I Died for Beauty is a meditation on a question that composers often ask themselves – what is beautiful? That same question was evidently foremost in the creative mind of American poet Emily Dickinson, who in her poetry offers a series of definitions for what we find beautiful. I became interested in the possibility of a piece structured around these definitions, which would consider each in turn before suggesting some kind of final answer to that ever-present question.
While the piece is scored for choir and orchestra, it is the orchestra that acts as principal protagonist. In a series of clearly defined sections, becoming ever faster and more active, we hear a series of musical images echoing Dickinson’s definitions. The music eventually condenses in on itself, and implodes onto a single note, leaving room for the choir to make their only utterance – a quiet, gentle setting of Dickinson’s ‘I Died for Beauty’, which to me presents her most convincing definition of beauty.
As if humbled by the calm and gravitas of the choir, the orchestra begins a recapitulation of the first half of the piece, re-presenting the different kinds of music in order. But there is a key difference – whereas in the first half, the music underwent a constant series of compressions, accompanied by constant changes of pulse, here the pulse is regular, and the musical sections, rather than becoming shorter and shorter, become increasingly longer, giving a feeling of constant expansion, towards a peaceful close.
It was that the second half of the work was something more than a simple recapitulation of the first. I found a potential solution in a discussion of beauty from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov – ‘here, all contradictions live together’. This clearly suggested the key to the second half of the work: whereas in the first half each strand of music is presented in series, the strands in the second half are in parallel. Each continues when another enters, so that by the closing bars, all of the musical ideas presented in the piece, all the contradicting definitions of beauty, ‘live together’.
Here, perhaps, is an answer to the question that Dickinson struggled with – rather than searching for a single definition, we should be content with contradictory ideas of beauty, accepting each as valid, in the same way that each person has their own personal idea of beauty. A listener may not agree with some of the definitions of beauty as suggested in this piece (or in fact any of them!), but hopefully they might be inspired to keep reconsidering, as Dickinson did, their own answer to that key question.
This essay was written by Janette Lloyd in October 2011.
Emily aged 17
Emily Dickinson was born into an important family in the small New England town of Amherst which was a hard working and puritanical community. However Amherst College, founded by her grandfather, gave it an intellectual vibrancy which tempered the importance of restraint and hard work. Her father was a lawyer and she was especially close to her younger sister Lavinia and later to Susan, her sister in law. She attended school and was a bright pupil, well read and with many friends. She was much influenced by the hymns and the Biblical language used in church despite never being a full member.
But by the time she left school at 18 she had already seen the death of some close contemporaries which had a profound effect on her. Benjamin Newton, a young legal pupil of her father’s, was also a good friend and was influential in her choice of literature. When he died of TB not long afterwards it was a hard blow. In 1850 her mother was seriously ill. She remained a bedridden invalid for many years after. Emily elected to stay in the house to look after her and it is thought that this was the beginning of her increasing reluctance to go out. By the age of 30, having always been regarded as rather nervous and delicate, she was becoming a recluse. Various maladies such as agoraphobia and even epilepsy have been suggested as the cause. But what is incontrovertible is that her immensely dramatic inner life was played out against a domestic round of cooking, gardening and botany.
The Dickinson family in 1840, Emily aged 10
There are few images of her. A family portrait made when she was about ten years old shows her striking colouring. The early photograph of her at 17 is of a serious and thoughtful young woman. In her early thirties she described herself thus: ‘I am small, like the wren, and my hair is bold, like the chestnut bur, and my eyes like the sherry in the glass that the guest leaves."’
She wrote from an early age. Her surviving letters to friends show her to be quick minded and witty. In great contrast her poetry is both universal in its coverage of all human nature but it is quite spare and almost mystical in form. She flouted the contemporary conventions of spelling and of rhyme which meant that it was only in the mid twentieth century that she was truly appreciated. Writing to Thomas Higginson, her principal mentor from her early 30s to her death, she comments on her ideas :’there seems a spectral power in thought that walks alone’ and feels herself different from her neighbours: ’insanity to the sane seems so unnecessary.’
While she was still able to travel, she heard the Reverend Charles Wadsworth preach once in Philadelphia. He was 40 and married. She was in her mid 20s. Nothing of a romantic nature seems to have happened; indeed they met but twice in her life as he moved to San Francisco when she was 32. He did not return until 20 years later. For her it was however a profound encounter. In the intervening time many letters must have passed between them but his did not survive. He was far more able to support her and encourage her writing than was Thomas Higginson who although he was a writer was lacking the necessary intellectual sympathy and understanding.
