Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson

Song Collection

Always interested in writing distinctly American music, Copland turned to the pioneering poetry of Emily Dickinson for this 1950 song cycle.

Date: 1950Composer: Aaron CoplandText: Emily Dickinson

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    About Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson

    The twelve songs employ extraordinary “text-painting,” as Copland explains: “I followed the natural inflection of the words of the poems, particularly when they were conversational. There is a certain amount of what is called ‘word-painting’–an occasional bird-call, flutterings, and grace notes in the introduction to the first song ‘Nature, the Gentlest Mother,’ the bugle-like melody for the voice in ‘There Came a Wind Like a Bugle,’ and so forth.”

    And though the songs explore tonality in a contemporary way, with some chromaticism and polytonality, the songs all demonstrate folk-like qualities. Many begin and end with almost identical music (like a refrain of a hymn) or simply provide a natural musical declamation of text that brings the listener to a deeper understanding of Dickinson’s poem.

    –Christie Finn

    Copland’s song cycle, composed for voice and piano, includes contemplative poems, such as “Nature, the Gentlest Mother” and “Heart, we will forget him!” as well as starker ones, such as “I felt a funeral in my brain” and “The chariot.” It was “The chariot,” the cycle’s final song, that first captured Copland’s imagination. “I fell in love with one song, ‘The Chariot,'” Copland said, “and continued to add songs one at a time until I had twelve. The poems themselves gave me direction, one that I hoped would be appropriate to Miss Dickinson’s lyrical expressive language.”

    Copland echoed Dickinson’s concise yet lyric language with abrupt leaps in the vocal line that matched her unique dashes and pauses. Vivian Perlis, an American music historian, explained, “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.” To better capture Dickinson’s psyche, Perlis explained, Copland visited the poet’s home in Amherst, Massachusetts, soaking up the atmosphere of the room where she spent most of her hours, writing.

    In 1958, Copland orchestrated eight of the twelve poems, in an effort to reach a wider audience.


    (Note that Copland set Dickinson’s texts before Thomas Johnson’s 1955 edition of Dickinson’s poems, the first complete and accurate collection, became available. Therefore, the poems are presented on this site as “lyrics” rather than with Dickinson’s original dashes.) –Christie Finn


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    Sheet Music

    Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson

    Composer(s): Aaron Copland

    Song(s): 1. Nature, the Gentlest Mother
    2. There Came a Wind Like a Bugle
    3. Why Do They Shut Me Out of Heaven?
    4. The World Feels Dusty
    5. Heart, We Will Forget Him
    6. Dear March, Come In!
    7. Sleep is Supposed to Be
    8. When They Come Back
    9. I Felt a Funeral in My Brain
    10. I've Heard an Organ Talk Sometimes
    11. Going to Heaven!
    12. The Chariot

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