Cyclical Implications in Aaron Copland's Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson

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Introduction to Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson

Aaron Copland's output for voice and piano is very small, consisting only of a handful of early songs, the Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson, and arrangements of two short sets of Old American Songs. Although composed within the same time period, the Old American Songs and the Twelve Songs are very different in character. The former exhibit much of the popular American flavor with which Copland's much acclaimed ballets are filled. The Dickinson songs, on the other hand, have none of this popular flavor, bearing instead greater similarities to the piano music of the composer's abstract period. Certainly, the subtle brilliance of the writing places this cycle in the hands of a mature and sensitive composer completely at home with his musical language and craftsmanship.

The austere and abstract poems mesh with the musical layers, planes, and angles to convey a sense of silence, eternity, and space. The piano writing is lean and sparse, often merely outlining chords or proceeding linearly in both hands. There is little word repetition. The declamatory style of the vocal writing almost diagrams the texts. Copland has been quoted as saying, "I hate an emotion-drenched voice!"1 Presumably, then, he would likewise hate an emotion-drenched musical setting. The Dickinson songs fit Leonard Bernstein's assessment of his mentor's work: plain. "That's one of his biggest words—plain. It's plain! That applied to a lot of music of his."2

In his book Music and Imagination, Copland said of poets and poetry:

Perhaps I had better begin by frankly admitting that when I was a younger man I used to harbor a secret feeling of commiseration for poets. To my mind poets were men who were trying to make music with nothing but words at their command. I suppose there exist at all times some few men who have that much magic in them, but words at best will always seem to a composer a poor substitute for tones—if you want to make music, that is. . . . I came gradually to see that music and poetry were perhaps closer kin than I had at first realized. I came gradually to see that beyond the music of both arts there is an essence that joins them—an area where the meaning behind the notes and the meaning beyond the words spring from some common source.3

In the Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson, Copland achieved that "essence that joins" music and poetry, and in doing so, created a major song cycle. In his article, "American Songs: A Thin Crop," William Flanagan declares this cycle to be "probably the most important single contribution toward an American song literature that we have to date."4

In the preface to the Twelve Songs, the composer acknowledged the Bianchi/Hampson edition of the Dickinson poems as the source for his texts,5 and he supplied the following information about the songs.

These twelve songs were composed at Sneden's Landing, New York, at various times during the period from March 1949 to March 1950. They are the first works the composer has written for solo voice and piano since 1928. The poems centre about no single theme, but they treat of subject matter particularly close to Miss Dickinson: nature, death, life, eternity. Only two of the songs are related thematically, the seventh and twelfth. Nevertheless, the composer hopes that, in seeking a musical counterpart for the unique personality of the poet, he has given the songs, taken together, the aspect of a song cycle.6

Indeed, as Flanagan has noted, "Any one of the poems can be presented separately with satisfying results, but in such performances the carefully calculated effect of the complete work is a regrettable loss."7 This "carefully calculated effect" of the cyclic whole may have become controversial among scholars and performers because Copland himself made no attempt to explain the cycle's organization except to acknowledge readily apparent thematic similarities between the seventh and twelfth songs.

Irving Fine commented on the "remarkable unity in feeling although [the songs] evoke sharply contrasting landscapes and traverse many moods."8 Despite this astute observation, he went on to echo the sentiments of several authors in saying, "Beyond this [that is, the relationship between the seventh and twelfth songs], the composer employs none of the customary cyclical devices that are supposed to guarantee musical unity."9 Julia Smith also made no attempt to evaluate the cyclic aspects of this work, concluding:

It must be kept in mind that although the poems themselves make certain programmatic allusions, basically they treat of more abstruse matters—philosophical thoughts about Nature, Death, Life, and Eternity. For their musical counterpart the composer has, as in all of his absolute works composed since 1940, appropriately turned back to the abstract techniques of his second style period, which fact provides the key to the complete understanding of the Dickinson songs.10

Likewise, in her Monograph, Sharon Mabry found the overall mood and cyclic unity to be "derived from the four poetic subjects . . . and not from any thematic or tonal relationships between the songs."11

It becomes evident, however, as one studies this cycle in detail that the intricate musical and textual materials combine to create a highly organized and unique overall structure. This article will examine these materials and will show that there are cyclic implications throughout the work, in addition to the one very important thematic relationship acknowledged by the composer. The relationships between the songs result in a double mirror image both musically and textually, a thesis which will be supported by a series of analytic examples.

 

Textual and Musical Organization of the Cycle

Although Copland did confirm that he gave the Twelve Songs "taken together the aspect of a song cycle," he did not otherwise enlighten the reader regarding the ways in which he achieved musical and textual unity. He did not, for example, explain how he chose from the Bianchi edition of Dickinson's poems these particular twelve poems to set, and, further, what persuaded him to set them in this particular order. He did not explain how he manipulated materials, either consciously or unconsciously, from song to song. He did, however, say of composing:

You must shape the material so that it is logical . . . . In short, you seek out the inevitable conclusion of what you started by showing it has to go one way and no other. That's what I mean by inevitability.12

From this statement, it seems reasonable to presume that these seemingly abstract and random poems coalesce into some logical, inevitable whole.

