By Ruth Morris Gray, Composer
Recently, a choral director asked me why I entitled my Lawson-Gould piece “Evening,” when Emily Dickinson’s original poem is titled, “She Sweeps with Many-Colored Brooms.” I chose this title because to me, Emily’s poem describes sunset. I believe that she used the analogy of an ordinary housewife (wearing an apron while sweeping and dusting, as well as sewing) to describe the extraordinary. I was simply enchanted by Emily’s lyrical prose.
“She Sweeps With Many-Colored Brooms”
By Emily Dickinson
She sweeps with many-colored brooms,
And leaves the shreds behind;
Oh, housewife in the evening west,
Come back, and dust the pond!
You dropped a purple raveling in,
You dropped an amber thread;
And now you’ve littered all the East
With duds of emerald!
And still she plies her spotted brooms,
And still the aprons fly,
Till brooms fade softly into stars—
And then I come away.
Though cleaning is a menial (but very important) task, the housewife gains the reader’s respect by using her broom as an artist would use a paintbrush—to create a vibrant sunset. When I composed “Evening”, I was a musician, wife, and mother with three young children at home. I related to the housewife. And though I am not a visual artist, I view composing as a related creative process.
When setting a poem to music, I read the text aloud over and over. I try to get a feel for the natural rhythm of the text. Sometimes this process results in multi-meter pieces, while other times the meter is more straightforward, as with the 4/4 in “Evening.” The opening melody and initial piano accompaniment came to me as I read the opening lines while improvising at the piano. I wanted the melody with its opening interval of a minor seventh and the flowing accompaniment to reflect the “sweeping” motion of the broom. I pictured this magical, multi-colored broom as it swept across the sky, leaving pieces (shreds) of vibrant color behind. It was evident to me that the housewife had traveled west to where the sun was setting. Then at the end of the first stanza, the poet enlarges the picture, beckoning the woman to return home (east) to dust (paint) the pond with her colorful broom.
When I went to set the second stanza to music, I decided to create a polyphonic layered section in the vocals. To me, the words depicted a tapestry the housewife was creating with her threads of purple, amber, and green. I wanted the slowly building vocal layers to reflect the developing texture of the art the housewife was creating.
During the third stanza, the poet returns to the ideas found in the first stanza. In my mind’s eye, I see the woman soaring through the air, her apron flying, with her broom making brush strokes of color against the sky. Then as the colors fade, the pieces of the broom become stars. What a beautiful metaphor! At the end of the poem, we discover that the poet is actually witnessing the entire scene unfold. I can envision Emily Dickinson, who was a very private person and spent much of her time alone, looking out her bedroom window and writing this poem as she watched the sun set.