“I’m Nobody! Who are you?” So begins one of Emily Dickinson’s best-known poems. Though her question is rhetorical, it’s hard not to detect in these words just a touch of sarcasm. And who can tell if she’s being straight with us later in the poem when she says, “how dreary, to be Somebody.”
Nobody is based on four of Dickinson’s poems, each containing the word “nobody.” In “Have you got a Brook in your little heart?” Dickinson tells us “nobody knows that any brook is there”, and yet describes the brook as only someone who knows it can. Is the brook known only to her? She’s certainly not, then, a nobody.
In “On such a night,” Dickinson again reflects on what nobodys we are, noting how quietly each of us passes from existence, without fanfare, so quiet “that nobody might know.” And in the poem “When they come back – if Blossoms do”, Dickinson asks what tomorrow brings. Will she see it? And will anybody care?
This is heady, if gloomy, stuff. Yet Dickinson’s language (note, for example, the wordplay between “nobody” and the words “anybody” and “somebody”) and her rhythms are as disarmingly direct as a folk song. That’s partly why I’ve tried to infuse the sensibility of folk music into each of the four sections.
The chorus is, as ever, our window into humanity. You, me, the person next to you, the crowd: a collection of anybodys and somebodys — and nobodys. Then there’s the oboe, who, like Dickinson herself, keeps a slight distance from the crowd (her claim to being nobody, notwithstanding.) Like her, the oboe is the keen observer, answering questions we didn’t realize we’ve asked. (And by the way, it’s hard to say “nobody” without hearing the faint echo of the word “oboe.”)
Nobody was inspired by White Heat, Brenda Wineapple’s moving book about the friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. My thanks to The Syracuse Vocal Ensemble and The New Amsterdam Singers for their many suggestions and corrections along the way; I echo Ms. Dickinson’s reply to Mr. Higginson, after he’d edited some of her poems: “Thank you for the surgery. It was not so painful as I supposed.”
Nobody was commissioned in 2011 by the Syracuse Vocal Ensemble, Robert Cowles, Artistic Director, and was first performed on March 3 & 4, 2012 in Syracuse, New York. Robert Cowles conducted, and Anna Peterson Stearns was oboist.
On May 28, 2015 The New Amsterdam Singers gave the New York City Premiere at St. Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church, 554 West End Ave.
In her review of the concert in The New York Times, Vivian Schweitzer wrote: “Mr. Dellaira set his engaging, vividly scored “Nobody” to Emily Dickinson’s poem “I’m Nobody! Who Are You?” The oboe provided a dramatic underscoring for the increasing urgency of the word ‘nobody,’ a connecting theme in the piece.”
on 4 poems by Emily Dickinson
on 4 poems by Emily Dickinson
Score available through American Composers Alliance (BMI)
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!
Have you got a Brook in your little heart,
Where bashful flowers blow,
And blushing birds go down to drink –
And shadows tremble so –
And nobody knows, so still it flows,
That any brook is there,
And yet your little draught of life
Is daily drunken there –
Why – look out for the little brook in March,
When the rivers overflow,
And the snows come hurrying from the hills,
And the bridges often go –
And later, in August it may be,
When the meadows parching lie,
Beware, lest this little brook of life,
Some burning noon go dry!
When they come back – If Blossoms do –
I always feel a doubt
If Blossoms can be born again
When once the Art is out –
When they begin, if Robins may,
I always had a fear
I did not tell, it was their last Experiment
When it is May, if May return,
Had nobody a pang
Lest in a Face so beautiful
He might not look again?
If I am there – One does not know
What Party – One may be
Tomorrow, but if I am there
I take back all I say –
On such a night, or such a night,
Would anybody care
If such a little figure
Slipped quiet from it’s chair,
So quiet – Oh how quiet,
That nobody might know
But that the little figure
Rocked softer – to and fro –
On such a dawn, or such a dawn –
Would anybody sigh
That such a little figure
Too sound asleep did lie
For Chanticleer to wake it –
Or stirring house below –
Or giddy bird in Orchard –
Or early task to do?
There was a little figure plump
For every little knoll,
Busy needles, and spools of thread –
And trudging feet from school –
Playmates, and holidays, and nuts –
And visions vast and small.
Strange that the feet so precious charged
Should reach so small a goal!