Table 1 shows the distribution of the twelve poems in the Bianchi collection, the categories into which she placed them, and the order in which they appear in Copland's song cycle. From this it may be seen that Bianchi's subject headings "Life, Nature, Love, and Time and Eternity" probably triggered Copland's definition of the subject matter of his cycle as "nature, death, life, and eternity." It may also be seen that Copland chose poems from throughout the volume, reordering the ones he selected to suit his cyclical purposes. Although several authors have attempted to assign the twelve poems to his four designated categories,13 it is impossible to determine how Copland himself would have categorized them since several of the poems easily overlap one or more boundaries.

Table 1. Order of Poems in the Bianchi Edition

 


Title (and page number)

Nature, the gentlest mother (p. 65)
There came a wind like a bugle (p. 80)
Dear March, come in (p. 111)
Heart, we will forget (p. 150)
Because I could not stop (p. 168)
Sleep is supposed to be (p. 173)
Going to heaven (p. 175)
I felt a funeral in my brain (p. 205)
When they come back (p. 311)
The world feels dusty (p. 331)
Why do they shut me out (p. 365)
I've heard an organ talk (p. 394)
Bianchi Category

Nature
Nature
Nature
Love
Time and Eternity
Time and Eternity
Time and Eternity
Time and Eternity
Additional Poems
Additional Poems
Additional Poems
Additional Poems
Copland's No.

No. 1
No. 2
No. 6
No. 5
No. 12
No. 7
No. 11
No. 9
No. 8
No. 4
No. 3
No. 10

Because the texts of the poems are critical to the discussion which follows, Table 2 contains the texts as taken from the Bianchi edition.14

 

Table 2. Texts of the Twelve Poems

1. Nature, the gentlest mother,
Impatient of no child,
The feeblest or the waywardest,—
Her admonition mild

In forest and the hill
By traveller is heard,
Restraining rampant squirrel
Or too impetuous bird.

How fair her conversation,
A summer afternoon,—
Her household, her assembly;
And when the sun goes down

Her voice among the aisles
Incites the timid prayer
Of the minutest cricket,
The most unworthy flower.

When all the children sleep
She turns as long away
As will suffice to light her lamps;
Then, bending from the sky,

With infinite affection
And infiniter care,
Her golden finger on her lip,
Wills silence everywhere.

 

2. There came a wind like a bugle;
It quivered through the grass,
And a green chill upon the heat
So ominous did pass
We barred the windows and the doors

As from an emerald ghost;
The doom's electric moccasin
That very instant passed.
On a strange mob of panting trees,
And fences fled away,

And rivers where the houses ran
The living looked that day.
The bell within the steeple wild
The flying tidings whirled.
How much can come
And much can go,
And yet abide the world!

 

3. Why do they shut me out of Heaven?
Did I sing too loud?
But I can sing a little minor,
Timid as a bird.

Wouldn't the angels try me
Just once more?
Just see if I troubled them—
But don't shut the door!

Oh, if I were the gentlemen
In the white robes,
And they were the little hand
that knocked—
Could I forbid?

 

4. The world feels dusty
When we stop to die;
We want the dew then,
Honors taste dry.

Flags vex a dying face,
But the least fan
Stirred by a friend's hand
Cools like the rain.

Mine be the ministry
When thy thirst comes,
Dews of thyself to fetch
And holy balms.

 

5. Heart, we will forget him!
You and I, to-night!
You may forget the warmth he gave,
I will forget the light.

When you have done, pray tell me,
That I my thoughts may dim;
Haste! lest while you're lagging,
I may remember him!

 

6. Dear March, come in!
How glad I am!
I looked for you before.
Put down your hat—
You must have walked—
How out of breath you are!
Dear March, how are you?
And the rest?
Did you leave Nature well?
Oh, March, come right upstairs with me,
I have so much to tell!

I got your letter, and the bird's;
The maples never knew
That you were coming,— I declare,
How red their faces grew!
But, March, forgive me—
And all those hills
You left for me to hue;
There was no purple suitable,
You took it all with you.

Who knocks? That April!
Lock the door!
I will not be pursued!
He stayed away a year, to call
When I am occupied.
But trifles look so trivial
As soon as you have come,
That blame is just as dear as praise
And praise as mere as blame.

 

7. Sleep is supposed to be,
By souls of sanity,
The shutting of the eye.

Sleep is the station grand
Down which on either hand
The hosts of witness stand!

Morn is supposed to be,
By people of degree,
The breaking of the day.

Morning has not occurred!
That shall aurora be
East of eternity;

One with the banner gay,
One in the red array,—
That is the break of day.

