EMILY DICKINSON'S MUSIC BOOK AND THE MUSICAL LIFE OF AN AMERICAN POET by George Boziwick, Reviewed by Samantha Landau
 


EMILY DICKINSON'S MUSIC BOOK AND THE MUSICAL LIFE OF AN AMERICAN POET
By George Boziwick
(UMass, 2022) xv + 247 pp.
Reviewed by Samantha Landau on 2022-11-21.

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This book gives Emily Dickinson's musicianship its most in-depth examination to date. While including the musicality of her poetry, Boziwick examines through the lens of her bound music book the cultural and historical contexts, confluences, and influences of her vibrant musical world. According to Boziwick, she was not an avocational pianist who focused solely on becoming a writer, but rather a skilled musician who shifted to writing poetry. In Dickinson's day, Boziwick explains, the lack of "musical distinction between popular and art music" benefitted her as an artist (4-5). Challenging earlier and long-accepted versions of Dickinson's musicianship, he elucidates her musical knowhow and abilities more realistically. In this respect, his monograph builds upon or strongly resonates with scholarship by Caroline Cooley (The Music of Emily Dickinson's Poems and Letters, 2003), Judy Jo Small (Positive as Sound, 2010), Victoria Morgan (Emily Dickinson and Hymn Culture, 2010), Cristanne Miller (Reading in Time, 2012), Sandra Runzo ("Theatricals of the Day", 2019), and Gerard Holmes, and myself (Women's Studies [2021] 50:2), among others.

Boziwick is uniquely qualified to write this book. As the former chief of the Music Division of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, he has organized and participated in a series of performances by the Red Skies Music Ensemble based on the Dickinson music book (2012-2018). By combining performance with historical and cultural detail, he sheds fresh light on the musicality of Dickinson's poems and her interactions with music. While most previous scholarship on Dickinson's musicianship reads it in light of literary studies or literary biography. Boziwick reads it as both an historian and a musicologist, both an archival researcher and a performer.

In explaining how Dickinson the poet co-existed with Dickinson the musician, Boziwick probes mysteries that have troubled Dickinson scholarship for the past several decades: what role did music play in Emily Dickinson's life before she became a poet? Why does Dickinson have such a "musicality of expression" (2) and how did music become such a prominent motif in her poetry?

To answer these questions, Boziwick examines the 107 pieces of sheet music bound within her music book. While these pieces have interested scholars ever since the publication of Carleton Lowenberg's Musicians Wrestle Everywhere (1992), their impact on Dickinson has so far been understudied, mainly because the bound book dates to the first twenty years of Dickinson's life, before she began writing poetry. According to Boziwick, however, music was not only central to her early years but remained important for the rest of her life. Working his way through her music book, therefore, Boziwick sets forth the story behind each song she chose, as well as its background and importance to her and to her life and times. While each chapter is held together by a common theme, this structure lends itself well to detailed anecdotes and shorter sections, which allow the reader to listen to recordings of the music between sections.

While Dickinson's early education in singing and piano-playing is well-trod ground, Boziwick enriches it with historical context. Besides explaining how Dickinson's musical training aligned with that of her contemporaries, he also links her sheet music with several music schools, such as the Cherry Valley Female Academy, the Amenia Seminary, and the Utica Musical Academy. During the early and mid-nineteenth century, the women who attended these schools were taught music and singing by composers such as Jonathan Amos Fowler and William Smith.

Boziwick shows how each piece of music in her book corresponds to Dickinson's letters or events in her milieu. With the help of her brother, father, and sister, Dickinson became an "avid" collector of sheet music (46), and music occupied the center of her social world. To show, for instance, how music enriched particular moments in Dickinson's life, Boziwick explains that both the "Aurora Waltz" and "Sleep is supposed to be" (F35, 1858) recall the visibility of the aurora borealis over Amherst in 1851. Likewise, he adds, the "Tulip Waltz" and "The Tulip" (Poems [1896] 102) spring from Dickinson's love of gardening. Furthermore, Boziwick recounts Dickinson's trip to Philadelphia (the center of the music publishing world during her lifetime), and clarifies the significance of the nine waltzes misattributed to Beethoven that the music book contains.

