Finding a Life at The New York Public Library: Emily Dickinson, the Avid Music Collector

By George Boziwick, Chief, Music Division, Library for the Performing Arts
December 10, 2013
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

December 10th is the birthday of Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), a beloved poet who in her youth was a talented pianist and active music collector. The collections of The New York Public Library serve to illuminate those interests and activities in a variety of ways.

Archives & Special Collections,Amherst College, used with permission.
Archives & Special Collections,

Amherst College, used with permission.

In 1846, Emily Dickinson's second cousin, Olivia Coleman, wrote to Emily from Philadelphia: "We discovered a new Music Store, and I purchased the song 'I'm alone—all alone,' for I am truly alone without you."

"I'm Alone All Alone"

Music Division.

Emily Dickinson and her sister Lavinia, like her cousin, were avid music collectors and amateur performers. This letter, from the Emily Fowler Ford papers in the Manuscripts and Archives Division, emphasizes the exchange of information between Emily and others regarding their musical activities and interests.

Long before her poetry took center stage, Emily Dickinson, like many young women in the mid-nineteenth-century, studied music to an advanced level, actively collected sheet music, and attended professional concerts. In that regard, Dickinson was typical of her time: "I also was much pleased with the news [your letter] contained especially that you are taking lessons on the Piny as you always call it," she wrote to her friend Abiah Root in 1844, "but remember not to get on ahead of me…"

The following year, Emily informs Abiah of her continued progress:

Bertini, Method for the Piano-forte,Music Division.
Bertini, Method for the Piano-forte,

Music Division.

I have the same Instruction book that you have, Bertini, and I am getting along in it very well. Aunt Selby says she shant let me have many tunes now for she wants I should get over in the book a good ways first… I have been learning several beautiful pieces lately. "The Grave of Bonaparte" is one. "Lancers Quick Step"–"Wood up," and "Maiden Weep no More," which is a sweet little song. I want much to see you and hear you play.[1]

"Wood Up,"

Music Division.

Emily's fondness for the "tunes," as she refers to them, confirms her interest in collecting sheet music. Many of the sheet music titles Emily acquired are identified in the family correspondence, and are included in Emily Dickinson's bound book of sheet music which is in the Dickinson Collection at Harvard University.

Emily Dickinson's Music Book, (EDR 469),Houghton Library, Harvard University.Used with permission.
Emily Dickinson's Music Book, (EDR 469),

Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Used with permission.

The music in Emily Dickinson's "binders' volume" was collected over a period of about eight years (ca. 1844–52), typical in that these books of bound sheet music were assembled primarily by women during their formative years of musical training. Binders' volumes surveyed here in the Music Division and elsewhere, average out to approximately 35-45 pieces of sheet music per book. At just over 100 pieces, the Dickinson music book is uncommonly large. Not all of the sheet music titles mentioned in the Dickinson correspondence are in the music book, or are part of the Dickinson Collection at Harvard. But because much of the music cited or alluded to by Dickinson was popular and widely collected, these titles can be found in other library collections including the Music Division. Viewing this sheet music first-hand allows us to see and hear the music that Emily Dickinson performed and enjoyed.

Dickinson's references to sheet music are sometimes oblique and establishing a song's identity requires some research. In the following letter from Emily to her brother Austin written in June of 1851, Emily comments on her sister Lavinia's music-making:

"We are enjoying this evening what is called a "northeast storm"—a little north of east, in case you are pretty definite. Father thinks "it's amazin raw," and I'm half disposed to think that he's in the right about it, tho' I keep pretty dark, and don't say much about it! Vinnie is at the instrument, humming a pensive air concerning a young lady who thought she was "almost there." Vinnie seems much grieved, and I really suppose I ought to betake myself to weeping; I'm pretty sure that I shall if she dont abate her singing."

"Are We Almost There,"

Music Division.