 

8. When they come back,
If blossoms do—
I always feel a doubt
If blossoms can be born again
When once the art is out.

When they begin,
If Robins may—
I always had a fear
I did not tell, it was their last
Experiment last year.

When it is May,
If May return—
Had nobody a pang
Lest on a face so beautiful
He might not look again?

If I am there—
One does not know
What party one may be
To-morrow,— but if I am there
I take back all I say!

 

9. I felt a funeral in my brain,
And mourners, to and fro,
Kept treading, treading, till it seemed
That sense was breaking through.

And when they all were seated,
A service like a drum
Kept beating, beating, till I thought
My mind was going numb.

And then I heard them lift a box,
And creak across my soul
With those same boots of lead, again.
Then space began to toll

As all the heavens were a bell,
And Being but an ear,
And I and silence some strange race,
Wrecked, solitary, here.

 

10. I've heard an organ talk sometimes
In a cathedral aisle
And understood no word it said,
Yet held my breath the while

And risen up and gone away
A more Bernardine girl,
Yet knew not what was done to me
In that old hallowed aisle.

 

11. Going to heaven!
I don't know when,
Pray do not ask me how,—
Indeed, I'm too astonished
To think of answering you!
Going to heaven!—
How dim it sounds!
And yet it will be done
As sure as flocks go home at night
Unto the shepherd's arm!

Perhaps you're going too!
Who knows?
If you should get there first,
Save just a little place for me
Close to the two I lost!
The smallest "robe" will fit me,
And just a bit of "crown";
For you know we do not mind our dress
When we are going home.

I'm glad I don't believe it,
For it would stop my breath,
And I'd like to look a little more
At such a curious earth!
I am glad they did believe it
Whom I have never found
Since the mighty autumn afternoon
I left them in the ground.

 

12. Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
For his civility.

We passed the school where children played
At wrestling in a ring;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun.

We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound.

Since then 'tis centuries; but each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses' heads
Were toward eternity.

 

In an attempt to account for the poetic organization of the cycle, Mabry said:

Copland begins with two poems about "nature," in accordance with Dickinson's ideas concerning the evolution of life, with "nature" as a germinating force. The remaining songs alternately traverse various musings and descriptive ideas concerning life, death, and eternity. The placement of poems Nos. 3-12 displays the continuity of life, "beginning in nature and continuing after death," ... ending with "The Chariot," a riddle which ponders the association of all four of these poetic subjects.15

Mabry then continues her discussion with a "series of contemplations" which attempt to construct a vague story-line for the work and fail to take into account the possibility of textual crossrelationships. Likewise, her musical analyses, occupying the main body of her Monograph, make no reference to internal relationships inherent in the music.

An evaluation of textual and musical similarities between songs of the cycle, however, exposes interrelationships which imply an overall structure much more complex than that suggested by Mabry. Table 3 shows remarkable symmetry and balance in textual subjects among pairs of songs in the cycle.

 

Table 3. Textual Relationships in the Twelve Songs


(No. 1) nature/silence 		= 		nature/silence (No. 8) 
(No. 2) emotional chaos 		= 		emotional chaos (No. 9) 

			 (No. 3) pain/rejection 
(No. 4) acceptance/faith 		= 		acceptance/faith (No. 10) 
			 (No. 5) pain/rejection 

(No. 6) frantic confusion 		= 		frantic confusion (No. 11) 
(No. 7) death/eternity 		= 		death/eternity (No. 12)

The observation by Smith quoted earlier is certainly accurate; the cycle does not tell a story but instead treats "abstruse matters" and "philosophical thoughts." It is, however, the manner in which these philosophical ponderings are presented and the resulting mirrored relationships which make this cycle structurally unique. Examination of the texts and subject matter reveal the pairings shown in Table 3 to create textually a double mirror image. The first mirror encompasses Nos. 1-7, beginning with the silence of nature contrasted with emotional chaos. Then comes a point of acceptance and faith, followed by a second stage of frantic confusion and, finally, eternal sleep. Nos. 3 and 5, encircling the centerpiece of faith/acceptance, provide an emotional and human element of pain and rejection. The second mirror, beginning with No. 8, repeats the same sequence of events with one major exception. Because the human element of pain and rejection, represented by Nos. 3 and 5 in the first mirror, is absent from the second half of the cycle, the focus of the second mirror is much more spiritual.

Thus, Nos. 1 and 8, about nature and silence, balance Nos. 7 and 12 which are about eternity. Nos. 2 and 9, having to do with emotional chaos, relate to Nos. 6 and 11 which are also chaotic and breathless. Nos. 3 and 5, standing alone without musical counterparts as will be shown subsequently, have to do with pain and rejection. Nos. 4 and 10, occupying the center of the mirrors, have to do with acceptance and faith. Although this subjective analysis of the implied textual structure brings us no closer to imposing upon the cycle a definite meaning, it may somewhat explain the satisfying sense of balance one feels at the finish of the work.

