Why -- do they shut Me out of Heaven?
Did I sing -- too loud?
But -- I can say a little "Minor"
Timid as a Bird!
Wouldn't the Angels try me --
Just -- once -- more --
Just -- see -- if I troubled them --
But don't -- shut the door!
Oh, if I -- were the Gentleman
In the "White Robe" --And they -- were the little Hand -- that knocked --
Could -- I -- forbid?
Last night, I went to a recital of songs by Joyce DiDonato including Copeland's settings of poems by Emily Dickinson. "Why Do They Shut Me Out of Heaven?" is here.
We might expect a quiet question but the opening lines are sung assertively with a double forte dynamic. Copland’s Dickinson has no thought of modulating her voice, altering her opinion, or amending her thought.
At the close of the song, these lines are repeated almost as a refrain. Indeed, the score directs the vocalist to offer the closing lines with a triple forte dynamic and to hold the word “loud” for three full measures, and therein lies the irony of the lyrics. Although the speaker speculates that she is barred from heaven for being “loud,” and acknowledges that she is capable of singing “Timid as a bird,” she persists in her assertion of her right to sing with force and vigor. She does so to underscore her direct statement that she has deliberately made herself unfit for heaven. She might be timid and thereby earn eternal salvation, but she chooses to proclaim—and, in Copland’s setting, to proclaim yet again—the worldly self.
Why is the singer so assertive? She hypothesizes that if she were heaven’s sentinel, she would have difficulty in barring entry. Copland’s lyrics repeat the question, “Could I forbid, could I forbid, could I forbid,” the possibility rendered more unthinkable with each voicing.
Copland’s lyrics change the singular “Gentleman” of Dickinson’s poem into plural “gentlemen in the white robes.” Thus, the figure of God the Father in his role as judge has been replaced by a gendered collection of religious gate-keepers. So access to God is effectively cut off by male religious authorities and this is what the poet/singer protests.
And that was just one song!!!