo after another spinning into a climax. Emily’s “Paradise” was revealed as a moment of rest, uninterrupted by angel harps or loud Hallelujahs. A simple statement, quietly repeated, was enough to bring us home.

Let me discuss each movement in order.

There’s a certain Slant of light

4 verses 7575 (E modal, 4-4/3-4) SATB, cello, piano As a stately dance

As a native New Englander I know that moment in the year when Fall pauses before the Winter. The melancholy that accompanies the waning days calls for descending lines from voices and instruments. The cello sets the stage for each entrance, inscribing with ever-widening arcs of melody the passage of the poem to its ending point: death.

The Bustle in a House

2 verses 6686 (F modal, 3-4) SA, cello Solemn

We move from philosophical introspection to the most mundane chores of everyday life. Emily cleans the house, sweeping up memories and putting this love away. The women’s voices echo each other in brief phrases over a repetitive figure in the cello. There is a house-wifely acceptance of death and its aftermath.

Under the Light, yet under

4 verses 7777 (D modal, 6-8) SATB, cello, piano Scherzando

Emily describes ‘under’ with familiar images – grass, beetle, root – and ‘over’ – bird, comet, cubit – to create a wide canvas defining the distance between life and death. Giant arms stretch and guesses gallop attempting to cross that gap: she longs for a ‘Disc’ to span it. So the song begins high in the piano, tumbling down to the depths where the voices begin their journey. Restless, fast, ever-moving, we arrive finally at the complete stop of the Dead. The cello repeats the final line.

Behind Me – dips Eternity -

3 verses 886 886 (A minor, 4-4) SATB, piano Sturdy

Emily locates herself precisely at the center between Eternity (past) and Immortality (future). In a solemn mood, she dismisses Death to be the moment before Dawn begins. Her second verse jests with familiar Christian images of heaven which she turns into the Miracles which surround her before, between and after. She ends up alone in the cosmos, buffeted by Maelstrom in the Sky, the Moon below her feet and time suspended. I had planned to do something completely different with the middle verse, but found that it held its own with the repeated hymn-tune.

A Shade upon the mind there passes

2 verses 9494 (G minor, 4-4/5-4) TB, cello Dark, foreboding

The cello announces the men’s summoning the darkness of catastrophic loss. We sink lower and lower into despair, finally breaking out into the heart-felt cry “Oh God -- Why give if Thou must take away The Loved?” The stasis of pedals summons up the inaction of those “too numb to notice”, while the final line echoes through repeated descents down to a sustained low D.

There is a pain so utter

1 verse 7686D (D modal, 4-4) SATB a cappella Despairing

The word pain is repeated by the lower voices as the sopranos, like lost children, evoke the trance–like state of the bereaved. A final choral outburst laments the fate of those who might open their eyes.

The Love a Life can show – Below

3 verses 886 886/8686 (E modal, 3-4) SATB, cello, piano Waltzing

The mood of the first movement is recalled in the midst of this evocation of heavenly and earthly love. It finds ‘uncertain pain’ in the music of summer days and sunsets, and dances through the twelve verbs that comprise the final (common meter!) verse. The choral voices keep thrusting up through descending instrumental lines, flowering in a fugal dance. Only in the midst of the turmoil of living may we catch a glimpse Paradise. Love and suffering, beauty and pain, light and darkness, eternity and infinity are bound together in Emily’s affirmation of this incomprehensible human experience through which we journey.

Only after I had completed the whole work did I discover that I had written a Requiem. I had often considered this possibility, but the traditional Latin verses did not correspond to my own experience, and even Brahms’s beautiful Biblical quotations were not enough. The feelings of total loss, of being torn apart, of wandering blindly through an incomprehensible world, were those I’d felt after my husband’s death. And the tentative picking-up afterwards with a new understanding of the meaning of love -- this, too, I found in Emily’s poems. It was comforting to me to hear her voice evoking these very real emotions. Beauty and pain, love and suffering, light and darkness, eternity and infinity, life and death are bound together in Emily’s words. All that was left for me was to allow them to sing.

Alice Parker

August 20, 2019

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