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Image by flemming. d5000 via Flickr

I have been asked to record some of the music Emily Dickinson played for the planning stages of a film.  So now we know.  Emily Dickinson played the piano!

This is to be an installment in the DVD series “Angles of a Landscape:  Perspectives on Emily Dickinson.”  The title of this installment is “My Business is to Sing.”

The Emily Dickinson Museum is located in Amherst, MA, and is owned by Amherst College.  The producer of the DVD series is Ernest Urvater.

Emily Dickinson's piano may have looked like this ~ Image via Wikipedia

The music

The producer provided these scores:

  • Bertini finger exercises
  • Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Sonata
  • Mendelssohn’s “Songs Without Words”
  • several hymns

My job is to choose

  • a few Bertini exercises to demonstrate easy, intermediate, and advanced levels
  • passages from the Beethoven that would sound interesting on a sound track but do not change suddenly from piano to forte
  • several “Songs Without Words” in order to provide the producer with a choice.  They can’t be too loud or too busy.


There will be narration over the music.

Since this is the first time I’ve been involved in a project like this, there is some guessing on my part at this point.

I’m choosing music that would be good as background music for a dinner party.  People conversing with music in the background seems to have many things in common with a narration over music.  If dinner music is too busy, people might stop talking.  And music that is piano for several phrases, if it then suddenly changes to forte, would also be disruptive.

My choices

This is a preliminary list.  Mendelssohn provided titles for just a few of the “Songs Without Words” (see Library of Congress article).  They are listed here as they appear in my score.  Titles are also included in the recordings I consulted.

  • Op. 53, No. 2  The Fleecy Clouds
  • Op. 18, No. 2  Regrets
  • Op. 30, No. 6  Venetian Boat-Song No. 2
  • Op. 62, No. 1  May Breezes
  • Op. 62, No. 3  Funeral March ~ the Moscheles orchestration was played at Mendelssohn’s funeral
  • Op. 67, No. 3  Song of the Pilgrim
  • Op. 102, No. 6  Faith

My practice approach

Bertini doesn’t need much work.  The exercises are mostly in 5-finger position.

Beethoven does need work!  I started by practicing fast cadenza-like passages, sections with crossed hands, and those with difficult fingerings.  On Day #8, I practiced with both hands together, under tempo.

Mendelssohn’s writing is song melodies in one or both hands, plus an involved accompaniment.  The secondary parts are difficult to keep from overwhelming the melody, since there is so much going on.  I practice the melody alone, then the 16th-note writing that switches between hands and runs throughout the piece.  In songs where the left hand is different, such as in the “Venetian Boat-Song,” I practice the left hand alone.

No matter which parts I am practicing, I always use performance fingering.

What’s next

Having become frustrated at not being able to write in borrowed scores, I ordered the Mendelssohn and the Beethoven 2 days ago.  Both arrived today!  I can’t wait to write in fingerings.

I also need to time everything separately.

The producer returns from Europe on June 3rd.  We will get together shortly after that.  The final choice of music is his call, so I expect to make some changes.  He will also choose the order.

Coming soon

As this project progresses, I will write more posts on the subject.

Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!

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