In partnership with the LGBTQ+ Music Study Group, we invited writers, researchers and thinkers to pitch us editorial on queer music, sounds and the people who make it. The third of these - by Laura Iredale - is published today.
It is widely theorised that Emily Dickinson had more than a familial bond with her sister-in-law, Susan Huntington Gilbert (later Dickinson). Their relationship has been explored, re-imagined and recovered from their correspondence in published works. Decide for yourself, but great loves have been professed for a lot less in the literary canon.
In letters to Sue, spanning a 36 year discourse - from 1850 to Emily’s death in 1886 - Emily writes;
//Susie, will you indeed come home next Saturday, and be my own again, and kiss me as you used to?… I hope for you so much, and feel so eager for you, feel that I cannot wait, feel that now I must have you — that the expectation once more to see your face again makes me feel hot and feverish, and my heart beats so fast — I go to sleep at night, and the first thing I know, I am sitting there wide awake, and clasping my hands tightly, and thinking of next Saturday…
//‘I need her — I must have her, Oh give her to me!’
//‘Now, farewell, Susie… I add a kiss, shyly, lest there is somebody there! Don’t let them see, will you Susie?’
And in poems addressed to Sue - or in which the subject is understood to be Sue - Emily professes love;
//‘Wild nights - Wild nights! Were I with thee - Wild nights should be - Our luxury!…Rowing in Eden - Ah - the Sea! Might I but moor - tonight - In thee!’
//‘One Sister have I in our house - … Today is far from Childhood - But up and down the hills - I held her hand the tighter - Which shortened all the miles - And still her hum - The years among, Deceives the Butterfly; Still in her Eye - The Violets lie - Mouldered this many May. I spilt the dew - But took the morn, - I chose this single star - From out the wide night's numbers - Sue - forevermore!’
This article sets out to explore how Emily Dickinson’s poetry and letters, alongside her relationship with Sue, have come to inspire musical interpretations in a range of genres; from classical SATB settings of poems, to contemporary score and pop song.
Timeless and Universal
Nicknamed ‘the Myth’ by her contemporaries - a significant title to be given in her own time - Emily Dickinson has also been described as a social recluse. Yet whilst existing slightly removed from societal norms, her poetry shows an innate and timeless understanding of the human condition.
It is the ageless nature of her writings that led composer Rhian Samuel to set a number of Emily Dickinson’s poems to music. You can find details on Rhian’s music on the British Music Collection website, including; ‘Lovesongs and Observations’ a set of six songs for SATB chorus to texts by Emily Dickinson; (i) Let me not mar (ii) To make a prairie (iii) My river runs to thee (iv) The first arbutus (v) Proud of my broken heart (vi) The Rat; and 'The Moon is distant from the Sea’, in ‘Moon and Birds,’ a setting for voice & chamber ensemble and for voice & piano.
Rhian mentions Emily Dickinson alongside other poets whose work she has been drawn to - notably, Ann Stevenson and May Sarton - and how their writing has similar core thematic identity to that of Emily Dickinson and how that inspires her settings; “Modesty, no overblown, 'taking-yourself-too-seriously', slight humour, a bit of irony, and very strong imagery and themes. In each poem there is something substantial, which is complete within that poem. There’s also a regretful quality quite often and maybe a sensual quality as well. And I think all of those things add up to the fact that they are by women. In these instances, the things that really link them are the female qualities.”
It is perhaps the universal appeal of such topics and Dickinson’s understanding of the complexities of human nature, spirituality and relationships that has meant her work has influenced not just a range of musical genres but other types of artistry also.
(The Power of) The Female Voice
Rhian Samuel has long been an advocate of promoting female composers and spoke about finding inspiration in the works of female poets, “A lot of male poetry is written adoringly to women, but you don’t commonly find that in poetry written by women, talking to others as an object of their love.” As Rhian highlights, the female voice in music and art is something to be celebrated.
Emily Dickinson is often the only female American poet to be taught as part of the English curriculum in UK high schools. Her voice as a female poet and something of a revolutionary of her time has influenced musical settings of her work along with TV and film interpretations of her life.
Apple TV’s, ‘Dickinson,' (2019-2021) from creator Alena Smith, is one such contemporary re-telling of the life, relationships and work of a young, rebellious Emily
Dickinson. The show’s composers, Drum&Lace (Sofia Hultquist) and Ian Hultquist discussed their approach to scoring a modern interpretation of Emily’s story and how they were inspired by Dickinson’s writing. The co-composers explain how the female voice as an instrumentation choice was an important part of their score, “We used voice to externalise Emily’s inner thoughts and the voice as a way of reflecting and wearing Emily’s emotions on her sleeve.” For example, the voice was used to great effect in the cues ‘I’m a poet’ in which a breathy, pulsing solo takes the lead and ‘This was a poet’ in which the same vocal theme returns but sits within the more organic score. They say these cues, “became her anthem, her manifesto" and were used as closing statements in seasons of the show, where Emily’s voice and character were particularly powerful.
