The Musical Life of Emily Dickinson | The East Hampton Star

“Emily Dickinson’s Music Book and the Musical Life of an American Poet”
George Boziwick
University of Massachusetts Press, $29.95

In the United States and Europe of the mid-19th century, it was considered appropriate and refined social decorum for young middle- and upper-class women to take piano and voice lessons, make music in the living room and going to concerts. The production and marketing of printed music was making great strides, and so collecting a fair amount of sheet music also became an important part of the custom. At the end of their musical studies, it became a tradition to have students’ favorite scores bound in decorative volumes.

Music played an important role in the formative years of iconic American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), and she was an accomplished pianist long before she began writing poetry. Her bound volume of music, dating from about 1851 or 1852, is housed in the Houghton Library of Harvard University, and this curated collection is the subject of Emily Dickinson’s Music Book and Musical Life of ‘a recently published American poet by George Boziwick. Mr. Boziwick takes these 107 pieces of music for piano and voice as focal points to examine Dickinson’s life, his musical and poetic development and their interrelationships, as well as social, political, economic and cultural eras.

Mr. Boziwick is the retired head of the New York Public Library’s Music Division for the Performing Arts; he has written articles on various musical subjects, including some on Emily Dickinson, in various books and journals. He has also composed a good number of works for various ensembles, some of which are settings of Dickinson poems, and as an instrumentalist with his Red Skies Music Ensemble he has presented a variety of programs centered on Dickinson and his life. He therefore knows the subject of this book well.

“The Music Book of Emily Dickinson” is not just for those with a special interest in the poet, but has a wider appeal, as it is filled with pleasant and descriptive excursions and vignettes about the house. , the living room and family life of the Dickinsons, the social customs of the time, the concert scene and touring artists, composers, publishing business, politics and the years leading up to and during the civil war. All accompanied by articles from contemporary newspapers and journals, often poetic correspondence in itself, and of course excerpts from his poetry.

For example, her love of gardens and nature relates to “The Tulip Waltz” and “The Willow Waltz” in the collection; “Yankee Doodle” and “Oh Give Me a Home if in Foreign Land” discuss the political and social issues of the time. His father, Edward Dickinson, had an interest and association with the militias, as evidenced by “The Locomotive Quickstep”. (He was a well-known lawyer who was elected to a term in the United States Congress as a member of the Whig Party of Amherst, Mass.)

This circa 1847 daguerreotype is the only authenticated photograph of Emily Dickinson. Amherst College Archives and Special Collections

Mr Boziwick says that in Dickinson’s time it was common for people to be quite familiar with the texts of scripture and hymns, to the point of quoting them in conversation and writing letters. He shows how his deep familiarity with the New England Christian hymn tradition influenced his meter, imagery, and tropes.

A charming account of correspondence describes an evening with Dickinson improvising at the piano this way: “Rare hours, full of gaiety, brilliant wit, and inexhaustible laughter, Emily … often at the piano playing strange and beautiful melodies, all inspiration, oh! She was a choice spirit! Her fascination with Swedish soprano Jenny Lind and pianist Anton Rubinstein is recounted. A quoted poem was written around the time she was attending concerts of these two performers, in which she joins the spectators.

The show is not the show
But those who go

Menagerie of mine
my neighbor be

just joy
Both went to see

We learn that Dickinson visited the homes of black and Irish workmen, and she preferred the fiddle tunes, jigs, and reels she heard from them, which were less common in other distinguished music books . Mr. Boziwick deals sensitively and insightfully with the difficult and emotionally charged issue of the blackface minstrel repertoire.

Although much has been written about the poetess, “Emily Dickinson’s Music Book” would be the first comprehensive examination of her daily musical life, and a highlight of the volume shows how Dickinson viewed a career as a performing musician, and her abandonment of that idea came about at the same time that his poetry writing began in earnest. Mr. Boziwick convincingly demonstrates how the many layers of music in his life influenced his poetry. He draws parallels between Dickinson and the composer Charles Ives, though not contemporary, in their musical borrowings, their “dissonance of rhythmic punctuation, with glimmers of American modernism”, and their “blend of the past with something surprisingly new”. .”

For scholars, there are approximately 40 pages of notes, and an appendix lists detailed information for each piece in Dickinson’s music book. There are also appendices online that have more background, title or first page images, and some audio examples.

“Emily Dickinson’s Music Book and the Musical Life of an American Poet” makes a significant contribution to understanding her life, creativity and musical milieu. Mr. Boziwick has studied the material in detail, but at around 170 pages it is easy reading and recommended as an engaging and satisfying volume for both the Emily Dickinson enthusiast and the general reader.


Thomas Bohlert was the Music Director of East Hampton Presbyterian Church from 2000 to 2016. He lives in Springs.

George Boziwick lives in Sag Harbor. More information about him, his work and his ensemble can be found at georgeboziwick.com.