Songs and Letters of Emily Dickinson

Alyssa Wills was recently seen in a program of songs and letters of Emily Dickinson through Pasadena's Boston Court Emerging Artist Recital Series. With the guidance of pianist Mark Robson and Boston Court's Musical Director Mark Saltzman, Miss Wills created a theatrical experience that was part recital, part staged one-woman play, combining the art songs of various American composers, such as Aaron Copland, Andre Previn, Libby Larsen,Lori Laitman, and more, with spoken excerpts from Emily Dickinson's letters and William Luce's play, "The Belle of Amherst."

Program Notes

When presented with the opportunity for this recital, my mind immediately went to Emily Dickinson. Since visiting her home in Amherst a few years ago, I have found her to be an intriguing figure, whose poems are full of possibility. For years, I have been wanting to perform the Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson by Copland, but in my research, I have found an absolute treasure trove of song settings by so many American composers. Her use of imagery and her way of creating a sense of open-ended dialogue with the reader allow for a wide range of interpretation in the musical settings.
In choosing the music and structuring the program, I have tried to offer a glimpse into this poet’s mysterious mind, using some of the main themes found in her poetry. These themes include: self-determination, the excitement of possibility, love and loss, and faith and eternity. Throughout her poetry, her love for the physical sciences and gardening shine through in her use of nature imagery to convey these themes. I have striven to create a comprehensive arc of emotional maturity, beginning with anticipation and excitement for what life holds. While Emily Dickinson is one of history’s most famous recluses, she had a lively and spirited personality and a typical social life, up until the time she decided to close herself off from the world, admitting only a few, fortunate persons into her life. We next move to her romantic experiences and personal heartbreak. There were three main men (all three already married) in her life that she opened her heart up to, mostly through correspondence. Most famously, she wrote a series of intimate and vulnerable letters to a mysterious unnamed “Master” of whom we can only speculate the identity. In the end, all of these relationships remained unfulfilled. She strove for a romantic ideal that could be all-encompassing and could match the depth of passion she had for life, but she was always disappointed in its failure to satiate her spiritually. After her disappointments, she re-established her view of the world and what she believed. Her views on life were strongly influenced by Emerson’s Self Reliance and by Emily Brontë’s poetry, which promoted guidance from an internal moral compass. During a time of strong religious revival in New England, Emily Dickinson struggled with her own feelings on faith and the afterlife. She famously refused to count herself among the “saved,” and, yet, her poetry is suffused with longing for the spiritual and speculation on heaven and eternity. She wanted to find God on her own terms, through beauty and nature, not through the conventions of the town church. Mortality and immortality were present themes throughout her life, particularly because of her experiences with death. Not only did her room overlook a cemetery where she regularly witnessed people mourning their loved ones, but the loss of many childhood friends and family members from an early age and onward also made death and the afterlife recurring themes in her writing. In the end, she could only look back on her life, as any of us can, pondering, “how much, how little is within our power.”