Gwyneth Walker

Letters to the World

for Piano Quartet (2001)

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Listen to a RealAudio (G2) stream of the first movement of this work performed by the New World Chamber Ensemble.
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View/download a PDF file of the full texts of the Emily Dickinson poems which inspired this work (for use in programs, etc.).


Commissioned by the New World Ensemble, West Hartford, Connecticut.

Letters to the World -- reflections on the poetry of Emily Dickinson are five short pieces for piano quartet (violin, viola, cello, and piano). Each movement is inspired by a particular Dickinson poem which may be read aloud before the musical portrait.

The correlation between poetic imagery and instrumental music has often fascinated the composer. And the poetry of Emily Dickinson, which encompasses a wide variety of topic and mood, presents itself as an appealing choice for a multi-movement chamber work.

The first movement, "Invocation," follows the reading of the familiar poem, "This is My Letter." This music is intended as an invitation, a greeting and an opening message. Thus, the piano initiates the music with open fifths and octaves. The Violin motive which arrives later might be heard to speak -- "This is my letter to the World that never wrote to Me." This movement is characterized by simplicity and tenderness, as evoked in the poem.

The second movement, "Spring," is inspired by the poem, "A Light Exists in Spring." The poem describes a special light in March which is so delicate that it passes away. The music opens with short patterns in the strings, perhaps reflecting specks of light. The middle section presents dancing patterns of light. And in the end, the patterns rise and the light fades away.

"Nobody! -- or The Frog Pond" is inspired by the frog reference in the poem. After some opening "banter" in the strings ("I'm Nobody. Who are You?"), the pond comes alive. With the piano providing background cricket sounds, a mosquito arrives, to be swatted. Frogs croak. Locusts trill. The "Nobody" motive returns. And one last frog jumps into the pond.

The poem "Wild Nights!" has led to the fourth movement, "Passion." The music is marked "with abandon" and "passionately" throughout. Rippling patterns (the sea) predominate. Oscillation between pitches may be heard as a boat tossing on the waves. At the end, the boat settles into its mooring, as the poem closes with the lines "Might I but moor -- Tonight -- In Thee!"

"Indian Summer" is a celebration of the fullness of life. Thus, the piano opens with expanding patterns, and sustained pedal sonorities. This is fullness. Other images which inspire the music are playfulness (the child referred to the in poem), which comes in the bouncing scalar patterns in the piano, and the leaf blowing in the wind, represented by the rising/falling lines in the strings. The theme (Viola, Cello) is associated with the words "These are the days when Birds come back...These are the days when skies resume..." All strings join together to praise "Oh Sacrament of summer days." The unfolding patterns and rich sonorities from the beginning return to celebrate "thine immortal wine."

Notes by the composer



1. This is My Letter

This is my letter to the World
That never wrote to Me --
The simple News that Nature told --
With tender Majesty
Her Message is committed
To Hands I cannot see --
For love of Her -- Sweet -- countrymen --
Judge tenderly -- of Me




2. A Light Exists in Spring

A Light exists in Spring
Not present on the year
or 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 has suddenly encroached
Upon a Sacrament.

A Light exists in Spring...




3. I'm Nobody!

I'm Nobody! Who are you?
Are you -- Nobody -- Too?
Then there's a pair of us!
Don't tell! they'd advertise -- you know!

How dreary -- to be -- Somebody!
How public -- like a Frog --
To tell one's name -- the livelong June --
To an admiring Bog!




4. Wild Nights!

Wild Nights -- Wild Nights!
Were I with thee
Wild Nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile -- the Winds --
To a Heart in port --
Done with the Compass --
Done with the Chart!

Rowing in Eden --
Ah, but the Sea!
Might I but moor --Tonight --
In Thee!




5. Indian Summer

These are the days when Birds come back --
A very few -- a Bird or two --
To take a backward look.

These are the days when skies resume
The old -- old sophistries of June --
A blue and gold mistake.

Oh fraud that cannot cheat the Bee --
Almost thy plausibility
Induces my belief.

Till ranks of seeds their witness bear --
And softly thro' the altered air
Hurries a timid leaf.

Oh Sacrament of summer days,
Oh Last Communion in the Haze --
Permit a child to join.

Thy sacred emblems to partake --
Thy consecrated bread to take
And thine immortal wine!