There are likewise remarkable musical resemblances between songs which treat similar textual materials. Table 4 shows the symmetry in relative length and in the time signatures of the paired songs. Although duration need not relate to the poetic and compositional content, the space allotted each song and the striking metrical similarities between pairs do seem to support the mirror thesis. It will be shown subsequently that the pairs of songs identified in Tables 3 and 4 also use similar compositional techniques and devices, further reinforcing the theory of a mirrored cyclic organization.

 

Table 4. Relative Lengths and Time Signatures of the Songs


1 (66 measures) 4/4 					8 (74 measures) 2/4 
2 (58 measures) 2/4 					9 (63 measures) 2/4 

			3 (37 measures) 4/4 

4 (27 measures) 3/4 					10 (35 measures) 3/4 

			5 (36 measures) 4/4 

6 (114 measures) 6/8 					11 (126 measures) 6/8 
7 (40 measures) 4/4 					12 (56 measures) 4/4

 

Description of Compositional Techniques and Devices

 

In a song cycle, one presumes that the intent of the poetry will be enhanced by the musical structure. One also expects to find pieces with similar melodic or rhythmic patterns balancing one another throughout the cycle. This cycle is no exception. Copland uses an ingenious vocabulary of musical devices to enhance Dickinson's poetry.

Of the many writers who have commented on the Twelve Songs, only Neil Butterworth has suggested that "the cycle possesses a unity beyond the common authorship of the poems" and he cites the interval of a third, a falling sequence of fourths, leaps of sevenths and ninths for the singer, and lean and linear piano writing as "an aural link between the separate songs."16 This "aural link" becomes very obvious as one expands on Butterworth's idea and identifies the compositional techniques by which Copland achieved the musical layers, planes, and angles mentioned earlier. Table 5 identifies six general categories (which may be divided into several sub-categories) of devices used throughout the work.

 

Table 5. Categories of Techniques and Devices Used in the Cycle


Song Number 		1      2      3      4      5      6      7      8      9    10    11    12 

Spatial effects Pianistic x x x x x x x x x x Vocal x x x x x x x x x x x Declamatory style Word repetition x x x x Recitative x x x x x x x x Color intervals Upward sighing 2nd x x x x x x x x x x x x 2nd, 7th, or 9th x x x x x x x x x x x x Downward 4ths x x x x x x Rhythmic figures Rocking x x x x x x x x x Beating x x x x x x x x Chariot x x x x x x Arhythmic devices Vocal upbeats x x x x x x x x x x x x Duple vs. triple x x Canon x x x x Fragmentation x x x x x x x x Barline manipulation x x x x x x x x x x Special effects Nature sounds x x x x x Bell-tolling x x x x Organ-like chords x x x x x Grace notes x x x x x x

 

Spatial pianistic effects are used extensively in ten of the twelve songs. Chords or single tones are widely spaced, often four or more octaves apart. Widely spaced unison B flats in No. 1 set up the serenity of Mother Nature. The chords marked "indifferent" by the composer at the end of No. 6 (Example 1a) portray the poetic text "trifles look so trivial."

 

Example 1a. No. 6, mm. 108-110.

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In No. 7 at the words "East of Eternity," a dramatic spatial effect is accomplished by having the piano sustain a widely spaced chord while adding to its sonority chords in a different register (Example 1b).

 

Example 1b. No. 7, mm. 31-32.

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Example 1b also illustrates a widely ranging vocal line. Copland uses the lower tessitura to show timidity, warmth, kindness, finality, wonder, loss, apology, bitterness, and silence. Usually lower tones are found at ends of phrases, fitting the inflection of the words, as in No. 1 expressing Mother Nature's infinite care as she "wills silence ev'rywhere" and in No. 9 where low, almost expressionless tones paint the poet's extreme sense of loneliness (Example 2a).

 

Example 2a1. No. 1, mm. 62-65.

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Example 2a2. No. 9, mm. 59-62.

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Higher notes evoke images of bells, eternity, breathlessness, storm, pleading, eagerness, and surety. Notice the pleading question "Did I sing too loud?" (Example 2b).

 

Example 2b. No. 3, mm. 3-4.

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Copland often matches Dickinson's declamatory style by using recitative and short phrases. In only four songs does he resort to the idiom of word repetition for emphasis. This general lack of repetition creates economy and a feeling of flow and spaciousness reflecting the poetic language. It also provides, in its rare appearances, a very special declamatory device. The opening and closing lines of No. 3 constitute the only instance in the cycle where an entire line of text from the beginning of a song is repeated at the end. Example 3 shows the repetition, a poignant outcry, intensified by the final note a whole tone higher than in the first statement.

 

Example 3. No. 3, mm. 27-30.

