Emily Dickinson: Copland Settings and surrounding events – a review by Tim Edwards


At first glance, the conjunction of Emily Dickinson’s poems with the music of Aaron Copland seems rather incongruous: the one a mid-19C recluse living a life of sobriety in puritan Massachusetts, the other a mid-20C cosmopolitan gay man with an eye on European musical modernism.  As Richard Scott pointed out, however, in his succinct and articulate introduction to Copland’s work, the composition dramatises ‘a conversation’ not just between author and composer but also between poetry and music, a dialogic encounter in which a slant and questioning lyricism is brought to bear on the social and cultural context each is embedded in.

Musically, Copland’s modernist take on the poems is a far cry from the more homespun ‘Old American Songs’, and serves well the severe lyricism of Dickinson’s poems, themselves a radical departure from contemporary formal practice.  Here, the performance – by Claire Booth, with pianist Christopher Glynn – brought out the intensity, drama and sheer beauty of both text and music to startling effect, the stripped-back piano-and-voice combination of the original composition much better suited to the material than Copland’s later orchestration of eight of the poems, deft as that is.

While the performance by Booth and Glynn can’t be faulted, the acoustic of Hall Two where the recital took place leaves something to be desired, the sound often hard-edged, occasionally almost brittle, a quality not shared by Hall One or the St Pancras Room, venues for other events in the Festival.  The small St Pancras Room was the location for Richard Scott’s own performance of a range of poetry and song, accompanied by Matthew Hollis on acoustic guitar, the material given an exemplary Queer charge in both subject and approach.  Scott’s mellifluous voice, whether reading or singing, conveyed both vulnerability to, and the determination to question or challenge, the cultural norms that impose rigid distinctions – on people, texts, generic identities – the material ranging freely across time and genre, encompassing Dowland, Patrick Kavanagh and Bronski Beat, interspersed with a selection of Scott’s own poetry, concise, idiomatic, acutely observed.

The question, why set poems to music – to which Copland’s own answer, alluded to by Scott, was “more creation!” – was a question also addressed in Hall One by poet Simon Armitage and Savages frontwoman Jehnny Beth in conversation with the BBC’s John Wilson.  For both Armitage and Beth, a distinction does exist between the song lyric and poetry, although for different reasons – for Armitage the distinction is largely formal, where for Beth, her poetry articulates “stuff I wouldn’t want to sing about or perform”.  This was an interesting and provocative discussion, with Wilson keeping a loose rein on the direction.  It ended with a neat bit of professional role-reversal, Beth reading a couple of recently-written poems (of which one utilises the repetitions of song-lyric), and Armitage presenting a short video of a recent collaboration with musicians.

Both had interesting things to say about the relationship between poetry and song, as did Richard Scott, both in his own St Pancras Room slot and in his acutely perceptive introduction to the Copland/Dickinson recital, with its focus on non-mainstream cultural identity.  Along with a range of other events, all of which elaborated in one way or another on the Festival’s theme of song, poetry and their relation to sub-culture, these three events provided a highly enjoyable and thought provoking forum for ideas and performance practice, acting as a fine showcase for the imaginatively eclectic, sharply focused programming typical of the Festival’s organisers, Poet In The City.

© T.Edwards, June 2018

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *