Karen Scott's Emily Dickinson Recital

      With Charles Woodward at the piano, soprano Karen Scott gave a lovely recital titled The Songs of Emily Dickinson, May 12, 2003 at Royster Memorial Presbyterian Church. Using a selection of settings of Dickinson's poetry by eight American composers, she opened the program with Aaron Copeland's Nature, the gentlest mother. Ms. Scott seemed relaxed and happy to be sharing these songs that she appreciates so very much. By creating a sense of intimacy we were able to experience this poetry with a deeper understanding.

      Although the poetry is in English and the singer's diction was excellent, the program had text sheets which are essential for full appreciation, since not all settings highlight the words equally well.

      The songs were grouped into four broad categories: Nature, Love, Society and Death & Eternity. Seven of the eighteen songs are from Aaron Copeland's (1900-1990) cycle Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson which is his longest and most important work for voice and piano. Written in 1950, Copeland has said "I fell in love with one poem, The Chariot, and continued to add songs one at at time until I had twelve. The poems themselves gave me my direction, one that I hoped would be appropriate to Ms. Dickinson's lyrical expressive language." This is challenging music, with irregular meters and stanzas, wide jumps in vocal lines and difficult chromatic passages for the pianist.

      Throughout the program the delivery of the words was conversational with just the right amount of energy for each line. Charles Woodward did a masterful job at the piano. In André Previn's As imperceptibly as grief the piano introduction has blocks of sound which set a mood developed throughout, a melancholy because summer has in time slipped away.

      There were so many riches: So Bashful, set by Ernest Bacon (1898-1990), Adolphus Hailstork's Not in vain (b.1941), I'm nobody by Vincent Persichetti (b.1915), Safe in their alabaster chambers by Arthur Farwell (1812-1952), two settings by Jake Heggie (b. 1961) and two by Lee Hoiby (b. 1926). Hoiby's setting of Wild Nights closed the program. Quite a poem for a New England spinster!

      Karen Scott, with Charles Woodward at the piano, repeated her program of Songs of Emily Dickinson at at Faculty Recital at Christopher Newport University's Gaines Theater on September 12, 2003, with great success.

      She added a love song, My River Runs to Thee, by John Dixon, local composer and new director of the Academy of Music and voice of WHRO on Saturday afternoons. We look forward to hearing the song soon.

      Ms. Scott and Mr. Woodward also presented the Dickinson song program to a meeting of the Norfolk Alumnae of Smith College at a private home in Norfolk. With many women in the audience who are "from Emily Dickinson country" (New England), Karen reported that "It was a special experience to do the songs and share the information about the poet in an intimate setting harking back to the origins of art song itself."

Emily Dickinson

      In looking over information about the life of the poet in reference material and on the internet, one thing becomes clear: there is no definitive number of poems. The range is 1000 to 2000 depending on who is writing. During her lifetime, either six or ten poems were published.

      Because she was a very private person and was little known in her lifetime, books about her have freely speculated about her mental state, her friendships, her sexual preferences and whether or not she shared this part of her life with anyone.

      What we do know for certain is that her poems have been set to music by many excellent composers and the number of the songs grows year by year. In the poetry we find a deep experience of all things human: joy and excitement, despair and longing, love and distaste, death and eternity. She uses images from nature, everyday family life, even machines of her day. All of it expressed with her spare use of words and an economy and surface simplicity that evokes images both deep and rich. Her honesty is breathtaking.

      Emily's "dear Rev. Higginson" had befriended her and published a few of her poems during her lifetime without her permission. He was a Unitarian minister from Cambridge, Massachusetts who studied at Harvard Divinity School. Passionate in his opposition to slavery, he engaged in missions to aid fugitive slaves before the Civil War. During the war he led the first troop of African-American soldiers in the Union army and wrote a book about his experience. He also wrote on literary topics and was co-editor of the first book of her poetry which was published after her death. Their letters are a primary source of information on her life.

      Gifted people are unusual. As transparent as she is in her poetry she seems to have used her uncomplicated external life to be able to experience fully and report on her internal life. Her concerns are ours and even if we disagree with her conclusions her poetry gives insight into how to frame life's major questions.

      If you wish to know Emily Dickinson read her poetry. If you wish to know yourself better, read her poetry and listen to it sung by composers who reflect themselves in how they set her words. A fine example was the two settings of Heart! we will forget him!. The first by John Duke (1899-1984) illustrates the pain of losing a lover kept at bay by determination and anger. In Copeland's setting the struggle is to get through a difficult period. The tune is soft, caressing and evokes a sadness in this listener.

Métamorphoses Melodieuses

      A recital on November 20, 2005 at Second Presbyterian Church by sopranos Karen Scott Hoy and Ann Scott with Charles Woodward at the piano was an exciting exploration of French mélodie.

      Ms. Hoy sang with a naturalness and an easy open communication that drew the listener into the music and story of three songs by Gabriel Fauré (1875-1937). In Dans les ruines d'une abbaye newlyweds frolic in the ruins of an abbey. It is only at the end of the song that we learn that the young lovers are "birds of the forest." En sourdine, with texts by Paul Verlaine, is another song of hearts joined, and also the fear that lurks beneath a perfect moment. When she sang Mandoline she used a simple twist of her hand to illustrate the phrase "Whirl around in ecstasy". This gesture was so economical and yet added so much to this song of gaiety.

      This was followed by Fauré's Arpège, Notre amour and Fleur jetée sung by Ms. Scott with a beautiful sound and a smooth legato line. She always appears to have power in reserve, no matter what a song demands of her. Fleur jetée has text that is at times angry and at others is bitter because love, like a flower, fades in time.

      At age twewnty-six Claude Debussy (1862-1918) wrote Ariettes Oubliée, a cycle of six songs, in 1888. The composer's mood painting was fully realized by Ms. Hoy in these poems by Paul Verlaine. Certain phrases "It is the fatigue after love," or "On this mild evening so quietly?" or "The shadow of the trees in the misty river" linger as perfect moments captured in song. Two other cycles followed, Métamorphoses by Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) and Ludions (Toys) by Erik Satie (1866-1925), with playful texts that are in-jokes that often only the poet and perhaps the composer understood.

      Later in the program Ms. Scott sang three deeply romantic songs by Ernest Chausson (1855-1899) with songs of lost love - Le temps des lilas, of falling in love - Le charme and of being willingly captivated by mirage and delusion - Dans la forêt du charme et de l'enchantement. On the piano Charles Woodward spins threads of gold and silver that are woven together by the voices of mother and daughter in Faurés Puisqu'ici-bas toute âme in into a whole cloth that surrounds and warms our hearts.

Back to Issues