A cappella Friday: Bars and Feathers

em>Acappella music (without instrumental accompaniment) is particularly enjoyable for me to listen to. As a poet (and an avocational musician), I am drawn to the similarities that poems and acappella music have. Lyrical phrasing, meter, rhyming, assonance, and consonance mean so much to acappella music, because it relies so heavily on the human vocal element.

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It has been a while since I did one of these.

Partly because I hadn’t heard any new inspiring songs recently, neither was I particularly inspired to seek out any songs.

Until today.

I was wondering whether anyone had done an arrangement of Emily Dickinson poems for acappella chorus. Google. What a time waster saver. I found quite a few. And it should come as no surprise, as Ms. Dickinson is arguably the most prolific of American Poets and one of the more emotive poets (and also – to her credit – concise). These characteristics make her writing great fodder for choral literature.

The first one I noticed (and I think that I’ve sung it once) was Let down the Bars, O Death, composed by Samuel Barber, who was responsible for another haunting poem/choral selection that I discussed a while back, Louise Bogan’s To Be Sung on the Water. He wrote this piece during the same summer (1936)** as the string quartet that would eventually become Adagio for Strings.

Let down the Bars, O Death*
Emily Dickinson
Music by Samuel Barber

Let down the Bars, O Death —
The tired Flocks come in
Whose bleating ceases to repeat
Whose wandering is done —

Thine is the stillest night
Thine the securest Fold
Too near Thou art for seeking Thee
Too tender, to be told.

This setting is a simple chorale, with none of Barber’s usual complex counterpoint, but it is effective  at letting Dickinson’s text carry  the load.  Given her gift for emotionally charging phrases, it definitely works with his gift for musical conflict and resolution.  The opening of the piece sounds like a call, an invocation that begins hushed, and crescendos to the conclusion, where the opening lines are repeated/declared with emphasis.

The next piece was a bit of a surprise.  I have a soft spot for poetry that is light and hopeful (something that is not necessarily plentiful in Dickinson’s canon of writing), so when I happened upon “Hope” is the thing with feathers, I was hooked.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers*

Emily Dickinson
Music by Kenny Potter

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

There are several different choral arrangements of this poem, but in my opinion, none of them capture the intention of the words like this arrangement by Dr. Kenny Potter of Wingate University. Recently composed in 2011***, this piece allows the underlying message to drive the song, with the opening lines carried through as heartbeat. A carefree melody, which breaks slightly to express the seriousness of the last line (much like Barber in the effective use of chorale style), but then returns to the patter of the “thing with feathers, and sings the tune without the words – and never stops – at all” fading to the end.

I believe he created an earworm.

The video I selected is a combined performance of several pieces. The first one is “Hope” is the thing with feathers. Have a listen. You will be humming this the next day.


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*The Poems of Emily Dickinson Edited by R. W. Franklin (Harvard University Press, 1999)
**G. Schirmer, Octavo 8907
***Published by Santa Barbara Music Publishing (SB.SBMP-1017) 2011

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