"There is something about music that keeps its distance even at the moment that it engulfs us," composer Aaron Copland wrote in his book, Music and Imagination. "It is at the same time outside and away from us and inside and part of us." The same could be said of the poems of Emily Dickinson, which Copland set to music in 1950 in the song cycle, 12 Poems of Emily Dickinson.
Copland is best known for the unique American character of compositions that blend jazz and American folk tunes. His most renowned works include the Fanfare for the Common Man, and the ballets Billy the Kid, Rodeo, and Appalachian Spring, which garnered him the Pulitzer Prize. He also composed music for such films as Of Mice and Men, Our Town, The Red Pony, and The Heiress, for which he won an Academy Award for Best Score.
Copland's song cycle, composed for voice and piano, includes contemplative poems, such as "Nature, the Gentlest Mother" and "Heart, we will forget him!" as well as starker ones, such as "I felt a funeral, in my brain" and "The chariot." It was "The chariot," the cycle’s final song, that first captured Copland’s imagination. "I fell in love with one song, ‘The Chariot," Copland said, "and continued to add songs one at a time until I had twelve. The poems themselves gave me direction, one that I hoped would be appropriate to Miss Dickinson’s lyrical expressive language."
Copland echoed Dickinson’s concise yet lyric language with abrupt leaps in the vocal line that matched her unique dashes and pauses. Vivian Perlis, an American music historian, explained, "The songs are unusual in style with irregular meters and stanzas, wide jumps in the vocal lines, and difficult passages for the pianist that present special challenges." To better capture Dickinson’s psyche, Perlis explained, Copland visited the poet’s home in Amherst, MA, soaking up the atmosphere of the room where she spent most of her hours, writing.
Following the first performance, which took place in New York in May 1950, Copland wrote in a letter to Verna Fine, wife of composer Irving Fine: "The songs went well with composer friends and audience but got roasted in the press […] I’m pleased with them--and everybody seemed to think it was a real song-cycle--which pleases me also."
In 1958, Copland orchestrated eight of the twelve poems, in an effort to reach a wider audience. It is worth noting that at the time Copland first set these poems to music, Thomas Johnson’s 1955 edition of Dickinson’s poems, the first complete and accurate collection, was not yet available.