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The frequent use of color intervals is one of the most important devices employed in this cycle. Particularly significant are the upward sighing 2nd, the second and its inversion as a seventh, the second expanded to a ninth, and a downward sequencing of fourths. The upward sighing 2nd seems always to paint sorrow, as in the poignant final phrase of No. 5 (Example 4a).

 

Example 4a. No. 5, mm. 32-34.

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In No. 6, a series of seconds in the piano part violently illustrates the text "Lock the door," while the opening piano gesture of No. 2 is the most shocking example of parallel ninths in the cycle (Example 4b).

 

Example 4b1. No. 6, mm. 82-83.

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Example 4b2. No. 2, mm. 1-2.

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Sequences of falling fourths usually signal despair,17 as shown in the forlorn cry "Don't shut the door" (Example 4c).

 

Example 4c. No. 3, mm. 12-13.

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In the Twelve Songs, three types of ostinato-like rhythmic figures recur with some regularity: a "rocking" figure, a "beating" figure, and one relating to death and eternity that may be termed the "chariot" figure. The "rocking" figure, as might be expected, has almost a lulling effect (Example 5a),

 

Example 5a. No. 4, mm. 1-2.

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whereas the rhythmic ostinato created by the "beating" figure usually signifies emotional upheaval (Example 5b).

 

Example 5b. No. 9, mm. 18-19.

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The dotted "chariot" figure (Example 5c) used in six of the twelve songs always relates to death. Except for a few short recitative-like passages, this figure dominates the whole of No. 12.

 

Example 5c. No. 12, mm. 1-3.

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Throughout the work, arhythmic figures add their impact to the overall rhythmic vocabulary. Phrases beginning on vocal upbeats are the norm in all the songs, a result of Copland's attention to the natural rhythm of the words (Example 6a).

 

Example 6a. No. 6, mm. 18-20.

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The use of duple figures in the vocal line over triple figures in the piano part, also evident in Example 6a, is reserved for moments of emotional chaos and occurs primarily in Nos. 6 and 11. Canon is used to express doubts relating to immortality, a device which virtually dominates the three songs in which it is found. In No. 11, the piano takes up the vocal phrase "going to heaven" twenty-one times, all but four of which are presented canonically (see Example 6b).

 

Example 6b. No. 11, mm. 7-10.

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Fragmentation is used to create an arhythmic effect by interrupting the flow of the rhythm, a device illustrated by the fragmented vocal and piano line shown in Example 6c.

 

Example 6c. No. 11, mm. 62-65.

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Barline manipulation is used in all but two songs of the cycle to adapt the rhythm to the flow of the words or to adjust stressed beats in an accompaniment figure. In No. 7, Copland momentarily introduces a dual meter to be certain the singer understands the importance of stressing the word "not" in the phrase, "Morning has not occurred" (Example 6d).

 

Example 6d. No. 7, mm. 27-28.

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By the insertion of one measure of 3/8 in the accompaniment figure of No. 2 (Example 6e), he creates an effortless transition from a wildly galloping sixteenth-note figure to a "blurred" compound duple pattern.

 

Example 6e. No. 2, mm. 33-36.

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Copland utilizes several special text-painting effects including nature sounds, bell-tolling, organ-like sonorities, and grace notes. Bird calls, illustrated in Example 7a, are the most obvious of the nature sounds.

 

Example 7a. No. 1, mm. 5-6.

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Copland uses a dramatic bell-tolling effect in several of the songs, a good example of which may be seen in Example 7b.

 

Example 7b. No. 2, m. 40.

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Full, legato, organ-like chords, used in five of the songs, may be seen at their most sonorous in the closing measures of No. 10 (Example 7c).

 

Example 7c. No. 10, mm. 32-35.

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Half of the songs include grace notes, some of which function to add more fullness to the texture, as may be seen in the preceding example. Others, like the stark descending treble ninth which opens No. 11 (Example 7d), are for dramatic effect.

 

Example 7d. No. 11, mm. 1-3.

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Careful examination of Copland's use of these techniques and devices contributes to a greater understanding of his musical vocabulary, which may seem at first glance to be sparse, terse, and devoid of emotion. Douglas Young criticized the lack of sensitivity, or what he termed "Copland's reticence," in the text settings of these poems, attributing it to the limitations of the style in which "the neoclassical artist adopts masks which to some extent disguise his 'personal' feelings."18 Similarly, Flanagan commented on Copland's stylized treatment of the words, noting that "the words frequently seem to have been molded to the preconceived musical idea."19

Apparently these writers failed to understand that Copland's neoclassic dryness and lack of sentimentality are highly appropriate to such straightforward texts and that his terse style matches the economy of means inherent in Dickinson's verse, complementing her lack of sentimentality and her immense vision of space and eternity. As Neil Butterworth observed, "He parallels the compactness of the poems with an economy of musical resources both in the directness of the vocal line and the relative simplicity of the piano part."20

 

Relationship between Cyclical Structure and Employment
of Compositional Techniques and Devices

While the use of these "economical musical resources" affords a cohesive quality to the cyclic whole, the specific application of these techniques to songs already shown to have textual, durational, and metrical similarities provides the final clue to the internal pairings and mirrored effect of the Twelve Songs. Recurrences of similar compositional devices found within pairs of songs bearing textual and musical resemblances (shown in Tables 3 and 4) are too remarkable and plentiful to be purely coincidental.

