What role did music play in Emily Dickinson’s life? While scholars have investigated countless aspects of Dickinson’s life and literary output, there has been a surprising lack of inquiry into the role of music. While she was renowned as a poet of contemporary vision and sensibility, it is less well-known that Dickinson was successfully trained in the fundamentals of music practice and theory, and reached an impressively high standard of technical agility and nuance. Further, she was also exposed to church music and hymnal in her formative years. Despite Dickinson existing within a conservative domestic environment, she created her poems and possibly also her letters based on a progressive internal musical script, or musical roadmap.
The musical qualities of Dickinson’s work derive from the musical influences that shaped her prosody, the syntactical and metrical qualities of her terse poetic lines, as well as the extensive role of music and musical instruments within the symbolic structures of her thought. Her writing generates a unique music of its own, which goes beyond the adaptation of existing musical styles. Carolyn Cooley observes:
The vibrant and throbbing rhythms and sounds, which Dickinson incorporates into many of her poems and letters testify to her rare ability to convey profound concepts in musical form, nuance and terminology. … [music] emanates from the depths of her own being to create contrapuntal melodies which achieve either an harmonic or a dissonant whole.
In Dickinson’s own words, from a letter to Elizabeth Holland about 1872:
In adequate Music there is a Major and a Minor – (L370).
The human condition can be in a major key of exhilaration or a minor key of depression, or, as is often the case, both in direct contrast with one another. In a revealing testimony to Dickinson’s musical impulse, Clara Newman Turner, a cousin, extends the theory that Dickinson thought musically:
Her Opera was the trilling of the birds outside her window; – the buzzing of the bees – the flitting in and out of the butterflies in their gauzy costumes. The crickets, and the frogs, and the breeze in its orchestra.
This post offers an account of Dickinson’s relationship to and employment of musical reference, gesture and idiom. It begins with a brief outline of Dickinson’s musical training and her reaction to musical performance trends of the day, and proceeds to decode the many musical references in a selection of her poems from the period c. 1861-1865, with a focus on her “golden year” of literary industry – 1862.
Springfield Republican, June 21, 1862
Review of the Week: Progress of the War, page 1
“This week has been one of unusual quiet. There has been no battle and no important movement that has been made known to the public. In the matter of slaves freed by the war, things are getting straightened out. Secretary Stanton informs Congress that Gen. Hunter has had no orders to enlist and arm the slaves, and has not informed the war department that he has gone into such an enterprise. It is likely that the enterprise will not be interfered with and that Gen. Hunter will be allowed to make the negroes useful in any way he can.”
Religious Intelligence, page 1
“Complaint has been made at the war department that a large number of army chaplains are absent from their regiments. At this time, when their ministrations seem particularly desirable, they are visiting their families, loitering in the cities, or lecturing upon their marvelous war experiences. With the feeling in Congress touching the office of chaplain, many members thinking it rather ornamental than useful, it behooves these gentlemen to speedily return to their posts, or they may find their occupation gone.”
A Letter from Mr. Sumner, page 2
“I say to you, stand by the administration. If need be, help it by word and act, but stand by it and have faith in it. I wish that you really knew the president and had heard the artless expression of his convictions on those questions [of slavery and abolition] which concern you so deeply. You might, perhaps, wish that he were less cautious, but you would be grateful that he is so true to all that you have at heart.”
Words for Wives, courtesy of Monthly Religious Magazine, page 6
“I believe the influence of a wife to be always, for good or for bad, very decided. There is not a woman living, unless she has forfeited all claim to her husband’s respect but is making her mark day by day upon his character. One thing, let her understand—worrying, fretting, fault-finding, direct and frequent harangues, ill-tempered slurs, anything that looks like passion, suspicion or jealousy, will do no good. These are the things a man cannot bear and have driven many into the things they were intended to prevent. She lacks judgment and prudence who shall ever indulge in these. Let her know that the strongest influences are those which are silent and indirect, that it is impossible for her to be in the right, gently, patiently, consistently, without its being felt. It may not be acknowledged today, or tomorrow, or ever; it may not do all she hoped it would. Counteracting influences may be too strong for that, but it is felt among the deepest and last things of life, even when he jeers and scoffs and strikes.”