Whatever happened in reality between her and the men who influenced her there seems to have been an outpouring of poems in her mid thirties. She wrote 366 poems in 1862 alone. Many of these are of a passionate nature representing what James Reeves (1959) has called ’love frozen by the supreme act of renunciation in a moment of ecstasy’. The mystery lies in precisely what it was that she was renouncing. The paradox is that she was increasingly timid and self effacing in person but bold in her writing. Allen Tate (1948) comments that she ‘mastered life by rejecting it’ and that she should not be the object of our pity since she was a ‘wholly dedicated and fulfilled poet’. In many of her works it is possible to trace the idea of a figure who has been dubbed the mysterious ‘Master'. She left several letters addressed to him. It has been suggested that this could be an unattainable and composite being, possibly representing a kind of Christian Muse. It is debateable whether or not any of the men whom she knew could be directly related to this figure.
In her late thirties her reclusive nature intensified. She was rarely seen outside. She preferred to speak to callers from the other side of a door rather than face to face. She took to dressing in white. She did however keep up her correspondence and would send small verses and bunches of flowers to visitors.
In the ensuing years there were many sad events: the deaths of her father, whom she greatly loved, of her mother of whom she became fond only after she became dependent after a stroke and of her favourite nephew, of typhoid. In 1877 she became friendly with Otis Lord, a widower and retired judge. They corresponded every week and shared the same literary interests. In the early 1880s, his death and that of Charles Wadsworth coupled with her brother’s marital infidelity gave her great unhappiness: ‘The Dyings have been too deep for me, and before I could raise my Heart from one, another has come’.
In the summer of 1885 she herself fainted while cooking in the kitchen. She was unconscious for several hours and her health steadily deteriorated after that. By November she was giving her brother great cause for concern. Still unwell in the following spring, she wrote what is believed to be her last brief letter, to her cousins: "Little Cousins, Called Back. Emily". She died on 15th May 1886. The cause of death was given as Bright’s Disease, now recognised as kidney failure.
Emily aged 20
Very few of her poems were published during her lifetime. Her sister Lavinia had promised to burn all her papers after her death but had not realised that among them were nearly eighteen hundred poems. In 1890 a first volume of poems came out but it was not until the mid twentieth century that an unedited collection was published.
I died for beauty, but was scarceAdjusted in the tomb,When one who died for truth was lainIn an adjoining room. He questioned softly why I failed?"For beauty," I replied."And I for truth - the two are one;We brethren are," he said. And so, as kinsmen met a-night,We talked between the rooms,Until the moss had reached our lips,And covered up our names.This essay was written by Janette Lloyd in October 2011
Many of Emily Dickinson’s works attempt to resolve very personal problems and were written in a heightened emotional state. Her poetry deals not only with the destructive forces of nature which lead to death, fear and the loss of self, but also with its converse; sensibility and human ecstasy. In some poems she shows a calm and civilised acceptance of death. She was also intensely aware of life, reacting to forces such as mountains, the sea, the night, flowers and thunderstorms with a mystical but child-like simplicity. At the same time her intellectual perception of these forces also reveals the beauty of their elemental form.
In I Died for Beauty she seemingly makes reference to the final stanza of John Keats’ 1812 Ode on a Grecian Urn—‘Beauty is truth, truth, beauty’. Andrew Motion (1997) sees this poem as an ‘inquiry into the function of art and of its relation to life.’ Motion comments that this ‘reminds us that art is simultaneously like life and unlike it. .Thus, Keats the poet, in loving beauty and truth..... must remain faithful to the world of experience rather than opt for a world of substitutes and abstractions.’
In contrast, there is a transcendent awareness of immortality in Emily Dickinson’s verses. The temporal seems less important than the life of the mind and spirit. Living confined, by choice, her room becomes her near tomb. Her art is at once obscure and eternal; she herself is of far less consequence. The consolation which she finds is what improves life.
Here she speaks of the devotion of her spirit to her art; that which is beautiful. The room in which she lies can be paralleled by her self-sacrifice for art – a living death. Her relationship with the mysterious ‘master’ figure is alluded to here. ’He’ is the one who dies for Truth. Lying in an adjacent grave, he manifests this other aspect of her art. Beauty and Truth together are able to transcend life’s pain and suffering. The encroaching moss speaks of the obscurity in which she led her life. It also alludes to the clandestine identity of her ‘master’ figure in this haunting and intriguing poem
A list of our past concerts in reverse date order going back to March 1976.
Click on the concert title or 'Read more' to show further details. All concert entries show the works performed and the performers. The more recent concerts can also have reviews, photographs and concert programmes.