My setting of Emily Dickinson’s “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers” is intended to be a kind of anthem to be sung at Mount Holyoke’s homecoming, known as “Family and Friends Weekend”. The poem seemed a fitting choice for a piece d’occasion, as a secular affirmation of faith and a celebration of the heritage of the college. Emily Dickinson attended the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, the college’s predecessor, and the poem is one of her more popular ones. I had talked about the project with my colleague Kimberly Dunn Adams, the choral director, and she agreed that it would be good for there to be a tailor-made piece for performance by the students and the Family Choir (parents and friends) that gathers that day.
So it was that on a gorgeous morning in the first week in July, I sat
down before a blank sheet of music manuscript and a copy of the poem
and started making up music. My computer and synthesizer were not on
speaking terms, so I had to resort to the old fashioned method of pencil
on paper and I found it enjoyable. It is a particularly fun exercise to
look over a poem and see it as a kind of “map” of what the music can do
in relation to the words. (Technological problems would continue
through the summer and threatened to bring the whole project to a dead
stop in September.)
I had come up with an opening motive for the first words “‘Hope’ is
the thing…” - up a fifth, down a fourth, up another fifth - D-A-E-B -
strong and ascendant. And I sketched away with delight, sitting at the
open sliding door in Bernice Hartman’s livingroom in her light-filled
and airy house in the woods in Tuscarawas County, Ohio.
Outside, behind the house, hissed a stream that dropped through a
crevice in rocks to form a waterfall with an adenoidal gurgle. The
wooded ravine, on an early summer morning, was alive with bird calls,
and one - that of a robin (I thought) - attracted my attention, as it
used a motive that is a reduction the tune I had come up with for the
first phrase. And that introduced the notion of underlining the avian
metaphor by writing bird calls for a flute ensemble to play in the hall
at points in the piece. So I sat there taking dictation from the birds,
feeling only a little like Olivier Messaien, who listened to much more
complicated birds than I.
One of my first ideas for the setting was one I shared with Kim back
in the spring, and that was the sound of voices whispering the first
verse in canon. I imagined the sound to be something like the rustling
and flapping of wings. I further realized that his whispering chorus
was a role that the audience could play in the piece, and that what I
was creating was more than a choral setting of a famous poem, but an
event - an opportunity for performers and audience to “make” the piece.
The third verse begins with an evocative line: “I’ve heard it in the
chillest land,”. The word “chillest” sounds like a shiver, and I could
imagine the sound of the accented “ch” as it echoed around Abbey
Chapel. I decided that while the audience whispered the text, the
chorus would sing it on reciting tones, as chant. Back in my days of
deep involvement with Episcopalian liturgy, I once sang such a chant to
the accompaniment of free ringing handbells and the experience is a
little like levitating. I decided to employ the technique here and this
brought the handbell choir in on the collaboration. I used them at other
points in the piece as well.
The middle verse, “And surest in the gale is heard” allowed me to
write some storm music, and to create a new melody for the chorus that
could be repeated several times as the storm builds in the orchestra.
The choral part, by the way, had to be kept conjunct and rhythmically
uncomplicated to allow for performance by students and amateurs on very
limited rehearsal time.
Along with bird calls, there are two other sounds of nature that, I
feel, have especially potent “musical” qualities and those are the
different varieties of rainfall and thunder. I had hoped to be able to
incorporate these effects in the piece by means of a synthesizer but
that element will have to wait for a second installment. As it is, I
employed some low rumbles in the bass instruments (especially using some
dull roaring fifths below the actual harmonic bass pitch) to simulate
the effect of distant thunder.
Dickinson’s poem succinctly concludes with the third quatrain and on a
meek, rather self-deprecating note, which was not the tone I wanted to
finish with. So, I took the liberty of recapping the first verse and
it’s anthemic tune, sung first by the choir, then the audience is
invited to join in as the treble voices sing a descant. This makes for
an affirming, ringing finale that drifts off into a cloud of handbells,
bird calls and the voices of all participants as they whisper the first
verse again, to a conducted fade out.
Those whispered texts are, perhaps, the closest many of the
participants (myself included) have come to praying in public for some
time. All the while I worked on the composition, the ‘08 presidential
campaign was being waged and I was gratified that the poem linked with
the hope-filled message of Barack Obama. Only a few weeks later, those
prayers were answered with an even more ringing affirmation.