Musical similarities between the first pair of nature songs, Nos. 1 and 8, include a ternary formal structure, wide vocal range, angular melodic contours often with ascending vocal upbeats, accompanimental rhythms (steady eighth notes in the opening section followed by sixteenths in the middle section), canonic activity between voice and piano, and "rocking" and "beating" figures in the piano. Both songs exhibit a conversational quality in the opening section which contrasts with a faster middle section. Both have a slow closing section marked by recitative, rubato, and a very sparse piano part. Not only are these general similarities plentiful between Nos. 1 and 8, but there are also specific musical devices shared by the two songs. The final vocal gesture of both songs is an ascending arpeggio arching to a high G, falling downward after a rest to the penultimate pitchG an octave lower, and finally coming to rest on a low sustained note. Example 8a illustrates melodic fragments with a vocal upbeat of an ascending fourth followed by a descending second, a gesture which occurs several times in Nos. 1 and 8, often at the same pitch.

 

Example 8a1. No. 1, mm. 13-14.

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Example 8a2. No. 8, m. 7.

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Example 8a3. No. 1, mm. 44-45.

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Example 8a4. No. 8, m. 60.

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In Example 8b a similar melodic idea in the treble of the piano is echoed canonically by the voice.

 

Example 8b1. No. 1, mm.26-30.

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Example 8b2. No. 8, mm.38-41.

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The ascending interval of a seventh outlines an accompanimental "rocking" figure unique to these songs, a figure which descends sequentially over several measures, often duplicating the same pitches (Example 8c).

 

Example 8c1. No. 1, m. 31.

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Example 8c2. No. 8, mm. 7-8

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Example 8c3. No. 1, m. 36.

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Example 8c4. No. 8, mm. 13-14.

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In addition to the overall structural similarities, the abundance of these minute musical interrelationships tie together this first pair of songs as certainly as the thematic and textual relationships (shown later in Example 15) tie together the final pair of songs, Nos. 7 and 12, providing a perfect opening and closing balance to the double mirrors of the song cycle.

Although the paired "chaotic" songs do not share the same meter signature (Nos. 2 and 9 are in 2/4; Nos. 6 and 11 are in 6/8), they have in common a restless energy achieved by metric subdivision. Copland uses accompanimental sixteenth notes in Nos. 2 and 9 and eighth notes in Nos. 6 and 11 to give rhythmic drive and a sense of urgency to these songs. The musical gesture most responsible for the portrayal of emotional chaos in Nos. 2 and 9 is the "beating" figure in combination with frequent use of intervals of a second and ninth. The constant pulsing in the piano accompaniment found in No. 9 spins a dull, thudding headache theme, while a similar pulsing is to be found in the upper register of the piano in No. 2 (Example 9a).

 

Example 9a1. No. 2, mm. 7-8.

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Example 9a2. No. 9, mm. 1-2.

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These songs also have bell-like sections (Example 9b) which, coincidentally, begin at measure 39 in both songs. There is no rhythmic similarity, but the effect of sameness comes from the high vocal tessitura, the open fifths, and the widely spaced piano sonorities.

 

Example 9b1. No. 2, m. 39.

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Example 9b2. No. 9, mm. 39-41.

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Rhythmic similarities found throughout the paired songs are nowhere more clearly exhibited than in the pairings of Nos. 6 and 11, both of which are characterized by fast, nervous eighth-note movement in 6/8. A device completely unique to these two songs in the cycle is the declamatory duple figure in the vocal line against the triple pulse of the pianist, reiterating the conversational quality of No. 6 and the tug between life and death of No. 11 (Example 10). These passages also exhibit remarkable similarity in melodic contour and tessitura.

 

Example 10a. No. 6, mm. 29-30.

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Example 10b. No. 11, mm. 17-18.

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The unpaired songs, Nos. 3 and 5, occur in the first half of the cycle and have no musical counterparts in the second. Close examination of musical devices used in these two songs reveals, however, that these two apparently isolated songs contain motivic links to other songs throughout the cycle and to each other. Example 11a shows the great similarity in wide ranging vocal gestures between No. 3 and No. 9.

 

Example 11a1. No. 3, mm. 3-4.

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Example 11a2. No. 9, mm. 14-16.

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No. 3 begins with a single, declamatory piano pitch accented by acciaccatura, a device also used at the start of No. 11 (Example 11b).

 

Example 11b1. No. 3, m. 1.

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Example 11b2. No. 11, m. 1.

