My Dickinson songs were written for and inspired by Reneé Fleming. We had a conversation over tea one day in late 2000, and she described to me a project she was developing in collaboration with the actress Claire Bloom and the director Charles Nelson Reilly that would include readings from Dickinson’s letters, recitations of her poems, performances of song-settings by various composers, and a script to give everything some dramatic continuity. She asked if I had ever written any Dickinson songs. I told her I hadn’t, and that seemed to be the end of it. But in the next few days two or three songs came quickly into my mind; I’m well acquainted with Dickinson’s poetry, and read it constantly. So I composed a couple of songs and sent them to Reneé. She was very appreciative, but she said she couldn’t use them as by that time the evening was fully programmed. But then she changed her mind, and “Fame” and “Of God We Ask One Favor” got their premieres only a few weeks later.
Originally I thought of calling this cycle Short Poems of Emily Dickinson, since I deliberately selected shorter poems, and specifically short poems that had an acerbic ro wry cast to them. I appreciate the range of her poetry, but what you hear quoted, and what composers seem most drawn to set, are nearly always what you might call her “touchy-feely” poems. As a result, people often overlook the fact that there are a lot of sardonic, bitter, quite cutting observations in her poetry. I wanted to focus on more of that aspect of her work, on its ironic quality, on its social criticismand also on the sense of appreciation for just being alive, which is so much a part of her work. Dickinson is really a remarkable figure. Somehow her isolation gave her the essential distance to be able to see things clearly, to perceive reality and the essential nature of things. Such qualities are enduring.
[In “Nature Studies,”] three poems [“To make a prairie,” “How happy is the little Stone,” and “The Spider holds a Silver Ball”] flow together as a continuous song, and then at the end the first poem is recapitulated with strands of music that come from the other two. This movement is also a play on words, with “Nature Studies” inviting a musical interpretation of the word “studies,” as in “études.” So each of those three settings is based on a famous technical studyor at least one musicians would recognizerelating to some instrument. The first is based on Dohnányi’s piano étude for extended arpeggios, and the second on some, or probably on numerous, Czerny or Hanon studies involving substitute finger passages, again for piano. The third refers to a famous trombone étude involving extended range by Robert Marsteller. He was the principal trombonist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic when I was growing up, and you can hear this particular étude still played backstage by brass players to this day. In my settings, however, this “studies” are played by diverse instruments, and not by the instruments they originally related to.
I imagined that for the first song [Emily Dickinson] was in a boat. In the second, she whispers to herself a wry commentary on a pedantic Sunday School teacher. In the third she’s in church, listening to a hymn; in the fourth, in her own space; in the fifth, outside, watching a sunset. In the sixth, the “étude” piece, she’s practicing. In the seventh I picture her by herself, outside, at a distance, being very certain of who she is.
The next step is that each song then relates to a musical genre that has to do with each of those places. So the first, the song in a boat, is something like a sea chantey. The secondteaching a classhas an odd children’s flavor, maybe reminiscent of Stravinsky or Mussorgsky, especially of Mussorgsky’s The Nursery. The third is very specific: organ music, and very specifically music played by a small New England organ, wheezing and in such poor shape that some of the notes don’t sound. From Dickinson’s perspective, the fourth would be a futurist setting because it’s rather jazzylet’s call it Emily Dickinson Reincarnated as a Hat-Check Girl in a 1930s Supper Club. The fifth depicts nature, and so the sound-world is that of a tree being felled in the forest; you could consider that she is offering a larger commentary on what nature is. The sixth involves the sounds of practicing, as when you are practicing studies at an instrument and your mind often goes to the most amazing places while your fingers are involved in note repetition. The seventh is an ardent hymn of her own creation.
Michael Tilson Thomas