Particular poems from Dickinson’s oeuvre resonated with the shows’ composers. Speaking about the Dickinson episode, ’My life had stood - a loaded gun’, based on the poem of the same name, Drum&Lace describes it as concept that, “as a woman you just (associate with), there’s so much in that when it comes to ideas of ownership and ideas of independence, it’s like the bubbling of feeling like a second citizen; whether it’s secretly being queer or then being a woman.” They say that, "the biggest points where the voice comes out (in the score) is when it’s either Emily’s conviction or when it’s Emily and Sue.” The Emily/Sue relationship is central to ‘Dickinson’ and also guided their writing choices. An example of this relationship directly influencing musical inspiration can be heard in the cues; ‘It rumbles’ - following a love scene between Emily and Sue - and ‘This tiny bed’ - the Emily/Sue theme that recurs throughout the show.
“We tried to have our music evolve with the characters and the relationship…when we start everyone seems early 20’s, teenagers, by the time we get to the end there’s children involved, people are married, people have died, we’ve lived a life now, we wanted the music to try and reflect that.” A sonic evolution reflects the development of characters and relationships as the score moves from a synth-based sound in Season One to a more acoustic, orchestral palette in Season Three. In particular, their theme starts staccato in Season One’s ‘Meet me in the orchard’ and develops with, ‘This tiny bed’ in Season Three when their relationship is a lot softer and more mature. In their final love theme the music is stripped back to solitary stems of score, and just breaths, over a reading of ‘All the letters I can write - Are not fair as this - Syllables of Velvet— Sentences of Plush, Depths of Ruby, undrained, Hid, Lip, for Thee— Play it were a Humming Bird— And just sipped—me—’
From reading the script and her writings, the Dickinson composers explain how she appears ahead of her time in her writing; “she seemed so contemporary in the way she thought. We realised that the way people think and the thoughts that people have aren’t set by time, she was probably having a lot of the same emotional thoughts that we are now, so what would she be listening to if she lived now?” Approaching the Emily Dickinson story in a unique, intentionally unconventional way, they wanted to represent the sense of Emily Dickinson’s writing existing outside of the confines of her time. They explain that three bands in particular influenced the opening titles of the show - “Phoenix, Missy Elliot and The Prodigy because all of those artists represent a fresh take on their genres and a kind of rebellious streak that we
thought that Emily would relate to in her late teens…I’m sure she would have been listening to them at the time too!”
After the show aired, Emily Dickinson started trending on Amazon because so many young people were buying books of her writings. As the composers mention, with each episode being focused on one of her poems, the audience comes away at the very least with a new Emily Dickinson poem in their consciousness and at most an understanding of the cyclic nature of life, an awareness of current societal issues and an opportunity to see themselves represented in art.
The Church / Sacred / Spirituality / Death
Inextricably entangled with the sense of ‘immortality’ and the concept of eternity in Emily’s writing is the reference to the sacred - to spirituality and to the fascination with life and death. It seems that she finds the sacred not in the confines of a church or the religious trappings Puritan tradition but in her relationships, loves and the natural world.
She frequently uses spiritual terminology in her poetry - and in some cases, to express her feelings to Sue. A sapphic relationship between the two could be inferred from her letters and the sense of an internal struggle when contemplating a divine consequence of their love;
//‘Sometimes when I do feel so, I think it may be wrong, and that God will punish me by taking you away.’
//…so hard to "deny thyself, and take up thy cross, and follow me --" give me strength,
In fact, Emily’s writing of the language of love and spirituality is intertwined. She writes to Sue, ‘Shall I indeed behold you, not “darkly, but face to face” or am I fancying so, and dreaming blessed dreams from which the day will wake me?’ including a direct biblical reference.
The song 'Ivy' from Taylor Swift’s recent album, ‘Evermore’ seems to also build its narrative around this connection. A popular fan-theory suggests that the song was inspired by the relationship between Emily and Sue. This theory was seemingly strengthened when Taylor Swift allowed its use following a love scene between Emily and Sue in ‘Dickinson’. Swift writes about an extra-marital relationship, ‘I'd live and die for moments that we stole, On begged and borrowed time,’ a spirit level connection, ‘How's one to know? I'd meet you where the spirit meets the bones’ and a relationship that engenders its own spiritual connection, ‘In a faith-forgotten land.’
