Fred Lerdahl

The Music and Writings of Composer Fred Lerdahl

Program note for the Beyond the Realm of Bird


The first song of Beyond the Realm of Bird (1981-84) was commissioned by the Department of Music of the University of Chicago in honor of Paul Fromm's 75th birthday. After its premiere in 1982 by Elsa Charleston and the University of Chicago Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, I eventually added two more songs and arranged all three for small orchestra (soprano with double woodwinds, single brass, percussion, piano, harp, and strings). The complete cycle was first performed at Tanglewood in 1985. Its duration is about 13 minutes.

Beyond the Realm of Bird sets three relatively unknown poems by Emily Dickinson, “A Wind that Rose,” “He parts Himself--Like Leaves,” and “I Saw No Way.” All three are mystical contemplations of nature. The title comes from a line in the first poem, and signifies a reaching out beyond the material world. The second poem is nominally about the wanderings of a butterfly, more deeply about inner transformation. The third moves from despair to transcendence. For me, however, the poetry is just a starting point. Here I found close musical equivalents for the structure of the poems, which I then clothed in a sumptuous, un-Dickensonian garb of harmony and instrumentation. Beneath the romantic surface lies a good deal of calculation. The result is a lyrical effusion built upon a formalist framework. 

Fred Lerdahl

Texts by Emily Dickinson

A Wind that rose
Though not a Leaf
In any Forest stirred
But with itself did cold engage
Beyond the Realm of Bird--
A Wind that woke a lone Delight
Like Separation's Swell
Restored in Arctic Confidence
To the Invisible--


He parts Himself--like Leaves--
And then--He closes up--
Then stands upon the Bonnet
Of Any Buttercup--

And then He runs against
And oversets a Rose--
And then does Nothing--
Then away upon a Jib--He goes--

And dangles like a Mote
Suspended in the Noon--
Uncertain--to return Below--
Or settle in the Moon--

What come of Him--at Night--
The privilege to say
Be limited by Ignorance--
What come of Him--That Day--

The Frost--possess the World--
In Cabinets--be shown--
A Sepulchre of quaintest Floss--
An Abbey--a Cocoon--


I saw no Way--The Heavens were stitched--
I felt the Columns close--
The Earth reversed her Hemispheres--
I touched the Universe--

And back it slid--and I alone--
A Speck upon a Ball--
went out upon Circumference--
Beyond the Dip of Bell--


all materials copyright Fred Lerdahl 2009