32 Songs on Poems by Emily Dickinson

Lisa Delan, soprano
Fritz Steinegger, piano


Another winner featuring the charming presence of Lisa Delan! These 32 poems that Gordon Getty has set to music have the thematic and musical unity to constitute a real cycle. The subject is Death (the “White election” of the title), and the poems look at the subject subjectively from every angle. Getty organizes them in four Groups: 1, The Pensive Spring; 2, So We Must Meet Apart; 3, Almost Peace; and 4, My Feet Slip Nearer. A noticeable progression occurs as the poet delves ever deeper into the mysteries of life and death, which are not the diametric opposites we commonly imagine.

I will leave aside the identity of the “dim companion” in the poems that seem to point to a definite love interest in the life of the semi-reclusive Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), who went to her grave a life-long spinster. Gordon Getty summarizes the case very succinctly in his program notes, and others have written at book length on the subject. Since death for Ms. Dickinson meant the spiritual reunion with those we have loved, it opened the portals to a new life, and was not at all life’s antithesis. The symbolism of white raiment, in which she dressed the last twenty years or so of her life, applies to both to the shroud and a wedding dress. She equates them with a ferocious optimism in such verses as “No more her patient figure / At twilight soft to meet, / No more her timid bonnet / Upon the village street, // But crowns instead and courtiers / And in the midst so fair, / Whose but the shy, immortal face / Of whom we’re whispering here?” Or consider, “Sufficient troth that we shall rise, / Deposed, at length, the grave, / To that new marriage justified / Through Calvaries of love.” Many other examples could be cited.

As scholars have observed, Dickinson’s poetry seems to spring from origins in church music, especially in the shape of her discrete four-line stanzas, though the flow of the thought often carries over between those stanzas, and they are not as foursquare metrically as many church hymns often are. Getty conjectures that Dickinson, who had studied voice and piano, must have set many of her poems to music for her own satisfaction. These “odd, old tunes” (her description) were certainly not intended for publication, which would have been out of character for someone who never sought to publish her poetry during her lifetime. In setting them to music, Getty confides, “I have set them, in large part, just as Emily might have if her music had found a balance between tradition and iconoclasm something like that in her poems.”

As played by Fritz Steinegger, the perfect partner for Ms. Delan in this recital, the piano accompaniment is ideally suited to the sense of the lyrics. It seldom takes the form of a florid line, but usually occurs in the form of widely spaced chords or even single notes, either quietly stated or powerfully expressed, depending on the emotion of the poetic line. Occasionally it becomes more florid, as it does in a poem that celebrates the reunion of mother and son in death after many years, he a recent casualty in one of the Civil War’s terrible battles: “When I was small a woman died, / Today her only boy / Went up from the Potomac, / His face all victory. // To look at her how slowly / The seasons must have turned, / Till bullets clipped an angle / And he passed quickly round. ” The vigorously extended piano introduction before the first stanza suggests the rapid call of bugles; in this case, the martial music is both unusual and appropriate to the idea of death as a victory over the unnatural pain of separation, numbed though it may be with the passing years.

Other lyrics do not embrace death with such enthusiasm. There is skepticism about it in such lines as, “The going from a world we know / To one a wonder still / Is like the child’s adversity / Whose vista is a hill. / Behind the hill is sorcery / And everything unknown, / But will the secret compensate / For climbing it alone?” Other poems contrast the poet’s curiously disjunctive perceptions of the two states, life and death: “And sometimes odd within; / The person that I was / And this one do not feel the same. / Could it be madness, this?” And sometimes she is struck by the odd discrepancy of feeling and perception between the bereaved and the departed: “I cried at pity, not at pain, / I heard a woman say, / “Poor child,” and something in her voice / Convicted me of me. // She’s “sorry I an dead” again, / Just when the grave and I / Have sobbed ourselves almost to sleep, / Our only lullaby.”

OF course, even a first acquaintance with Dickinson’s poetry gives you the impression that it is at the same time simple in form and very sophisticated, both in her daring use of approximate and vowel rhymes and in the way a simple declaration or a striking images can resonate with meanings far beyond the stave’s end. You can’t just set them to music and sing them without interpreting fine nuances of significance. To that purpose, Getty’s song accompaniments often continue beyond the last stanza, extending and amplifying the mood and purpose of he poem. And Delan’s vocal artistry is well adapted to expressing the shifting, swiftly surging emotion in such run-on lines as “The bell within the steeple wild / The flying tiding told: / How much can come, / And much can go, / And yet abide the world!” As a song interpreter she may well be unequalled.

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