Choral Settings to Emily Dickinson’s Poetry

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By John C. Hughes

Dickinson’s poetry easily lends itself to music.  Her themes of love, devotion, and loneliness have inspired many composers. Here, I’ve collected some of my favorite settings of Emily Dickinson’s works. It’s a diverse group of pieces, ranging from loud and raucous to flowing and lyrical or even quiet and reflective. I hope you enjoy exploring these pieces, as well as finding other settings.  Themed concerts revolving around the poetry of Dickinson and other American poets will certainly interest your students and audiences.

UNISON

“Bee! I’m Expecting You!”
Emma Lou Diemer (Alliance)
Easy

Emma Lou Diemer expertly sets this whimsical poem that was written in the form of a letter from a fly to a bee. Singers will enjoy the dissonant piano part, as well as the staccato and accented vocal lines.  Students can discover changing time signatures, repeat signs, and a D.S. marking. This upbeat setting is not only a great way to end a concert, but also has opportunities to discuss form and other music concepts. Enjoy the surprise ending!

TWO-PART TREBLE

“Two Poems of Emily Dickinson”
Neil Ginsberg (Santa Barbara)
Medium Easy

This octavo contains settings of “There is no frigate like a book” (unison) and “I never saw a moor” (two-part). Each piece is rather short but, they are both musically satisfying. Ginsberg writes well for young voices. Choirs will enjoy the interesting piano part and the rhythmicality of this setting.

“Will There Really Be a ‘Morning’?”
Craig Hella Johnson (Alliance)
Easy

Craig Hella Johnson, the esteemed conductor of Conspirare, sets this poem with great sensitivity. His setting is simply beautiful. The two parts work well in parallel harmony, especially with the flowing piano accompaniment. The expressive melody will make for a poignant moment in any concert or festival.

THREE-PART MIXED

“Hope”
Cynthia Gray (Heritage)
Medium Easy

Gray captures the lyricism of “Hope,” which is perhaps Dickinson’s most well-known poem. It has a wonderfully expressive piano accompaniment and the ranges work well for developing voices. Homophonic textures make this an accessible piece for younger singers. With such a famous text, don’t be afraid to spend time exploring its meaning with your students.

SSA

“Heart, We Will Forget Him!”
Laura Farnell (Hal Leonard)
Easy

This is an expressive setting of an emotionally powerful text.  Lush harmonies and rich dissonances portray the loss of a former love. Farnell switches between unison and polyphonic textures.  The flowing triplets in the piano part ensure a sense of forward motion. Farnell’s composition works well for developing voices as it is both accessible yet expressive. Students will especially enjoy the climactic use of suspensions.

“If You Were Coming in the Fall”
Eugene Butler (Heritage)
Medium Easy

Butler captures the beauty of Dickinson’s poem. His use of duet structures works well, but the musical climax is reached through full, rich sonorities. Butler uses the piano extensively in this setting; as the piece develops, the piano part becomes more intricate. The meaningful text, interesting harmonic language, and climactic moments will be enjoyed by both audiences.

TTBB

“Will There Really Be a Morning”
Victor C. Johnson (Heritage)
Medium Easy

Victor C. Johnson’s original setting of this text is also available for SATB voices. The piece is majestic; it uses flowing lines, suspensions, and unexpected harmonies. Johnson’s setting captures the text’s sense of urgency. To hear male singers perform this piece with expressivity and heart would certainly be a fine musical experience.

SATB

“Heart! We Will Forget Him!”
James Mulholland (Colla Voce)
Medium

A mournful, yet lush setting of a poem about loss. Mulholland uses chromaticism to show pain and anguish. Scored for piano and horn, the instruments add a powerful sense of richness to the piece. Typical of a piece by Mulholland, “Heart! We Will Forget Him!” comes to a crashing climax – something the choir will look forward to singing. It is also available in TTBB and SSA voicings.

“The Moon is Distant from the Sea”
David N. Childs (Santa Barbara)
Medium

David N. Childs set this text to a haunting melody. Childs paces the work by building and releasing harmonic tension, divisi, tempi, and dynamics. His attention to detail enables the performers to convey the text’s meaning. Although not an easy piece, choirs will enjoy the rehearsal process and be rewarded in the end. Childs has alsorecently released an SSAA version.

“Let Down the Bars, O Death”
Samuel Barber (G. Schirmer)
Medium Advanced

Although quite brief, this hymn-like composition is stunning. The homophonic texture produces a calm, serene, setting. Scored for unaccompanied voices, “Let Down the Bars, O Death” has some unexpected harmonic shifts, which can pose some challenges in performance. However, the dramatic text and clearly emotional setting translate into many choral ensembles. Programming this piece would expose students to two great American masters: Emily Dickinson and Samuel Barber.

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