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No. 5 similarly utilizes motivic germs developed more fully in other songs. The ringing, ascending bell-like tones of No. 5 are much more dramatic in No. 7 (Example 12a).

 

Example 12a1. No. 5, m. 24.

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Example 12a2. No. 7, m. 31.

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The falling left-hand octaves in No. 5 are more aggressively stated in No. 2 (Example 12b).

 

Example 12b1. No. 5, m. 10.

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Example 12b2. No. 2, m. 10.

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The upward sighing second used so poignantly in the final vocal phrase of No. 5 is also seen in No. 9 where the poet is again describing emotional pain (Example 12c).

 

Example 12c1. No. 5, m. 34

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Example 12c2. No. 9, m. 9.

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However, the most remarkable device shared by these seemingly disparate songs is the use of successive falling fourths in the vocal part. Although the interval of a fourth is in evidence throughout the Twelve Poems, it is seen successively only in these examples from Nos. 3 and 5 and in similar passages in Nos. 9 and 11 (Example 13). In all four cases, the poetic theme of despair strongly resounds, reinforced by the hopelessness and finality of the falling intervals.

 

Example 13a. No. 3, mm. 12-13.

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Example 13b. No. 5, mm. 26-27.

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Example 13c. No. 9, mm.5-6.

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Example 13d. No. 11, mm. 33-34.

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Nos. 4 and 10 are lyrical and somewhat static, reinforcing the feeling of acceptance of the unknown—the unknown miracle of being touched by death. Pianistic and vocal spatial effects are similar. These songs have the lowest overall tessitura in the cycle, forming a perfect mirror to "Nature, the gentlest mother," and "The Chariot," which climax in the highest range. Both begin and end low in the voice, with a cathedral-like arch in the center of each song. Each begins on an upward sigh of a second (Example 14a).

 

Example 14a1. No. 4, mm. 2-3.

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Example 14a2. No. 10, m. 7.

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There are passages in thirds (Example 14b)

 

Example 14b1. No. 4, m. 20.

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Example 14b2. No. 10, m. 26.

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as well as ascending and descending vocal arpeggiated figures (Example 14c and 14d) that are similar in rhythmic gesture and tessitura. Similarities likewise occur in the homophonic, rocking accompaniments (also illustrated by Example 14d) utilizing sonorous, organ-like chords.

 

Example 14c1. No. 4, mm. 6-7.

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Example 14c2. No. 10, mm. 23-24.

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Example 14d1. No. 4, mm. 11-13.

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Example 14d2. No. 10, mm. 18-20.

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Only in Nos. 7 and 12 did Copland himself acknowledge a thematic relationship between songs. These songs are the culmination of the cycle's poetic intent, with No. 7 functioning as the final statement of the first half (Copland directed the performer to hold the fermata a long time, creating a pause before continuing with No. 8) and No. 12 bringing closure to the whole. Poetically, No. 7 ends with sunrise, while its counterbalance, No. 12, finishes with sunset. Copland uses the "chariot" figure to tie Nos. 7 and 12 together as may be seen in the opening measures (Example 15a).

 

Example 15a1. No. 7, mm. 1-2.

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Example 15a2. No. 12, mm. 1-2.

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The final vocal declamation of No. 7 proclaiming the morning "east of eternity" to be the poetic "break of day" is an augmented fragment of the "chariot" figure (Example 15b).

 

Example 15b. No. 7, mm. 37-40.

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The "chariot" figure is used in No. 12 in a continually recurring pattern, sometimes fragmented and often canonically, to create the lulling, mesmerizing effect of death as sleep (Example 15c).

 

Example 15c. No. 12, mm. 6-7.

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As the song progresses, the rhythm becomes a gentle gallop, an otherworldly trip with an otherworldly host, as the rhythm of the chariot pushes on inexorably to the final conclusion: death and eternity. As one pauses "before a house that seemed a swelling of the ground," the "chariot" figure is reduced to a fragment of ascending ninths which accumulate with great intensity before coming to rest on an organ-like, sustained ninth chord. At this point, the inner voice of the piano treble reiterates the first phrase of the song "Because I could not stop for death" (a complete statement of the "chariot" figure), followed by the voice's calm acknowledgment "Since then 'tis centuries" (Example 15d).

 

Example 15d. No. 12, mm. 43-46.

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Thus, having dealt with the pain, the questionings, and the doubting, one finally achieves the silence of eternity, an extension of the silence of nature, the gentle mother of No. 1—the eternity which is the "break of day, east of eternity" promised in No. 7.

 

Conclusion

In the preceding examples from the various paired songs, one is not overwhelmed with a feeling of sameness from song to song, nor does one find extensive quoting of thematic materials. The cyclic wholeness is much more subtle, utilizing a concisely unified musical language and textual balance. It is the small interrelationships, such as those discussed above, intricately woven into the fabric of the cycle which create the comfortable sense of cohesiveness, whether or not one is consciously aware of the composer's means.