Of the potential tumult in her feelings for Sue, Swift’s lyrics close with a powerful statement, ‘So yeah, it's a war, It’s the goddamn fight of my life, And you started it, You started it.’
On Her Continuing Influence
Writers have always been intrigued by the depth of female relationships and the intimacy of human connection that can be found in people regardless of time and location. Emily Dickinson is certainly someone whose writing continues to forge deep, emotional connection to generations of readers. It seems that in searching for a musical connection and inspiration found from her work, there is also human connection to be found. Those who have discovered her work - and are continuing to discover her work - have a profound, creative response to her words and a resultant desire to create.
Since working on ‘Dickinson', composer Drum&Lace created a 15 minute piece, ‘Further’ based on ‘Further in summer than the birds’ - “that describes the dawn to dusk life of a bird inspired by her poem and that’s how she’s more directly influenced me.” And for co-composer Ian Hultquist, “for me it really taught me a new way of storytelling with music and I feel like it’s taught me to look a film a little differently than I was before. It’s really helped me find the true meaning in stuff which definitely influences what we need to write musically. Scoring can easily be very surface level and I think after working on this show I’m always trying to find the deeper meaning now.”
After Emily’s death in 1886, Sue wrote her obituary, ‘Morns like these, we parted; Noons like these, she rose; Fluttering first, then firmer, To her fair repose.’ Sue was given the role of dressing Emily’s body and laid violets at her neck, perhaps in an unspoken reference to Emily’s words, ‘Still in her Eye, The Violets lie, Mouldered this many May,’ and an enduring connection, transcending the bounds of life and death, ‘I spilt the dew - But took the morn, - I chose this single star - From out the wide night's numbers’ - Emily - ‘forevermore!’
Whatever you understand the nature of Emily Dickinson and Sue Huntington Dickinson’s relationship to be, the depth of their emotional connection is evident. The work that this relationship inspired and facilitated is still a source of inspiration for composers, artists, and filmmakers in their own creative lives today. Through the timeless quality of her writing and her innate understanding of the human condition she remains a relevant, contemporary presence in music, art and popular culture.
Maybe if Emily Dickinson was writing today, if not a poet, she would be one of our greatest lyricists. Emily often references music in her letters and poems;
In ‘One sister have I in our house,’ - the poem that inspired the title of this article - although Dickinson speaks directly to Sue, the words could equally be addressed to Emily herself as she was just that - ‘herself to her a music’ - both in life and legacy. Forevermore.
Laura Iredale is a freelance film and media composer, score engineer and sound editor. She has an eclectic background in music; from traditional orchestral scoring to creative production techniques. Since graduating from an Advanced Diploma in Sound Engineering and Music Production at Abbey Road Institute, London, she has worked as a technician at Abbey Road Institute and a runner at Angel Studios - run and managed by Abbey Road. She loves telling stories through contemporary scoring, creative sound design and impactful mixing and production. Her professional credits include, sound effects editor on The Outlaws (BBC One) and sound design on JK Rowling audiobook ‘The Christmas Pig’ (Audible). Laura has been fortunate to work with a range of clients with different needs, from podcast audio work to orchestral scores and sound for film and TV.
If you have the time, please take the opportunity to read and listen to the works referenced in this article. May they inspire you to create:
- //Rhian Samuel’s; ‘Lovesongs and Observations’ https://britishmusiccollection.org.uk/score/lovesongs-and-observations
- //Julian Philips; 'There is a morn by men unseen’ https://britishmusiccollection.org.uk/score/there-morn-men-unseen
- //Drum and Lace (Sofia Hultquist) and Ian Hultquist’s ‘Dickinson’ score, including;
‘I am a poet’
‘This was a poet’
‘This tiny bed’
‘Life stood a loaded gun’
‘Meet me in the Orchard’
‘Split the Lark’ feat. Ella Hunt
- Available on all streaming platforms
//Drum and Lace’s;‘Further’ - Available on all streaming platforms
//Taylor Swift’s; ‘Ivy’- Available on all streaming platforms
- Emily Dickinson’s Letters and Poems;
‘One sister have I in our house’
‘These are the days when birds come back’
‘Because I could not stop for death’
‘My river runs to thee’
‘There is a morn by men unseen’
‘Musicians wrestle everywhere’
‘All the letters I can write’
‘The Moon is distant from the Sea’
‘Further in summer than the birds’
- //Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson's Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson (Paris Press) by Emily Dickinson (Author), Ellen Louise Hart (Editor), Martha Nell Smith (Editor)
- //Figuring – 30 Jan. 2020 by Maria Popova (Author)