Eric Nathan’s Some Favored Nook goes far beyond a setting of texts by Emily Dickinson and abolitionist and essayist Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Nathan’s piece is a dramatization of the relationship between these two historical figures, incorporating text settings of Dickinson’s poetry as well as a libretto by Mark Campbell that is woven from their correspondence. Nathan’s curation of that correspondence focused on themes related to slavery and the American Civil War. The result, performed here by soprano Tony Arnold, baritone William Sharp, and pianist Seth Knopp, is a poignant and intimate work that explores a friendship within the context of a nation in turmoil, ideologically and on the literal battlefield. Some Favored Nook allows the listener to reflect on another fraught time in the history of the United States, as we live through our own era of conflict.
While history has celebrated Dickinson and recognized her as one of America’s most important poets, it has largely forgotten Higginson, despite the fact that he led a prominent public life as an essayist, minister, military commander, and advocate for the rights of African-Americans and women. Notably, he served as the commanding officer of the First South Carolina Volunteers, the first black regiment to fight in the Civil War (on the Union side), and was instrumental in publishing the first collection of Dickinson’s poetry. Higginson and Dickinson did meet once in 1870, but their relationship took place almost entirely through letters.
Nathan approaches the various texts differently — many of the letters fashioned into the libretto are set with recitative-like music, highlighting the embedded subtleties in the texts that shine light on sthe evolving connection between the two writers. Dickinson’s poems are set as art songs, with the piano establishing an expressive musical context that paints the words. Since Higginson’s texts are all taken from the letters, his more substantial content is treated similarly to Dickinson’s poems, and set more like songs, as opposed to structurally connective material in the larger piece.
Part I, “To Tell Me What is True,” opens with the tentative music of two people getting a sense for one another, with light, inquisitive two note figures in the piano that become a leitmotif for the letter correspondence. In Part II, “The nearest dream recedes unrealized” we hear the first of the included Dickinson poems, set over an anxious, accumulating tremolando figure in the piano. Higginson’s letter about leading the First South Carolina Volunteers and his commitment to abolition is given a courageous and powerful setting in Part VI, “To see if we were growing,” as towering chords and march-like rhythms in the piano support Sharp’s bold baritone.
Higginson’s letter about the Emancipation Proclamation, Part VIII “There suddenly arose,” is set with grand wonder, framed by an insistent pedal point in the left hand of the piano. Nathan holds the reverent tone steady for Part IX, Dickinson’s poem, “Emancipation.” Some of the work’s most emphatic music is heard in Part X, “All sounds ceased,” as rumbling bass figures, stabbing, accents, planed chords, and a galloping rhythmic motive capture the bracing intensity of a gun battle. In Part XIII, “That shamed the nation,” Higginson reflects on the bitter knowledge that until blacks had served as soldiers, the country had not recognized them as men. Nathan’s setting is ambivalently triumphant, as heroic polytonal voicings ascend in register. Some Favored Nook ends with Dickinson’s poem, “My Wars are laid away in Books” in an a cappella setting, first for Arnold, and then with Sharp in a rare moment of ensemble singing. It is a powerful closing moment for a piece that largely unfolded in the space between two people carrying on a long distance communication. Nathan’s work is a stark, intimate portrait of two people of conviction, struggling to come to terms with the conditions of their day. The spare instrumentation and economical use of musical materials evokes a simpler era. Reflecting on their correspondence, Some Favored Nook gives us a template for a path towards meaningful connection in troubled times that is direct, without frills, and honest.
- Dan Lippel
released September 15, 2023
Tony Arnold, soprano
William Sharp, baritone
Seth Knopp, piano
Recorded at Sun Hill Studios, Putney, VT, August 26 & 27, 2022
Produced and engineered by Judith Sherman
Engineering and editing assistant: Jeanne Velonis
Mastering: Antonio Oliart
Album design: Denise Burt
Cover image courtesy of the Emily Dickinson Museum
New Focus Recordings is an artist led collective label featuring releases in contemporary music of many stripes, as well as
new approaches to older repertoire. The label was founded by guitarist Daniel Lippel (who is the current director), composer engineer Ryan Streber, and composer Peter Gilbert in 2003-4, and features releases from many of new music's most active performers and composers....more