Chanting to Paradise

Song Collection

Chanting to Paradise is a song cycle by Libby Larsen setting the poetry of Emily Dickinson. The song cycle is for soprano and piano.

Date: 1997Composer: Libby LarsenText: Emily Dickinson

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Composer's note

Chanting to Paradise was premiered by Harriet McCleary, soprano, and Ruth Palmer, piano at St. Olaf College, Northfield, MN on March 9, 1997.

Composer’s Note:

My approach to setting Emily Dickinson’s poem is to try to ferret out the game she set for herself in working on the poem, and then illuminate that game through the musical setting. For instance:

Bind me – I still can sing
Banish – my mandolin
Strike true within

Slay – and my soul shall rise
Chanting to Paradise
Still Thine

The use of the vowel “i” in this poem simply astounds me in its elegant metaphoric journey. If one follows it, the journey of “i,” one follows the journey of the soul of the first person voice of the poem. In the first line, for instance, “i” is bound by the “b” and “n” of bind, locking away the sound of “i” between the two consonants. Yet the next use of “i” is the pronoun I, standing still, independently proclaiming itself free of all consonants. The diphthong st launches the “i” in still, a soft “i,” perhaps suggesting a timid proclamation of the faith to continue away from that binding. And finally, the “i” in sing, a transformative vowel, sung as soft “i,” or schwa or even as a bolder “e” — no longer bound by the “b” of bind. Now, the “i” of sing transforms not only itself, but also the pronunciation of “n,” barely audible as “i” transcends it, free of its ability to stop the vowel’s ability to be sung.

The journey of “i” continues this way throughout the poem. As composer, mine is the distinct, joyous discovery of all that is there and my creative task is to reveal Dickinson’s genius.

For instance, a catalogue of the verbs used in the poem lists, in order, bind, sing, banish, strikes, slay, rise, and chanting. Each verb contains “i” with the exception of slay, a verb which seeks metaphorically to extinguish both the pronoun I and literally the letter “i.” Yet the next verb rise, triumphantly transcends the verb slay with its use of the long “i,” rhyming with the pronoun I and with the hidden long “i” pronunciation of the vowel “y” in the possessive pronoun my. To follow Dickinson’s use of the vowel “i” in her verb scheme alone, is to take the journey of the poet’s subject, the soul, so eloquently realized in this poem.

One can discover similar journeys in this poem by studying two consonants “n” and “l.” But, as a composer wishing to set these words to their best advantage to be sung, Dickinson’s treatment of “i” easily becomes inspiration for music.

I return again to the first lines of the poem to illustrate how my reading of Dickinson’s journey of “i” inspires music. In setting the poem I worked to release the letter “i” by setting it at first in a short duration, an eighth note, with the smallest available musical interval, a minor second. This first gesture, setting the words “bind me,” is surrounded by musical rests, binding the music to itself rather than to the suggestion of growth by association to a musical line. In essence, very little pitch or rhythm is able to escape from my setting of the words bind me.

Then, “I” is stated boldly with a longer musical duration. I set “I” to be sung without the help of the piano, standing on its own, followed by the setting of still, musically constructed to connect “I” to still so that both words support and nurture the freely sung, musical flourish on the word sing.

The verb “banish” echoes the music of the words bind me. I did this to both physically and metaphorically banish the music which fills the acoustic air after the singer’s full voice declamation of the word sing.

The line “my mandolin strikes true within” is set as one continuous melodic line in which each syllable receives its own pitch and each syllable receives a short musical duration. This creates a link from Dickinson’s metaphor of the mandolin to the actual musical technique of playing the mandolin, with its short notes and plectrum style plucking of the strings.

I have to admit giving in to gross literalism in setting the word “stay.” For this word I created a musical gash in the form of an octave which rises rapidly, slashing across the singer’s vocal break. Great fun to perform and quite irresistible compositionally.

Finally, I set the last words of the poem in an unstoppably rising musical line, sung full voice through the first statement and first repetition of the words, “still Thine.” But then, I set the second and final repetition of these words, with the interval of a minor second, the same interval of the opening words “bind me.” It seems absolutely paramount to end the song this way, going against the freeing of the musical line, in order to place both the singer and the audience squarely in the center of Dickinson’s spiritual conundrum which is the genius of the poem. That is, how the spirit, bound by life’s challenges, is made stronger, more hopeful, and more infinitely true, through steadfast being, as the word “still” in “I still” and “still Thine.”

–Libby Larsen


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