This evening’s concert at the Town Hall is cancelled, due to Storm Emma and associated white-out. What a pity. Pete McMullin and I have been preparing a clutch of brilliant songs by Aaron Copland – settings of Emily Dickinson poems. The ones I had chosen for this first outing were all to do with Heaven and dying. Ah, what a morbid subject, I hear you say. But not in the capable hands of these two visionaries from across the pond.
‘Why do they Shut me out of Heaven?’ is a cheeky piece of rhetoric, confronting an angelic host of ‘gentlemen’ whose exclusive club seems to demand timidity, not exuberance. ‘Did I sing too loud?’ is set by Copland fortissimo at the beginning, with a leap of a fifth, and triple fff at the end, rising a sixth.
‘Going to Heaven’ is a galloping piece of inspiration about heading that way, even though I don’t believe it exists, and ‘I don’t know when’…’Perhaps you’re going too, who knows..’ I sing in the middle, in a spare moment when the piano ceases its rushing and ringing. For me, it’s these moments of clear engagement with the listener that give the songs their charm – Dickinson, a recluse, communicates so directly – like a vibrant child, nabbing her interlocutor and demanding answers to the hardest and most painful aspects of existence.
Though there is some antiquity in the words, the sentiments seem to me part of my world, and not the mid-Victorian one to which Dickinson belonged. That Copland’s settings should have appeared in fusty-old 1950 is another miracle. They are demanding – the tonality being nothing near the melodic ease of 19th century Art song; the piano and voice often confronting each other, clashing and contradicting. But I find huge satisfaction in getting the notes into my muscle-memory where, amazingly, they seem to stick. I think it is because the songs are so carefully composed for the mezzo voice. The colours and lines seem to absolutely fit my instrument. Hurrah!
Now, if only Storm Emma would go away and we could damn well show these gems in public.