Aaron Copland, with his marvellous sense of humor, once remarked:

Composers often tell you that they don't read criticisms of their works. . . . I am an exception. I admit to a curiosity about the slightest clue as to the meaning of a piece of mine—a meaning, that is, other than the one I know I have put there.21

One cannot help wondering whether the remarkable series of interrelationships discussed in this article were consciously crafted by this meticulous workman and whether this double mirrored whole is part of the meaning he "put there."

Most writers seem to have generally accepted Copland's prefatory statement at face value, assuming that, since he only acknowledged thematic relationships between Nos. 7 and 12, he otherwise ignored cyclic unity. The examples cited in this article, however, show that he carefully sought cyclic unity. With little actual thematic repetition, but through the use of similar rhythmic patterns, melodic contours, intervallic relationships, and other small devices from his ingenious compendium of techniques, Copland created not only twelve remarkable individual songs but also a double mirrored whole that, in his words, offers "a musical counterpart for the unique personality of the poet."22

 

All examples from Copland Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson. Copyright 1951 by Aaron Copland. Copyright Renewed 1979. Reprinted by permission of the Estate of Aaron Copland, Copyright Owner, and Boosey & Hawkes, Inc., Sole Licensee.


1Aaron Copland, Copland on Music (Garden City: Doubleday and Company, 1960), 137.

2Leonard Bernstein interview with Vivian Perlis, no date given, specifically for inclusion in Aaron Copland and Vivian Perlis' Copland: 1900 through 1942 (New York: St. Martin's/Marek, 1984), 335.

3Aaron Copland, Music and Imagination (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1961), 1.

4William Flanagan, "American Songs: A Thin Crop," Musical America (February, 1952): 23 and 130.

5Emily Dickinson, The Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Martha Dickinson Bianchi and Alfred Leete Hampson (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1944).

6Aaron Copland, Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson (New York: Boosey & Hawkes, 1951), prefatory note.

7Flanagan, 130.

8Irving Fine, Review: "Aaron Copland: Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson," Music Library Association Notes, XI (December, 1953): 159.

9Ibid.

10Julia Smith, Aaron Copland (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1955), 254.

11Sharon Mabry, Monograph: Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson (Unpublished DMA dissertation, George Peabody College of Teachers, Tennessee, 1977), 17.

12Copland and Perlis, 163.

13Mabry (17-18) placed nos. 1, 2, 6, and 8 in "Nature," 7 and 10 in "Life," 3 and 11 in "Eternity," and 4, 5, 9, and 12 in "Death." Smith (254-7) made the same choices as Mabry regarding "Nature" and "Eternity," but placed 5, 7, and 10 in "Life," 4 and 9 in "Death," and had 5 and 12 overlapping "Life, Eternity, and Death."

14See note 5.

15Mabry, 6.

16Neil Butterworth, The Music of Aaron Copland (New York: Toccata Press, 1985), 126.

17Ibid., 128-129. Butterworth refers to the falling fourths which "emphasize the sense of loss," and which Copland "reserves for moments of despair."

18Douglas Young. "Copland's Dickinson Songs," Tempo 103 (1972): 36.

19Flanagan, 130.

20Butterworth, 125.

21Copland, Music and Imagination, 46.

22See quotation cited in footnote 6.

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Beverly Soll and Ann Dorr

Beverly Soll holds degrees in piano from the University of Illinois and a Doctor of Musical Arts from the University of Maryland. She has served on the faculty at the State University of New York-Geneseo, George Mason University (Virginia), Wayne State College (Nebraska) and Salem State University (Massachusetts), and has worked as administrator of arts and special events at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. As a chamber musician, accompanist, and solo pianist, she has performed throughout the United States and in Germany.

Dr. Soll is currently a free-lance pianist/coach in the greater Boston metropolitan area, is the artistic director of the Boston Singers’ Resource Recital Series, and is an adjunct faculty member at Salem State University, where she teaches class piano, music appreciation, and applied piano, and serves as faculty accompanist for the university.

Scholarly publications include articles on Aaron Copland and Max Reger, a three-volume collection of arias from the operas of African-American composer William Grant Still, and a 2005 book on Still’s operas, I Dream a World, published by the University of Arkansas Press.

A member of the College Music Society throughout her career, Dr. Soll has held office in regional chapters, has presented on a variety of topics relating to German art song and the music of African American composers, and has performed recitals of contemporary piano works, including those of CMS composers at many regional, national and international meetings.

Soprano Ann Allison Dorr is the recipient of a Masters Degree in Vocal Performance from the University of Northern Iowa.  She began her singing career with the Opera da Camera and Provo Muse in New York, and sang for United Cerebral Palsy telethons nationwide.  Most of her career was spent teaching voice at Dordt and Northwestern Colleges in Iowa, and Wayne State College in Nebraska.  Following a move to Washington, DC, she served at Assistant Manager of Blair House, the President’s Guest House.

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