Setting the Text: From Poetry to Song, Copland Does it All!

In my third year as a voice student, I’ve come across some very interesting pieces. One of the current songs I’m working on is Heart We Will Forget Him, by Aaron Copland. I love his music because it really incorporates a lot of classical, jazz, and folk all in one, unique sound.

“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 my thoughts may dim, Haste, lest while you’re lagging, I may remember him” -Emily Dickinson

This piece is part of a collection Copland composed from 12 poems by Emily Dickinson that he beautifully set to music. From the work I’ve done on Copland pieces, I can definitively say that Copland perfectly displays the textual meaning behind the song.

aaron copland

When I first received this song, I thought, ” Great, another one of those 20th century weird tonality pieces and will be hard to get in my voice.” However, I brought it to a coach, and really began to understand the meaning behind the song.  I finally had some context to this song. When the song starts out saying “Heart, we will forget him,” I realized that it was a self narrative. She’s ( the singer) talking to her own heart. The poem is an entire conversation of trying to get her heart to forget someone she once loved. It really made me feel sympathetic once I had a full understanding. This gave so much context to Copland’s musical setting of the piece. He has a lot of speeding up and slowing down in the tempo. I think the intention behind this is the narrator trying to have certainty in wanting to forget about her lover. Copland’s piece really makes it so that the important words are stressed throughout. My favorite line of the piece is “Haste, lest while you’re lagging, I will remember him.” I saw this as the narrator trying to say that her heart better hurry up and help her forget, yet she’s already has started to remember. He illustrates the words by speeding up the word “haste” and slowing down “lagging.” With the bigger ritardando on “him,” I think Copland perfectly sets the tone of the narrators reluctant, sweet remembrance.

Another note in this piece is how there is a very “ambiguous” key signature. It seems to mostly be in E flat major, but with many added sharps and flats throughout the song, it leaves a little bit of free-ness and spontaneity. I think this is also by design. By Copland having a slight step into the realm of atonality, it makes the piece more conversation-like. He also does this by not having too much going on within the rythmn of the piece. It leads to seeing an form of art within words that makes the listener feel the emotions of the text.

 “I followed the natural inflection of the words of the poems, particularly when they were conversational. There is a certain amount of what is called ‘word-painting’–an occasional bird-call, flutterings, and grace notes in the introduction to the first song ‘Nature, the Gentlest Mother,’ the bugle-like melody for the voice in ‘There Came a Wind Like a Bugle,’ and so forth.” Aaron Copland on the compostion of Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson

I think the Aaron Copland’s descriction of his ‘word painting’ is really important in understanding the songs meaning. This is an incredibly useful tool in composition. What if more songs used this method? Don’t you think more songs would be more lively?