The two short Emily Dickinson settings that open and close this programme of premiere recordings were commissioned by Conspirare and Craig Hella Johnson for this recording. They frame the programme rather like a compositional ‘inhalation’ and ‘exhalation’, a crescendo and decrescendo or a prelude and postlude. Densely textured, the music aims to hint at the myriad readings Dickinson’s surface-simple poetry yields in its many readers. Each setting uses a solo soprano and tenor, their voices referencing the polarities inherent in each poem (‘sun’ and ‘shade’; ‘love’ and ‘hate’).
The Ecstasies Above takes for its title a phrase found in the lyric poem, Israfel, by Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), which was first published in 1831 in The Southern Messenger. The poem is set in its entirety, with the exception of one stanza. Through his creative description of the angel, Israfel, and the heavens, Poe creates a virtuous image of the supernatural. Poe compares this heavenly vision to the harsh reality of human existence. Whilst the beauty of Israfel’s voice and lyre can silence even the moon and the stars in the heavens, Poe suggests that if Israfel were placed in an earthly environment, he would not sing with such zest. From the Koranic source of the name for the protagonist, the story is refashioned by Poe into an homage of ecumenicity to an all-encompassing angel of music.
Musically the score makes much use of textural variation between the three groups (full chorus, solo octet and string quartet). The tug of war between material that is almost childlike in its playfulness and sections that seem more sombre reflect my own thoughts on Poe’s oeuvre. As a European transplanted to North America, I am intrigued by the seeming disparity between the quasi-adulation of Poe’s poetry in Europe and the much cooler reaction he has always encountered in his native environs.