The Art of Song - Part I

I am preparing my first lecture recital. Steve and I will be presenting a program of art song transcriptions for saxophone and piano, discussing our interpretation, approach, and the relationship between music and text. One of the pieces we are considering including is Aaron Copland's "Heart, we will forget him" with text by Emily Dickinson: Heart, we will forget him! You and I, tonight! You may forget the warmth he gave, I will forget the light.

When you have done, pray tell me, That I my thoughts may dim; Haste! lest while you're lagging, I may remember him!

What is this text about? Who is the character speaking? Do we assume that it is a woman? What time of day is it? What is the underlying emotion? At first glance, the piece seems dramatic and full of literal longing (rubato) - perhaps the character is broken-hearted, mourning the loss of a lover. Is there an alternative interpretation to consider or is the poetic intent fairly clear?

From a whimsical perspective, could the character simply be lamenting the end of the day? Consider this line in the first stanza: "You may forget the warmth he gave, I will forget the light." Could Dickinson be referring to the sun? Does this give you an idea of how much the interpretation of the text informs our musical decisions?!

What do you think of the text? Listen to Copland's setting in this performance by Dawn Upshaw and the Saint-Paul Chamber Orchestra. How did Copland interpret Dickinson's words? What does the music suggest?