Return to Works for Chorus
Return to Works

Purple Syllables (2004)

For SATB chorus
Texts by Emily Dickinson

Commissioned by Music Accord
Premiered by Chanticleer in September 2004, Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood
Duration: 15 minutes



Excerpt 1

Excerpt 2

Program Note

I have always been in love with Chanticleer. The first time I heard them sing I was screaming bravo at the top of my lungs for at least 3 minutes and immediately purchased all of their CDs.  Their sound is very much ingrained in my ear since I have composed several works for them: Alleluia, Amen, Love Songs, The Rub of Love, and now Purple Syllables. When Music Accord offered me their wonderful commission and asked me to pick an ensemble, I was thrilled, and Chanticleer leapt first to mind; thus the collaboration on Purple Syllables began.

Composing for voice is my first passion in life and as a result the largest part of my catalogue is music for voice: solo voice, small groups of voices, small or large choirs, with and without orchestral or other kinds of accompaniments. For me, the human voice, possibly the most subtle, complex, fragile yet forceful, flexible, seductive, and persuasive carrier of musical ideas and meanings, has always been an inspiration for and influence upon my entire musical thinking. I sing when I compose. I adore reading poems, and cherish the opportunity to set them to music; and I believe that text plus music (1 +1=) must equal at least 24. If 1=1 = 2, there was no need, for me, to set the text to music. This 15-minute work sets 7 texts of Emily Dickinson and all the texts are about birds — since a Chanticleer is a bird. But, as usual with Emily Dickinson, poems about birds are also about lots of different things.  Her poems are intensely personal, intellectual, introspective and offer a meditation on life, death, and poetic creation; her poems share a close observation of nature as well as consideration of religious and philosophical issues. The music is very immediate, colorful, playful, lyric, elegant and resonant. Purple Syllables, Emily Dickinson Settings, commissioned by Music Accord expressly for Chanticleer is dedicated with admiration and gratitude to Music Accord, Chanticleer and to my Aunt and Uncle, Elly and Jock Elliott.

— Augusta Read Thomas

Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood

By Emily Dickinson


The most triumphant Bird I ever knew or met
Embarked upon a twig today
And till Dominion set
I famish to behold so eminent a sight
And sang for nothing scrutable
But intimate Delight.
Retired, and resumed his transitive Estate —
To what delicious Accident
Does finest Glory fit!



Of Being is a Bird
The likest to the Down
An Easy Breeze do put afloat
The General Heavens — upon —

It soars — and shifts — and whirls —
And measures with the Clouds
In easy — even — dazzling pace —
No different the Birds —

Except a Wake of Music
Accompany their feet —
As did the Down emit a Tune —
For Ecstasy — of it



The Bird her punctual music brings
And lays it in its place —
Its place is in the Human Heart
And in the Heavenly Grace —
What respite from her thrilling toil
Did Beauty ever take —
But Work might be electric Rest
To those that Magic make —



It is a lonesome Glee —
Yet sanctifies the Mind —
With fair association —
Afar upon the Wind

A Bird to overhear
Delight without a Cause —
Arrestless as invisible —
A matter of the Skies.



Out of sight? What of that?
See the Bird — reach it!
Curve by Curve — Sweep by Sweep —
Round the Steep Air —
Danger! What is that to Her?
Better 'tis to fail — there —
Than debate — here —

Blue is Blue — the World through —
Amber — Amber — Dew — Dew —
Seek — Friend — and see —
Heaven is shy of Earth — that's all —
Bashful Heaven — thy Lovers small —
Hide — too — from thee —



At Half past Three, a single Bird
Unto a silent Sky
Propounded but a single term
Of cautious melody.

At Half past Four, Experiment
Had subjugated test
And lo, Her silver Principle
Supplanted all the rest.

At Half past Seven, Element
Nor Implement, be seen —
And Place was where the Presence was
Circumference between.



Upon his Saddle sprung a Bird
And crossed a thousand Trees
Before a Fence without a Fare
His Fantasy did please
And then he lifted up his Throat
And squandered such a Note
A Universe that overheard
Is stricken by it yet —



To obtain examination or performance material for any of
Augusta Read Thomas's works, please contact G. Schirmer Inc..