Poetry, page 6: “The English Skylark” by Frederick Tennyson and “Coming Home” from Boston Transcript; Original Poetry, page 7: “At My Mother’s Grave” by J.E.H.
Books, Authors and Art, page 7
“We would advise anyone who wishes to attain celebrity by the exercise of a moderate amount of talent to become, if possible, the favorite of a clique; such a step is fatal to true greatness, but remarkably favorable to ambitious mediocrity. We are not sure how far those remarks will apply to The Master, a recent novel by Mrs. Mary A. Denison. It is a tale of music and musical people, such as should be written, read and reviewed by those who are versed in the technicalities of that divine and difficult art. As a mere narrative, it is an acceptable contribution to the popular stories of the day.”
Hampshire Gazette, June 24, 1862
New Music, page 1
“From Joseph Marsh, Book, News and Music dealer, we have received the following pieces of music, all excellent. It is published by Oliver Ditson & Co., Boston, and of course must be good. “Fox glove March,” “Cupid’s Eyes, a ballad,” “The Colleen Bawn” [listen below] “Serenade—Wake Lady Wake,” “Miss Lorimer Bell, a ballad,” “Levinia Waltz.” Sold by Joseph Marsh.
Amherst College, June 16th, page 1
“The event of the week with us has been the exercises ‘Class Day.’ The reputation of the speakers for the occasion, together with the kind smile of nature which gave us a delightful day, had the effect to draw together a very large assembly. The village church, in which the exercises took place, was very finely adorned with flowers and evergreens, and its every nook and corner breathed with fragrance. The music for the exhibition was furnished by the Schubert Club of Boston, who did themselves very great credit, and met with a hearty appreciation from the large and critical audience.”
On Mexico, page 2
“The French were badly defeated, and the Mexicans at last accounts were uniting against the invaders. It is possible they will be driven out of the country. It is hardly probably that Napoleon will withdraw and thus confess himself defeated, he will be more likely to appeal to the patriotism of the French people and send reinforcements. He probably wants something for his army to do, and he undoubtedly thinks is as easy for his French soldiers to capture Mexico and it was for America.”
“The London Times publishes a letter from its New York correspondent to England very plainly that the United States will soon become ‘the greatest military and naval power in Christendom.’ In a few days after the Times editorially informed the people of Canada that they must defend themselves from American invasion as England cannot do it.”
Dickinson’s Exposure to Music and Jenny Lind
by Dr. Nicole Panissa, Coventry University
In the summer of 1862 Dickinson wrote to Dr. and Mrs. J. G. Holland stating:
My business is to sing … how do I know but cherubim, once, themselves, as patient, listened, and applauded her unnoticed hymn (L269).
It is, therefore, fair to conclude that Dickinson viewed her own literary voice as a musical one – drawing on both her extensive musical training, and a sub-conscious synergy with musical idiom and reference.
Existing records show that Dickinson was well-versed and trained in both music theory and practice, specifically in piano and singing, as was commonplace for many young women of her age and social class in mid-19th century America. Her father supported her musical studies during her time at Mount Holyoke Seminary. At fourteen, Dickinson wrote to her friend Abiah Root:
I also was much pleased with the news [your letter] contained especially that you are taking lessons on the “piny”, as you always call it, but remember not to get on ahead of me. Father intends to have a Piano very soon. How happy I shall be when I have one of my own. (L 6, 7 May 1845).
Dickinson’s wish soon came true. That year, her father bought a handsome rosewood piano with ornately carved legs, manufactured by Hallett Davis and Company of Boston.
In September, Dickinson wrote again to Abiah,
I am taking piano lessons and getting along very well with them…now I have a piano. … I am very happy (L 8 25 September).
Records suggest that over a period of some six years Dickinson actively engaged with daily piano practice, primarily based on the Bertini Method, a popular methodology of the day, resulting in a level of prowess that was deemed advanced, even by today’s standards.
Both family and neighbors regarded Dickinson as an expert improviser. Richard Sewall recounts that her cousin John Graves described her late night improvisations as “heavenly music.” When he stayed over with his cousins, he would be wakened from his sleep by Dickinson’s music making. She explained the next morning: “I can improvise better at night.”
