"Pain has an element of blank" - a collection of Emily Dickinson songs (live)

by Nick Benavides



Performed by:

Danielle Reutter-Harrah, mezzo-soprano
Katy Luo, piano

Before Emily Dickinson died she instructed her sister, Lavinia, to burn all of her correspondence. Though Lavinia complied, it is significant that Dickinson left no instructions regarding a locked chest that was later found with forty notebooks worth of poems. A highly peculiar woman, Dickinson had a penchant for white clothes, gardens, and privacy. She of course wrote hundreds of poems, yet published only about eleven during her lifetime. Of all the poems you are hearing today, only two were published before she died, though heavily edited to comply with the conventions of the time. These poems are taken from the book, Final Harvest, Emily Dickinson's Poems, by Thomas H. Johnson. Many of the poems that are available on the internet are either incorrect, disregard her unique punctuation, or have been heavily edited.

This cycle follows a character from the ecstasy of sexual passion (“Wild Nights!”) through a falling out (“Heart, we will forget him!”), a mental breakdown (“I felt a funeral in my brain”), and finally a recovery and renewed interest in life through nature (“I taste a liquor never brewed”). Some poems reference the character's experiences, and some are didactic interludes, commenting on the macro human situation. It is unknown if Dickinson ever had a sexual relationship with anybody. There are scholarly theories ranging from her love for the minister Charles Wadsworth to rumors of her unrequited love for her brother Austin's wife, Susan Gilbert. We will likely never know who she loved most deeply, nor is it particularly important, as we do know she was capable of deep emotional expression and we have the poems to prove it.

Would she have liked my settings of her poems, or even Aaron Copland's (with whom I share two settings), for that matter? Dickinson was certainly a fan of music, and received a beautiful piano in 1845 which you can see should you visit Houghton Library at Harvard. However, she was a harsh critic of public displays, as seen in “I'm Nobody!”

I find these poems so clearly describe emotions we all experience, that it is my pleasure to share them with you. These songs were written specifically for and with the mezzo-soprano Danielle Reutter-Harrah, who has provided endless feedback and assistance, and to whom I am grateful.


released March 6, 2013

Danielle Reutter-Harrah, mezzo-soprano
Katy Luo, piano

Recorded live by Nick Benavides at the Hot Air Music Festival (www.hotairmusicfestival.com) at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music on March 3rd, 2013.


all rights reserved


Track Name: It's such a little thing to weep
It's such a little thing to weep —
So short a thing to sigh —
And yet — by Trades — the size of these
We men and women die!
Track Name: Wild nights!
Wild nights — Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile — the Winds —
To a Heart in port —
Done with the Compass —
Done with the Chart!

Rowing in Eden —
Ah, the Sea!
Might I but moor — Tonight —
In Thee!
Track Name: "Faith" is a fine invention
“Faith” is a fine invention
When Gentlemen can see —
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency.
Track Name: Heart! We will forget him!
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 may straight begin!
Haste! lest while you’re lagging
I remember him!
Track Name: Success is counted sweetest
Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne'er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.

Not one of all the purple Host
Who took the Flag today
Can tell the definition
So clear of Victory

As he defeated — dying —
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear!
Track Name: I felt a funeral in my brain
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading — treading — till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through —

And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum —
Kept beating — beating — till I thought
My Mind was going numb —

And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then space — began to toll,

As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race
Wrecked, solitary, here —

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down —
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And finished knowing — then —
Track Name: I'm Nobody!
I'm Nobody! Who are you?
Are you — Nobody — Too?
Then there's a pair of us?
Don't tell! they'd advertise — you know!

How dreary — to be — Somebody!
How public — like a Frog —
To tell one's name — the livelong June —
To an admiring Bog!
Track Name: "Hope" is the thing with feathers
“Hope” is the thing with feathers —
That perches in the soul —
And sings the tune without the words —
And never stops — at all —

And sweetest — in the Gale — is heard —
And sore must be the storm —
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm —

I've heard it in the chillest land —
And on the strangest Sea —
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb — of Me.
Track Name: I taste a liquor never brewed
I taste a liquor never brewed —
From Tankards scooped in Pearl —
Not all the Vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an Alcohol!

Inebriate of Air — am I —
And Debauchee of Dew —
Reeling — thro endless summer days —
From inns of Molten Blue —

When “Landlords” turn the drunken Bee
Out of the Foxglove's door —
When Butterflies — renounce their “drams”—
I shall but drink the more!

Till Seraphs swing their snowy Hats —
And Saints — to windows run —
To see the little Tippler
Leaning against the — sun!

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