The past few months I have been writing a new set of songs based on wonderful texts by Louisa May Alcott, Emily Dickinson, and Sarah Orne Jewett. My first song cycle, Alcott Songs, features a collection of texts by Louisa May Alcott that I arranged into what seems like a summer day - from morning to night. I like the idea of having some sort of narrative like this within the cycle, and so for this cycle I decided to use the narrative of the seasons. Being from New England, I wanted to highlight the beautiful seasons in the region with texts by New England poets.
And so the search for texts began.
Whenever I look for new texts, I am constantly thinking about whether or not the work is in the public domain, and therefore whether or not I need permission to set the text to music. If the text is not in the public domain, you must contact the copyright holder for the text, request permission, and receive permission before moving forward. If the text is in the public domain then you do not need permission to set the text.
There are a couple of really great websites with public domain material - Project Gutenberg and archive.org. Both of these sites let you see digitized or HTML text versions of complete texts that are often in the public domain.
When I first started searching for texts for this cycle, I did some quick internet searches for New England poets who lived in the 18th and 19th centuries. One of the poets I discovered was Sarah Orne Jewett. I found much of her poetry to be beautifully crafted, very creative, and full of imagination. I was drawn to a number of her poems, and found several that seemed to focus on the seasons. Perfect! I also found a number of poems related to the seasons by 19th century New England poet, Emily Dickinson.
Last year, I came across a poem of Emily Dickinson that I thought would be perfect for this project. But, as I dug into the research, I learned that although Dickinson lived in the 19th century, much of her poetry was not published until well after her death, in the early and mid twentieth century. So, even though the works were written in the 19th century, many were published after 1923, and therefore, still under copyright.
Since Harvard University Press (HUP) controls all the permissions for Emily Dickinson’s works, I completed their online permission request form (here, for those of you who are interested). On the HUP site, it says it may take them up to 10 weeks to respond to your request. Indeed, it was 10 weeks before I heard back, but thankfully, they approved my request. I will have to pay HUP a percentage of all the income I receive from this work, but I am excited to include Emily Dickinson's work in this cycle!
In addition to the Emily Dickinson poem, I chose four other texts for the cycle - three by Sarah Orne Jewett and one by Louisa May Alcott. Having just researched Louisa May Alcott’s work in the past couple of years for Alcott Songs, I found a perfect seasonal text to open the cycle. The poem paints a picture of a snow-covered seed breaking through the ground and blooming into a spring flower. This poem was published as part of the short story "The Frost King and How the Fairies Conquered Him," in a collection called Lulu's Library, Volume II. Public domain! Excellent.
The three poems by Jewett that I chose to include in the cycle are "Boat Song," "Top of the Hill," and "A Country Boy in Winter." "Boat Song" is a captivating poem about a starlit summer evening, "Top of the Hill" is a wonderful reflection on the New England autumn, and "A Country Boy in Winter" is a fun, lighthearted poem that makes winter sound a bit warmer and cozier.
All three of these works were published prior to 1923 - two of them appear in Verses 1916, which you can view on archive.org. "A Country Boy in Winter" was published in Harpers Young People magazine in 1882. With a little Google searching, I found a digitized version of the actual magazine on Google Books (see it here). The internet is truly amazing sometimes!
The cycle begins with the Louisa May Alcott poem and the transition from winter to spring. Second is the Emily Dickinson text - a fun, springtime adventure involving bees, frogs, and birds. Third is Jewett’s “Boat Song” to give us a picture-perfect summer evening. Fourth is Jewett’s “Top of the Hill” to provide a colorful and reflective autumn portrait. The last song in the cycle sets Jewett’s “A Country Boy in Winter,” closing the work with a fun and witty wintertime adventure!
See the score and preorder your copy of New England Folk Songs here. The music will be ready to ship by the end of April!