Emma Lou Diemer | Songs for the Earth

I write for those who treasure the past as well as enjoy new musical ideas and experiences. I like to bridge the past and the present in music. . . . My greatest pleasure is to write music that moves people, not that moves them out of the room.1″

Imagine waking at dawn as a child to your mother playing the piano. The youngest of four children, Emma Lou Diemer was born into a music-making family that included her father and maternal grandmother. On car trips from their home in Kansas City, Missouri, they sang songs, sometimes accompanied by her sister, Dorothy, on flute and her brother, George, on trumpet (George’s twin, John, played cello, but not in those pre-SUV cars).

When Emma Lou was five years old, she taught herself to play the piano by listening to the radio, including Paderewski’s Minuet. She began composing at six. On hearing her play the piano as a teenager, a visiting pianist foresightedly recommended that she attend Yale School of Music, which she did a few years later—one of only two women majoring in Composition at the time. She earned a master’s degree from Yale and a doctoral degree from the Eastman School of Music, augmenting her studies on a Fulbright Scholarship in Belgium and at the Berkshire Music Center (Tanglewood). At the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), she was professor of Theory and Composition for 20 years and is currently professor emerita. During the 1970s she created and directed the UCSB electronic and computer music lab.

In her early years, Diemer felt strongly influenced by the music of Chopin, Debussy, and Gershwin, which she heard on the radio, and later by that of Prokofiev, Stravinsky, and Bartók. At Yale she studied counterpoint with Paul Hindemith. Yet she does not subscribe to any particular school of composition: “I like the element of chance in composing [and] I like to feel I’m not bound by a certain set of rules. I can make my own rules and I always do.”2 Although she entered a field in which men predominate, Diemer believes education and artistic influences, not gender, are the crux of creativity: “[A]ny successful composer uses both intuitive and analytical thought. [¶] . . . [¶] Many people cannot imagine a woman who has enough energy to write something big, like a symphony or a string quartet and so . . . you have to be careful as a woman composer not to fall into that [situation]. . . . [I] would rather be thought of as a composer, period.”3

Diemer’s music, published since 1957, includes works for large orchestras, chamber ensembles, organ and piano, percussion, and choral and solo voices. She has been recognized with awards from the Kennedy Center, the National Endowment for the Arts, the American Guild of Organists, and many others, and has received ASCAP special awards year after year since 1962 for publications and performances. Donald Hinshaw, president of Hinshaw Music, praises her for introducing “contemporary musical language in the form of rhythmic subtleties, harmonic and melodic structures” to church music.4

Diemer has composed 180 choral works and says her “favorite compositional medium is chorus with orchestral accompaniment.”5 SF Choral performances of Songs for the Earth, for mixed chorus, mixed ensemble, soprano and baritone soloists, and orchestra, consist of six poems. All are concerned with nature, but not in the sense of romantic longing. Diemer has chosen poems in which barriers between all forms of life come into question and dissolve, and new interdependencies open around and within us.

Songs for the Earth reflects the composer’s characteristic energetic rhythms, melodic expression, and free tonality. In describing this work, Diemer said, “The theme is love FOR the Earth (rather than OF the Earth à la Mahler)—appreciating nature but wondering what is to become of our natural world inhabited by uncaring humans. However, the first and last movements [(“Nature is what we see” and “Harvest Moon—The Mockingbird Sings in the Night”)] quietly celebrate nature without the remonstrance of the 2nd and 3rd movements [(“And this delightful Herb” and “I robbed the Woods”)] and particularly the 4th movement [(“Experiment”)]. The 5th movement [(“And I saw another Brightness”)] fills the role of ‘seeing the light’ and is ever-hopeful in outlook.”6

Two of the songs, “Nature is what we see” and “I robbed the Woods,” are set to poems by Emily Dickinson, the 19th-century New Englander who is considered one of America’s greatest poets, despite her life in domestic isolation, unpublished. Who can doubt her great affinity for the outdoors, which evokes awe in the “voice” Diemer gives the trees in the latter poem.

“And this delightful Herb” is by Omar Khayyám, the 11th-century Persian mathematician, astronomer, scientist, philosopher, poet, and counselor to kings. The poem is from the Rubaiyat, in which an old tentmaker, finding himself caught in life’s tangle of merriment and sorrow, realizes that we have only today—delightful herb enough. As the verse moves from “tender Green” to the singing nightingale that flies away ever more quickly to “Seas that mourn in flowing Purple,” the song’s pointillistic sparseness gradually expands in texture, only to “vanish with the Rose.”

“Experiment” is by Dorothy Diemer Hendry, the composer’s sister. The poem, written in 2001, reflects the wisdom of a woman who was a flight attendant, scholar and educator, gardener and rose expert, mother, and published poet. Hendry reveals the primal honesty necessary to recognize our “fractious human selves,” captured in Diemer’s troubling rhythm of cello sextuplets against piano septuplets.7  Text and music work together to send us clamoring for the safety of another chance to honor “fragile, beauteous Mother” Earth.

“And I saw another brightness” is by the 12th-century Benedictine abbess, author, musician, mystic, and visionary Hildegard von Bingen. This poem from Liber Vitae Meritorum (a catalog of vices with their penances and punishments) describes a life deliberately turned from chronic dissatisfaction to transcendent, sensual delight.

“Harvest Moon—The Mockingbird Sings in the Night” is by contemporary poet Mary Oliver.  Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, Oliver has the rare ability to create a vibrant, beautiful arc from a child’s open senses to an adult’s articulate mind. In this poem, we find ourselves walking through what might have been a fearful nightscape but for the fascinating work of the moon. Instead, we join the facile mockingbird in flight. Does he gently mock our capacity for fear, while bidding our spirits to sing aloft over fields in moonlight?

Because we often know composers’ names from past centuries better than those alive in our own time, we are lucky to have met Emma Lou Diemer, a composer whose body of work promises to stand the test of time. As one of the most widely performed composers in America today, she continues to please audiences and garner recognition with live performances and recordings of her music, as well as the publication of new compositions.

— Carol Talbeck

1     Ellen G. Schlegel, Emma Lou Diemer: A Bio-Bibliography (Greenwood         Publishing Group, 2001), 24.

2     Ibid.

3     Schlegel, 29-30.

4     Jane W. LePage, Women Composers, Conductors, and Musicians of the Twentieth Century:  Selected Biographies (Scarecrow Press, 1988), 63.

5     Jennifer S. Morgan, A Conductor’s Guide to Selected Choral-Orchestral Works of Emma Lou Diemer, Doctor of Musical Arts dissertation (University of Cincinnati, 2005), 2.

6     The composer quoted in Morgan, 73.

7     Morgan, 80.