Some Favored Nook (2017)
for Soprano, Baritone and Piano
Composed by Eric Nathan
Dramaturgy by Mark Campbell
Texts by Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson,
adapted by Mark Campbell and Eric Nathan
45-50 minutes (in three parts)
ABOUT THE WORK
My song cycle, “Some Favored Nook” (45 minutes), with texts adapted by librettist Mark Campbell, takes place in Civil War-era America and is inspired by the significant correspondence between an unlikely pair: Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. My work places Dickinson and Higginson's writings in the context of the Civil War and the patriarchal society of the time, and uses the texts as a lens to view the social, political and cultural issues of this early chapter in American history – abolition, civil rights, women's rights, the effects of war, as well as many of the themes that fill Dickinson's poetry, such as love and death – all issues that are as relevant today as they were in Dickinson’s time.
Dickinson’s and Higginson’s correspondence spanned twenty-four years and offers an intimate look into Dickinson’s private world as well as to Higginson’s involvement in major social and political issues of the day, as the commanding officer of the First South Carolina Volunteers, the first black regiment in the Civil War. Higginson was also a noted supporter of women poets, and published the first collection of Dickinson’s poetry after her death. I set both excerpts from Dickinson’s letters and poems she sent to Higginson. As many of Higginson’s letters to her are lost, texts are set from Higginson’s own essays and diaries from his “Army Life in a Black Regiment,” giving an important historical context to Dickinson’s work.
This work was composed during a Frederic A. Juilliard/Walter Damrosch Rome Prize Fellowship at the American Academy in Rome (2013-14), while in residence at Copland House, Cortlandt Manor, New York, as a recipient of the Copland House Residency Award (2017), and as part of a Visiting Artist residency at the American Academy in Rome (2017). It was workshopped at a Yellow Barn Artist Residency, made possible, in part, by the Brown Arts Initiative. The world premiere was presented by the Nasher Sculpture Center and the East Coast-premiere was presented by FirstWorks.
– Eric Nathan
“…Friday night he [Gilbert Kalish] participated as pianist in the world premiere of American composer Eric Nathan’s Some Favored Nook, essentially an extended dramatic cantata for baritone, soprano, and piano based on texts from Emily Dickinson and her literary mentor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Higginson is largely remembered for his positive role in encouraging Dickinson during her life and being largely responsible for publishing and bringing her work to a larger public after her death (while also being somewhat castigated for editing and “improving” her poetry for early twentieth-century tastes). He also served as the white commander of an all-Black regiment in the Civil War, and his memoir of that episode provides some of the most moving moments of Some Favored Nook.
“Soprano Arnold’s bright vocal timbre provided the perfect Dickinsonian aura of innocence combined with genius to present the Dickinson texts, while baritone Sharp applied the assertive yet velvety qualities of his voice to the Higginson texts—words from a 19th-century gentleman who was ahead of his time enough to recognize the humanity of African Americans as well as the genius of an unknown female poet. Composer Nathan, present in the audience for this momentous premiere, provided a captivatingly rich setting of these texts, with an impressive command of simple, economic, and ultimately breathtaking strategies. For instance, a repeated note motif in the piano part (masterfully realized by Kalish) served as the energy of a bee (in one of Dickinson’s many “bee” poems) and in turn became militant and thunderous in a passage describing the Civil War. And one particularly masterful meeting of text and music occurs in the twelfth of the fifteen short movements, in which Higginson describes the serene countenance of a dying soldier, a former slave who, as he breathes his last, ‘realizes that freedom is sweeter than life.’
“Some Favored Nook closes with a stunning unaccompanied duet, bringing an end to a work that deserves to be heard again and again. As so often during its relatively short existence, the Soundings series created, in this concert, an unforgettable musical evening.”
- Wayne Lee Gay, Theater Jones (1.9.2019)
on the premiere of “Some Favored Nook”
“Nathan ‘writes music from a quiet but very passionate place,’ Knopp explains. Thanks to the existential topics Some Favored Nook explores, it ‘resonates in such large ways. Yet it’s also so intimate and personal. … It very quietly seeps in. When it was premiered–in a house concert at Yellow Barn–people were weeping at the end.’ […] ‘In many ways, there’s a real aesthetic link between (Nathan’s) music and George Crumb’s music, just in the fact that there’s very little histrionics in either one’s approach to their writing,’ Knopp says. ‘But there’s an incredible emotional undertone to what they do.’ ”
- Steven Brown, Arts and Culture Texas (11.12.2018)
Quoting Seth Knopp, Artistic Director of Yellow Barn
on the pre-premiere workshop performance of “Some Favored Nook”
Excerpt from IV. They shut me up in Prose
Andrew Garland (baritone), Molly Morkoski (piano)
Yellow Barn Artist Residency Workshop, recorded by Michael Hanish
Tony Arnold (soprano), William Sharp (baritone), Gilbert Kalish (piano)
Live premiere performance at the Nasher Sculpture Center (Dallas, TX)
(The words “Part Two” in the video title below refers to the second half of the premiere concert program, which was titled after the composition (the first half included works by Weill and Crumb).
Movements (click on titles below to view video for specific movements)
I. To tell me what is true?
II. The nearest dream recedes unrealized
III. Could you tell me how to grow?
IV. They shut me up in Prose
V. My barefoot rank is better
VI. To see if we were growing
VII. War feels to me an oblique place
VIII. There suddenly arose
X. All sounds ceased
XI. There came a wind like a bugle
XII. Attending to the wounded
XIII. That shamed the nation
First workshop performance:
Jessica Rivera, soprano; Andrew Garland, baritone; Molly Morkoski, piano
Yellow Barn Artist Residency (September 19-23, 2017)
This residency was also made possible, in part, by the Brown Arts Initiative
Tony Arnold, soprano; William Sharp, baritone; Gilbert Kalish, piano
Soundings at the Nasher Sculpture Center (January 4, 2019)
East Coast Premiere:
Tony Arnold, soprano; Andrew Garland, baritone; Molly Morkoski, piano
FirstWorks (March 3, 2019)
Rachel Schutz, soprano; William Sharp, baritone; Gilbert Kalish, piano
Yellow Barn, opening night of the 50th anniversary season (July 5, 2019)
Tony Arnold, soprano; William Sharp, baritone; Molly Morkoski, piano
Emily Dickinson Museum series, Amherst, MA (October 6, 2019)
VIEW TEXTS (LIBRETTO)
YELLOW BARN ARTIST RESIDENCY WORKSHOP
Yellow Barn Artist Residency (September 19-23, 2017)
This residency was also made possible, in part, by the Brown Arts Initiative.
Read Eric Nathan's blog post on the Yellow Barn Residency Workshop of "Some Favored Nook"
The Emily Dickinson texts:
"They shut me up in prose" J 613/F 445
"They dropped like flakes" J 409/F 545
"No prisoner be" J 720/F 742
"My wars are laid away in books" J 1549/F 1579
Are set to music and reprinted in the score with permission from Harvard University Press. THE POEMS OF EMILY DICKINSON, edited by Thomas H. Johnson, Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Copyright © 1951, 1955 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Copyright © renewed 1979, 1983 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Copyright © 1914, 1918, 1919, 1924, 1929, 1930, 1932, 1935, 1937, 1942, by Martha Dickinson Bianchi. Copyright © 1952, 1957, 1958, 1963, 1965, by Mary L. Hampson.
All other texts used in the work are in the public domain.