Dickinson’s cousin, Clara Newman Turner, whose recollection of the poet Sewall reprints, also recalled that
before seating herself at the piano Emily covered the upper and lower octaves so that the length of the keyboard might correspond to that of the old-fashioned instrument on which she had learned to play.
And George Boziwick recounts how MacGregor Jenkins, another neighbor, noted in his memoir that:
[Dickinson] went often across the lawn to her brother’s house. It was through him, and his handsome wife – the ‘Sue’ of her letters and messages, that she kept in touch with the life of her circle, and to a considerable extent with the village and the world. It was here that she would fly to the piano, if the mood required, and thunder out a composition of her own which she laughingly but appropriately called “The Devil,” and when her father came, lantern in hand to see that she reached home in safety, she would elude him and dart through the darkness to reach home before him. This was pure mischief and there was much of it in her.
The proposition that, in artistic terms, Dickinson proceeded from not only a musical but performative perspective is supported by her finding freedom in thought and expression via an improvisatory musical language. Her choice to improvise at night, potentially based on well-known jigs, reels and patriotic songs of the time, demonstrates her desire to find release within boundary: to explore ways in which her innate sense of musical gesture, placement, breath, silence and cadence in performance terms could potentially inform her own poetic practice.
Despite a growing immersion in her literary practice, Dickinson nevertheless retained a musical ethos, transferring her practical musical skills to a more metaphoric one. Carolyn Cooley argues:
Melodic strains and musical references pervade her poems, providing unusually appropriate figurative language to express joyous and plaintive moods … To an astonishing degree, the pulsating rhythms and sounds which Dickinson orchestrates in hundreds of her poems testify to her rare ability to convey profound concepts in musical terminology. Sometimes, the very air around her seems filled with music, and the songs of the birds either lift her exalted spirit or trouble her downcast soul.
While Dickinson utilized the security that her strategically-designed domestic domain provided, she was nevertheless seduced by the exotic and unpredictable energy of live performance. After attending a concert by the famous 19th century soprano, Jenny Lind, in Boston in May 1851, 20-year Dickinson became enchanted not only with Lind’s vocal range and technical abilities, but perhaps more importantly, with her adopted performance persona. She wrote in a letter to her brother Austin:
How we all loved Jenny Lind, but not accustomed oft to her manner of singing didn’t [sic] fancy that so well as we did her – no doubt it was very fine – but take some notes from her “Echo”- the Bird songs from the “Bird Sing” and have some of her curious trills, and I’d rather have a Yankee. Herself, and not her music, was what we seemed to love – she has an air of exile in her mild blue eyes, and a something sweet and touching in her native accent which charms her many friends. (L 46, 6 July).
Judith Pascoe argues that Dickinson found a comparative conduit for performative expression through viewing Lind’s performance:
The Jenny Lind phenomenon provides a rewarding context in which to place Dickinson’s performance poems, suggesting a highly theatrical Dickinson whose refusal to place her poems before a broad audience had more to do with the vagaries of the marketplace than with a reluctance to perform. Lind provided Dickinson with an important – if ultimately disappointing – model of female self-fashioning. The several ways in which Lind’s public persona, and Dickinson’s private and poetic versions coincide suggest that Dickinson’s relatively brief encounter with Lind had a complex and enduring impact on her conception of herself as an artist.
For the musician and performer, Pascoe’s assertions offer an important insight when looking to engage with, analyze, and perform musical settings of Dickinson’s poetry and letters. The following section of poetry discusses my own critical engagement, as a practicing musician and performer, with a sample collection of Dickinson’s poems that feature musical references.
The examples I offered in the poems section, while apt but by no means conclusive, demonstrate the various ways Dickinson championed the medium of music as a primary inspiration and informant of her poetic process. Dickinson’s personal music folio also offers the reader a unique window into her musical preferences; it contains scores that, in many instances, require not only an advanced piano technique and sophisticated level of performance and virtuosity, but also demonstrate a diverse representation of musical style and genre. Editorial markings found in many of these manuscripts support the notion that she was exposed to a sustained and determined level of expert music instruction, notably during her formative years. Spanning 484 pages, her selections were somewhat unusual for the time.