On Monday morning 12 January 1852, Emily wrote a note to her brother: "Thank you for the music Austin, and thank you for the books. I have enjoyed them very much. I shall learn my part of the Duett [sic] and try to have Vinnie her's. She is very much pleased with Charity. She would write you now but is busy getting her lesson."[2] While the Duet is not identified, it's clear that Vinnie was pleased with a new song "Charity" by Stephen Glover, that she had recently received from Austin. Perhaps the song was part of her lesson that Emily had overheard.[3]

"Charity" by Stephen Glover,

Music Division.

Stephen Glover was an immensely popular composer in mid-nineteenth-century America, and although this title is not in Emily's music book at Harvard, a copy of the sheet music can be found here in the Music Division.

Emily's correspondence is a rich terrain of musical references. The musician in her did not let anything pass by that might serve as a musical metaphor, to be stored for later use in one of her poems, or simply to convey and enliven the dynamics of the family's everyday home life, which was generally close, congenial and often funny. Many of her musical references memorialize the contents of the music book, and a few pieces in the book refer to the pleasures and importance of being at home, an important ingredient in the Dickinson family's sense of unity and well-being. In a letter of 14 November 1853, Emily (age 22) wrote to Austin who was due home for a visit, but when the expectant hour came, he did not show:

"Mother got a great dinner yesterday, thinking in her kind heart that you would be so hungry after your long ride, and the table was set for you, and nobody moved your chair, but there it stood at the table until dinner was all done, a melancholy emblem for the blasted hopes of the world. And we had new custard pie too, which is a rarity in the days when the hens dont lay, but mother knew you loved it, and when noon really got here, and you really did not come, then a big piece was saved in case you should come at night. Father seemed perfectly sober, when the afternoon train came in, and there was no intelligence of you in any way, but 'there's a good time coming'!"

"There's a Good Time Coming,"

from Emily Dickinson's music book.
This copy from the Music Division.

In another letter to her friend Emily Fowler, Dickinson recalls their youth and eventual old age. As marriage overtook her friends and Dickinson's poetry overtook her musical ambitions, she continued to use musical references as an emphatic signifier of her emotions and feelings, in this case, towards an enduring friendship.

"Dear Emily, this is all— It will serve to make you remember me when locks are crisp and gray, and the quiet cap, and the spectacles, and 'John Anderson My Joe' are all that is left of me—"

"John Anderson My Jo,"

Music Division.

There is much more to explore in the realm of Emily Dickinson and her references to the music that she knew and enjoyed, and the collections of The New York Public Library serve to affirm the rich musical life of one of America's most beloved poets.

Since my LPA presentation "The Musical Parlor of Emily Dickinson," I have been privileged to present or write on Dickinson and music, specifically on her personal collection of published bound sheet music, which is in the Dickinson Collection at Harvard University.

Along with my Red Skies Music Ensemble, (co-founded with Trudy Williams), I have presented my LPA program in Amherst, sponsored by the Emily Dickinson Museum, and also delivered a presentation at the 2013 International Association of Music Libraries conference in Vienna. I will be delivering a paper on "Emily Dickinson's Musical Longings" at the Society for American Music conference in March, 2014.

More information, as well as music and video clips of the LPA and Amherst performances can be found at the Red Skies Music Ensemble's website:

[1] Thomas H. Johnson, The Letters of Emily Dickinson, ed. (Boston: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1958) letter no. 7, (Emily Dickinson to Abiah Root, 3 August 1845).

[2] Bingham, Millicent Todd. Emily Dickinson's Home: Letters of Edward Dickinson and his Family. New York: Harper, 1955, 210. See also: Glover, Stephen "Charity." Various editions, c .1849, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Music Division.

[3] Johnson. Letters no. 71. The piece discussed here by Dickinson may have been Czerny's arrangement for four hands of Rodolphe Kreutzer's "The Celebrated Overture to Lodioska." The duet may not have been returned to Austin as this is the only four–hand piano composition in the music book. However, there is no "outside cover."