Posts for:  March 2014

Poetry in Music, the Deepest Emotion of All

Emily Dickinson's garden

Last Sunday I had the singular pleasure of performing with Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek, a wonderful mezzo-soprano who is heard more often as part of the vocal quartet Anonymous 4. For our program, Jacqui appeared as vocal soloist, and chose modern songs written by male composers to the words of female poets and writers.

The songs that began and ended our concert drew the most applause and biggest laughs. Who can resist Seymour Barab’s buoyant and sometimes bittersweet settings of Dorothy Parker’s witty words? A woman sings of receiving “one perfect rose” and you think she is going to get all sentimental about it, until it’s revealed that what she’d rather have is “one perfect limousine.” In the final set of songs by Dominic Argento, Miss Manners advises her affronted “Gentle Readers” how to behave at concerts, whether to boo at atonal music, and most of all, why she is right.

Humor notwithstanding, it was the poignant middle songs of the program that haunt me still. I relished playing Richard Pearson Thomas’s pianistically lush settings of Christina Rosetti’s verse. The most touching of all was Aaron Copland’s song written to Emily Dickinson’s poem, “Heart, we will forget him now.”

Perhaps no music is needed to underscore Dickinson’s achingly emotional poem.  There is no greater, or simpler, description in the English language of longing. We need not know the biographical details of Dickinson’s life, or even Copland’s (who was gay in an era when he could not be open about it) to feel the hurt of trying to forget a man who must be forgotten. As in all great songs, Copland’s harmonic language and melody bring the emotion into sharper focus, and make it somehow bearable, remind us of what it is to be human.

Here is Dawn Upshaw’s version of the song (with orchestral accompaniment.) The text flows along in the video montage, so that you, Gentle Reader, can see — with your ears and eyes.