GETTY: The White Election: Cycle of 32 Songs on Poems by Emily Dickinson.
Lisa Delan (soprano), Fritz Steinegger (piano).
Pentatone SACD PTC 5186 054 (F) (DDD) TT: 70:30.

Gems don't make jewelry. The most blinding fact about Gordon Getty is his share of the Getty fortune. In many ways, it has obscured his work. Getty came to study composition in his late twenties, somewhat after most composers get started. Despite his training, he has never struck me as a professional composer in the sense that someone like Morton Gould was -- rather a gifted amateur, most comfortable with small forms. Perhaps the fact that he's never had to earn a living at it has hindered him, although money certainly never hindered Elliot Carter. On the other hand, his music certainly stands apart from various academic trends. Primarily a vocal composer, Getty turns out mainly small pieces. The White Election is one of his more extensive works and probably one of his most performed.

I'm probably not the person from whom to expect a sympathetic review, since I dislike most of Emily Dickinson's poetry. The monotony of the hymn meters drives me nuts, and I often feel as if she's merely pushing around Big Words, a kind of fill-in-the-blanks. No poet myself, I can nevertheless fall into her idiom very easily:

If angels dance around the sky
In Immortality,
To lie stock-still in bed would be
Anathema to me.

I have no idea what it means, since it might mean so many things, and furthermore I wrote it just now, in under two minutes. Can anybody tell me by internal evidence why it wouldn't be included in an Emily Dickinson anthology? Consequently, for me a composer must find both a way to subvert her rhythms as well as a musical line interesting in itself, since the poems by and large don't interest me in themselves. In both respects, Ernst Bacon's Dickinson's settings seem right to me, as does Aaron Copland's magnificent cycle 12 Poems by Emily Dickinson, a monument of American art song.

Getty gets through with mixed results. He began with the conceit that Dickinson wrote the poems to be sung to melodies she composed. It's not a far-fetched notion. We do know she was musical and liked to improvise at the piano. Getty accordingly comes up with an idiom that links to 19th-century parlor music with some surprises thrown in, a musical equivalent of Dickinson's verse. It reminds me greatly of Virgil Thomson's faux-naïveté. Accompaniments are generally simple, sometimes downright sparse. Following Thomson is no easy task, and Getty does pretty well without falling into mere imitation. I consider every individual song sensitively, often beautifully, set. The problem is, with thirty-two of them, Getty doesn't escape the charge of repetitiveness. Too many songs fall into the Dickinson trademark rhythm. Getty overuses certain melodic tropes, blameless in themselves ("mi-sol-do-mi" started to grate on me after a while). Certainly, Getty wants a complete recording, but I question whether he's written a real cycle. I don't find a meta-narrative that takes in the whole, as I do in Schubert's Die schöne Müllerin or Winterreise. One could switch songs from one of the four major sections to another, and not affect the overall impression of the cycle at all. One listens to the entire piece with difficulty, although in short bursts it's fine. Thank goodness for programmable CD players.

I complain not at all about the performers. Soprano Lisa Delan sings beautifully, with careful attention to the musical phrasing and to the meaning of the poems. Few sing English words better than she. Getty has given the pianist little to do, but Fritz Steinegger gets more meaning into a single note than I'll bet even the composer knew was there.

S.G.S. (April 2010)