A Light exists in Spring
A Light exists in Spring
Not present on the Year
At any other period—
When March is scarcely here
A Color stands abroad
On Solitary Fields
That Science cannot overtake
But Human Nature feels.
It waits upon the Lawn,
It shows the furthest Tree
Upon the furthest Slope you know
It almost speaks to you.
Then as Horizons step
Or Noons report away
Without the Formula of sound
It passes and we stay—
A quality of loss
Affecting our Content
As Trade had suddenly encroached
Upon a Sacrament.
On the surface, “A Light exists in Spring” captures Emily Dickinson’s feelings during an ephemeral experience of Nature—that particular light that is unique to early Spring. But there is a wonderful depth in her writing, including insights about how Nature moves us to feel, the relationship between contentment and Nature, and our experience of the passing of the intangible.
My SATB choral setting of the poem uses a major second (a whole step) to represent the “Light”—such harmonies sound “bright” to our ears. The opening of the piece is filled with this color, and the music at “A Color stands abroad” has harmonies rich with major seconds. Interestingly, resolving this harmonic interval as a suspension produces a particular emotional response—I use this to evoke the line “But Human Nature feels” throughout the entire piece, as a major theme of the poem is our emotional response to the Light and how it colors everything we experience. So too, these suspensions color the music… until “it passes and we stay”.
Dickinson hints, though, that the experience stays with us even through its loss—it is felt as an absence, affecting us yet again. Being an optimist, however, I suggest that this loss—the mundane encroaching on the sacred—does not completely prevail: our memory of those mysteries persists. Thus, my setting ends with a persistent hint of the Light—our memory of its impact on us.
Notes on the Recording
The above recording was performed by the Fraley Music Singers, a virtual choir of professional singers: Miranda Antoinette Troutt (soprano, alto), Rebecca Gilmore (soprano), Barb Fraley (alto), Chris Fraley (tenor, bass), Kevin Wyatt-Stone (bass, tenor). This recording premiered on Moveable Do a podcast by Steve Danielson, where you can learn more about this piece and Fraley’s music.
One very interesting aspect of this particular recording is that the piece is sung in Just Intonation. That is, all of the pitches are tuned so that major thirds are perfectly harmonically in tune (i.e. are “sweet”), perfect fifths are precisely in tune, and so-on. At first blush, this recording sounds not much different than any other good choral performance, as singers are quite adept at tuning chords on-the-fly.
But where Just Intonation really shines in this piece is measures 48 through 55, which temporarily modulate into more distant dominant harmonies. This passage sparkles in a way that Equal Temperament and even “sweet” choir tuning does not, as these pitches are several cents sharp of what is normally heard. However, this “sharp tuning” isn’t actually out-of-tune at all—in fact, this tuning directly follows from the chord progressions when everything is sung perfectly in tune!
All tempos are approximate.
If necessary, the half note + quarter note triplet rhythms may be simplified to dotted quarter note + eighth note throughout the piece (mm 8, 16, 37, 39, 41, 50, 59-63).
The tenuto marks in measures 27-29 (S), 38 (A), 40 (T), 42 are intended to have a “leaned into” feel. The tenuto marks in measures 27-29 and 42 may include a slight lengthening as well, if desired.
The bass divisi in measure 28 can be simplified to just the G, if necessary.
The sfp marks in measures 34-40 are intended to be a bell-like effect and should be light (rather than a heavy-handed accent).
There is an optional soprano solo at the end of measure 43 through 47. When a soloist is used, the passage may be sung freely, with the tutti joining on “you” (downbeat of measure 46). Note the choir will have to be very careful not to accent “you”.
When no solo is desired, either the entire soprano section or any fraction thereof may sing the stem up notes, with the entire section joining at “you”, being careful not to accent the word.
“Oo” (mm 48-54) is the vowel notated in IPA as [u]: a pure, non-diphthong, Italian “u”.
Be careful not to place any accent on the “la” syllable of “Formula” in measure 53.
When a soloist is used, the optional soprano solo in measures 67 (beat 3) – 71 may be sung freely.
The tenor and bass lines in measures 69 through 80 is best sung by an even division of voices: half the tenors and basses on the “tenor” line, and half the tenors and basses on the “bass” line.
The duration of measure 79 may be rendered shorter than notated—please feel free to intuit the right duration for your performance.