Dickinson's musical life, we learn, was largely shaped by her father Edward and her brother Austin, who brought her music and inspired her choice of songs to request. Most importantly, her father bought her an 1851 Hallet and Davis square piano, which can now be seen at Harvard's Houghton Library. Since her father lobbied for the railroad to be constructed in Amherst, he also alerted her to songs about the railroad, and numerous quicksteps in the music recall his time in the militia and in politics. In contrast, songs that came to her from Austin are often those he brought back for his sisters to play when he was away from Amherst, usually in Boston, where a more diverse array of sheet music was available for purchase.

Boziwick then shifts the focus from Dickinson's family and friends to the socio-cultural background of some of the political and vernacular songs in the music book. "A number of pieces in Dickinson's music book rally around some of the major and social political issues of the day," Boziwick states, and launches into meticulous explanations of musical connections to Whig politics, Native American genocide and American expansionism, and the Civil War. This information adds greatly to Boziwick's in-depth sketch of Dickinson-the-musician and may be of particular interest to scholars who research popular song, immigration histories, and minstrelsy. These chapters also address the vernacular music of the working class in Dickinson's town, especially African Americans and Irish immigrants, who may have shared their tunes with her. Boziwick also speculates here that vernacular music may have inspired her to improvise. In addition to her formal training, she could employ "the local sounds of traditional music-making to which she would have been exposed" (144).

Chapters ten and eleven focus on the connection between Dickinson and music after poetry became central to her artistic endeavors. Boziwick compares her early poems to "a musical improvisation," which he says had "the building blocks of melodies and harmonies that emerged as early poetic and musical images, themes, and tropes" (145). Tying together source material from the first two chapters, which focused on her youth, he briefly examines the meaning of musical tropes and symbols. Much of the first part of this chapter functions as a review of the literature. However, the second half is of great interest to those who support the theory that Dickinson was a well-trained musician. For instance, she admired Anton Rubinstein, the celebrated Russian pianist, conductor, and composer who toured the U.S. in 1872-73. From letters that mention Rubenstein as well as from poems that might allude to his performances, Boziwick demonstrates that even after ceasing to pursue music, Dickinson still listened to it with the ear of a trained performer. Surprisingly, he even speculates that the infamous "terror" that Dickinson mentioned to T.W. Higginson in an 1862 letter was somehow related to music--and to Rubinstein.

Between 1860 and 1880, Dickinson had entirely shifted her "experiment" from the piano to poetry. But to exemplify her "musical-poetic epiphany" (152), Boziwick highlights the musical imagery of poems such as "Musicians wrestle everywhere" (F229, 1861), which showcases both her musicianship and her New England origin. It brings together various musical symbols, images, and metaphors she tested previously. Although these poetic devices can be found elsewhere in her oeuvre, it is in "Musicians wrestle everywhere" that Dickinson brings them together in a more mature way. Because the poem draws on the cultural context and landscape of New England as its background, Boziwick also compares Dickinson to fellow New Englander and composer Charles Ives. By ending with a comparison to a composer of art songs, Boziwick left me thinking not of the past of Dickinson's musical education and life, but of its legacy in performance. As her poems continue to be set to music by composers of art songs, bringing new sounds to her words, Dickinson's musicality shines through anew.

With all of the important ground that Boziwick covered in this volume, it is hard to find fault. One slight drawback to Boziwick's method is that by focusing solely on Dickinson's music book, he gives us very little idea of what else she may have played. But to be fair, no one is certain if there is additional sheet music, or where it might be. The more pressing omission is the lack of attention on Susan Gilbert Dickinson, Emily's sister-in-law, and Susan's daughter Martha. A few anecdotes are mentioned (such as those on pp. 89-90 and pp. 141-142), but not with the same level of attention given to Dickinson's father, brother, and sister. Further research is warranted to ascertain what Susan Dickinson's influence on Dickinson's musicianship was, especially after the 1860s when Martha was learning piano. (Martha would go on to become a concert pianist; her Steinway has been fully restored and is on display in The Evergreens, Dickinson's brother's house.)

Overall, Boziwick has neatly laid out the case for Emily Dickinson as an accomplished musician. Scholars and enthusiasts seeking a book about Dickinson's musical life and her soundscape must read this monograph. I am convinced: Dickinson's "business" really was "to sing" (L269).

Samantha Landau is a Project Associate Professor at The University of Tokyo, Japan.


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