"I had no intention of composing a song cycle," wrote Copland. His interest in the Dickinson poems began with The Chariot and he gradually added others. The cycle is Copland's longest work for solo voice. Copland explained, "Each song is meant to be complete in itself, but I prefer them to be sung as a cycle. They seem to have a cumulative effect." Each poem is dedicated to a composer friend: David Diamond, Elliott Carter, Ingolf Dahl, Alexei Haieff, Marcelle de Manziarly, Juan Orrrego-Salas, Irving Fine, Harold Shapero, Camargo Guernieri, Alberto Ginastera, Lukas Foss, and Arthur Berger.
Nature, the gentlest mother includes trills and flutterings reminiscent of bird sounds in the introduction.
There came a wind like a bugle features a melody that has been likened to a bugle call.
Why do they shut me out of Heaven? is characteristic of the cycle in the wide vocal range required of the singer. Copland wrote, "I gave a great deal of thought as to how my essentially instrumental style could be adapted for the voice."
The world feels dusty was the first song Copland finished. He wrote, "When I had twelve of them, they all seemed to run to their right places."
Heart, we will forget him is a love song that has been likened in style to Mahler.
Dear March, come in! was one of Copland's favorites, "as it breezes along." He was well satisfied with the songs. As he said, "Encouraged, I could fall in love with all of them!"
Sleep is supposed to be was admired by Phyllis Curtin who sang the cycle with Copland accompanying at the piano. "It is the pattern of Emily's remarkable speech that Aaron understood absolutely," said the singer.
When they come back was played by Copland's friend Irving Fine for the conductor Serge Koussevitzky. Fine reported, "Koussevitzky liked certain songs, this and other slow ones."
I felt a funeral in my brain is a setting of one of the many poems in which Emily Dickinson was preoccupied with death. The songs do not quote folk material and since they are more difficult than Copland's earlier vocal music, it has taken more time for them to be admired as they are today.
I've heard an organ talksometimes was admired by Virgil Thomson for "the wide melodic skips, which are in themselves highly effective in a declamatory sense and strikingly expressive."
Going to Heaven! has proven a favorite of several singers, among them Alice Howland, who gave the premiere performance of the song cycle at Columbia University.
The Chariot is the only song that does not derive from the first line of the poem. It was this Dickinson poem that sparked Copland's intense interest in her writings. He wrote, "The first lines absolutely threw me: Because I could not stop for Death, he kindly stopped for me; the carriage held but just ourselves and immortality."