Tag Archives: Acappella Friday

A cappella Friday: Bars and Feathers

em>Acappella music (without instrumental accompaniment) is particularly enjoyable for me to listen to. As a poet (and an avocational musician), I am drawn to the similarities that poems and acappella music have. Lyrical phrasing, meter, rhyming, assonance, and consonance mean so much to acappella music, because it relies so heavily on the human vocal element.

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It has been a while since I did one of these.

Partly because I hadn’t heard any new inspiring songs recently, neither was I particularly inspired to seek out any songs.

Until today.

I was wondering whether anyone had done an arrangement of Emily Dickinson poems for acappella chorus. Google. What a time waster saver. I found quite a few. And it should come as no surprise, as Ms. Dickinson is arguably the most prolific of American Poets and one of the more emotive poets (and also – to her credit – concise). These characteristics make her writing great fodder for choral literature.

The first one I noticed (and I think that I’ve sung it once) was Let down the Bars, O Death, composed by Samuel Barber, who was responsible for another haunting poem/choral selection that I discussed a while back, Louise Bogan’s To Be Sung on the Water. He wrote this piece during the same summer (1936)** as the string quartet that would eventually become Adagio for Strings.

Let down the Bars, O Death*
Emily Dickinson
Music by Samuel Barber

Let down the Bars, O Death —
The tired Flocks come in
Whose bleating ceases to repeat
Whose wandering is done —

Thine is the stillest night
Thine the securest Fold
Too near Thou art for seeking Thee
Too tender, to be told.

This setting is a simple chorale, with none of Barber’s usual complex counterpoint, but it is effective  at letting Dickinson’s text carry  the load.  Given her gift for emotionally charging phrases, it definitely works with his gift for musical conflict and resolution.  The opening of the piece sounds like a call, an invocation that begins hushed, and crescendos to the conclusion, where the opening lines are repeated/declared with emphasis.

The next piece was a bit of a surprise.  I have a soft spot for poetry that is light and hopeful (something that is not necessarily plentiful in Dickinson’s canon of writing), so when I happened upon “Hope” is the thing with feathers, I was hooked.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers*

Emily Dickinson
Music by Kenny Potter

“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.

There are several different choral arrangements of this poem, but in my opinion, none of them capture the intention of the words like this arrangement by Dr. Kenny Potter of Wingate University. Recently composed in 2011***, this piece allows the underlying message to drive the song, with the opening lines carried through as heartbeat. A carefree melody, which breaks slightly to express the seriousness of the last line (much like Barber in the effective use of chorale style), but then returns to the patter of the “thing with feathers, and sings the tune without the words – and never stops – at all” fading to the end.

I believe he created an earworm.

The video I selected is a combined performance of several pieces. The first one is “Hope” is the thing with feathers. Have a listen. You will be humming this the next day.


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*The Poems of Emily Dickinson Edited by R. W. Franklin (Harvard University Press, 1999)
**G. Schirmer, Octavo 8907
***Published by Santa Barbara Music Publishing (SB.SBMP-1017) 2011

Acappella Friday: Winding up Winter

A cappella music (without instrumental accompaniment) is particularly enjoyable for me to listen to. As a poet (and an avocational musician), I am drawn to the similarities that poems and a cappella music have. Lyrical phrasing, meter, rhyming, and onomatopoeia mean so much to a cappella music, because it relies so heavily on the human vocal element.

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So…winter is in full force, all wound up, blustery, snowy, icy, and *cold*.

A blogging friend posted Shakespeare’s “Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind” in her regular Wednesday poetry feature and it jogged a memory. A memory of a song that I couldn’t get out of my head once I read the poem.

Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind
(William Shakespeare)

Blow, blow, thou winter wind,
Thou art not so unkind
As man’s ingratitude;
Thy tooth is not so keen,
Because thou art not seen,
Although thy breath be rude.
Heigh-ho! sing, heigh-ho! unto the green holly:
Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly:
Then, heigh-ho, the holly!
This life is most jolly.

Freeze, freeze, thou bitter sky,
That dost not bite so nigh
As benefits forgot:
Though thou the waters warp,
Thy sting is not so sharp
As friend remembered not.
Heigh-ho! sing, heigh-ho! unto the green holly:
Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly:
Then, heigh-ho, the holly!
This life is most jolly.

I’ve always interpreted this as Shakespeare writing about the nasty part of human relationships being worse than the bitterness of winter. Juxtaposed bleakness with heigh-ho and the holly seems a little tongue in cheek, or is it just him saying “I get it, I can’t depend on most people, but I’ll be jolly anyway.”

Anyway, the song…Again, this is not acapella, and I may have to rename this feature…but the inspiration of poetry to write music is undeniable.

John Quilter (1877-1953) was a composer of songs and light orchestral music in England. One of his songs was a setting of Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind, as part of his Three Shakespeare Songs, Op.6. I recall this song from my college days, either during my short experience in voice lessons or perhaps one of my voice major friends doing this on a recital. But the melody immediately came to mind when I read the poem.

Being in a minor key, the inital verse is conveyed brilliantly by the swirling phrasing, and the heigh-ho section is very different…much more hey nonny nonny no (like a madrigal).

The recording I found was of famed English tenor Gervase Elwes (who incidentally, was actor Cary Elwes great-grandfather) performing the song in 1916. Quilter and Elwes collaborated on a number of songs prior to Elwes tragic death in 1921. This is a great performance. And I love the olde English pronunciation of “wind” – Wynd.

I discovered a second setting of this poem, a choral version written by John Rutter. The choral composition is much more haunting and consistent than the art song version. There are no sudden shifts in style (as with the Quilter version), and the accompaniment adds to the bleak winter ambience. It is very beautiful, mysterious and very Rutteresque, if you are familiar with his choral pieces, I think you’ll understand.

I think perhaps the poem may lose some of its intention in this composition by not contrasting more between the heigh-ho/holly and the winter wind, but it is beautifully written.

Acappella Friday: The Jabberwocky

A cappella music (without instrumental accompaniment) is particularly enjoyable for me to listen to. As a poet (and an avocational musician), I am drawn to the similarities that poems and a cappella music have. Lyrical phrasing, meter, rhyming, and onomatopoeia mean so much to a cappella music, because it relies so heavily on the human vocal element.

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OK, so first of all…this setting of Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky is not done acappella. The composer is Sam Pottle (1934-1978). Interestingly, he also wrote many songs used on Sesame Street and cowrote The Muppet Show theme (with Jim Henson).

This song one of the most enjoyable songs I’ve ever performed in a choir…I *chortle* as I think about it. This poem has always held a special place in my brain. The nonsense vocabulary, the heroic details, the wry grin of people who recite it…Lewis Carroll had a tremendous ability to draw pictures with words, some that didn’t even exist prior to him using them. This poem is largely responsible for my foray into poetry. It has inspired some of recent poetry, The chnott and the sarborant and pub song.

So it is not acappella, but it is done with piano accompaniment and toy percussion accent instruments (I think I played the tamborine/rattle when we performed this in 1985-86), and much fun to listen to. The music fits the poem. An interesting point about performance is interpretation. This is true for poetry read as well as sung.

I present two versions from cyberspace. First, a very proper choral performance by the University of Utah Singers – well done (performed with great sarcasm) and a great recording to hear the different lines and harmonies and pay attention to the toy instruments.

Jabberwocky – Utah

And a second performance by the University of Maine Singers (a larger choral group), done with choreography, and some jocularity at the end. The performance revels in silliness….plus the video has the bonus of the Maine Stein Song (don’t know it, never been to Maine). Callooh!! Callay!!

Jabberwocky – Maine

I hope you enjoy it.