As a direct result of a surge in the technical development of the piano, and interest in the piano as a home-based instrument, there was increased production and representation of solo and duet-based piano repertoire in personal music folios. What is interesting to note is that while Emily Dickinson did include standard piano fare of her day, including piano transcriptions of larger operatic and symphonic works, her tastes were predominantly centered on popular music of the time: Irish, Scottish and English folk song, patriotic ballads, minstrel songs and piano transcriptions of dances such as waltzes, quick steps and reels.
My research has been born out of my desire, as a professional vocal accompanist and coach, to explore and promote the art of song preparation and performance as a viable means of expressing the veiled emotional contours rooted in Dickinson’s poetry and letters. By means of recorded performance, analysis and critical reflection, I have investigated both the musical embodiment of these contours and the specifics of narrative development within selected musical examples. Time and time again, I have been systematically drawn to Dickinson’s assumption of the role of musician, composer and performer; the way the interaction between these “players” in her drama of self is reflected and expressed in musical terms, and how both the composer and, ultimately, performer are inspired to then interpret her work through their own artistic filters.
It was this unexpected discovery that led me to a series of questions.
How do we read Dickinson? How does a composer read her work? How does a performer read the dual narrative of Dickinson and composer?
My work to date has sought to give insight into both Dickinson and the extraordinary response that she elicits within musicians and composers who are drawn to her writing. It is my intention that this research will ultimately establish a new forum for the way in which we read, hear and perform the work of Emily Dickinson.
bio: Nicole Panizza is an acclaimed UK-based vocal accompanist, coach and scholar. She was awarded her Doctor of Music degree in 2014 (Royal College of Music, London), and is a past recipient of an International Fulbright Award, in support of visiting research fellowships at Harvard University and
Manhattan School of Music. Nicole has worked for Opera Australia, the Cologne and Covent Garden Opera Awards, and as Education Manager for The Royal Opera, Covent Garden. Her teachers have included Roger Vignoles and Malcolm Martineau. Recent research includes the internationally acclaimed album Nature with New-York based soprano Jane
Sheldon, key lectures and presentations (Singapore, Oxford, Cambridge), and chamber recitals (Vancouver, New York, Paris, Boston and Philadelphia).
Current ventures include an album with critically-acclaimed soprano Nadine Benjamin, featuring premiere performances of Dickinson-inspired song cycles by Juliana Hall, Ella Jarman-Pinto, John Gibson, and Luigi Zaninelli; an inter-medial performance project based on fragment manuscripts of Emily Dickinson with Prof. Suzie Hanna, Dr.
Sally Bayley, and renowned folk artist Hannah Sanders; a digital archive showcasing practice-led approaches to the performance and study of Dickinson’s poetry and letters, and an international song project showcasing critical examples of American war, memoriam and remembrance.
Nicole is a founding member of the International Zerere Arts Foundation, chair of the UK-based opera company OperaCoast; and a board member of the London Song Festival, and the Arts and Humanities
Council, Emily Dickinson International Society (EDIS). Recent posts include Visiting Research Fellowships (Rothermere American Institute and Faculty of Music, University of Oxford), and Research Summit Fellow, The Orpheus Instituut (Ghent, Belgium). She currently holds the positions of Senior
Lecturer in Music (Coventry University) and Research Associate (Oxford Song Network, TORCH – The Oxford Centre in the Humanities).
Further information can be found at www.nicolepanizza.com
Cooley, Carolyn. The Music of Emily Dickinson’s Poetry and Letters: A Study of Imagery and Form. McFarland & Company, 2003, 25.
Sewall, Richard. The Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980, 270.
Hampshire Gazette, June 24, 1862
Springfield Republican, June 21, 1862
Boziwick, George. “'My Business is to Sing': Emily Dickinson's Musical Borrowings." Journal of the Society for American Music 8, 02 (May 2014): 130 – 166.
Cooley, Carolyn. The Music of Emily Dickinson’s Poetry and Letters: A Study of Imagery and Form. McFarland & Company, 2003, 25.
Pascoe, Judith. “The House Encore Me So: Emily Dickinson and Jenny Lind.” The Emily Dickinson Journal 1, 1 Spring 1992: 1-18, 2.
Sewall, Richard. The Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980, 406, 272.