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William Cole’s January 2011 essay on ‘I Died for Beauty’

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.

William Cole January 2011