Eric Nathan: Some Favored Nook

, composer


Composer Eric Nathan's Some Favored Nook is so much more than a vocal setting of Emily Dickinson texts, as ambitious an undertaking as that can be. Weaving Dickinson's poetry into a libretto that is framed around the correspondence between her and noted abolitionist and author Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Nathan, along with librettist Mark Campbell and performer collaborators Tony Arnold, William Sharp, and Seth Knopp, has created an evening length dramatic work between two characters that speaks to themes of friendship, national division, morality, and conscience.


# Audio Title/Composer(s) Time
Total Time 45:51

Some Favored Nook - Part I

01I. To tell me what is true?
I. To tell me what is true?
02II. The nearest dream recedes unrealized
II. The nearest dream recedes unrealized
03III. Could you tell me how to grow?
III. Could you tell me how to grow?
04IV. They shut me up in Prose
IV. They shut me up in Prose
05V. My barefoot rank is better
V. My barefoot rank is better

Some Favored Nook - Part II

06VI. To see if we were growing
VI. To see if we were growing
07VII. War feels to me an oblique place
VII. War feels to me an oblique place
08VIII. There suddenly arose
VIII. There suddenly arose
09IX. Emancipation
IX. Emancipation
10X. All sounds ceased
X. All sounds ceased
11XI. There came a wind like a bugle
XI. There came a wind like a bugle
12XII. Attending to the wounded
XII. Attending to the wounded
13XIII. That shamed the nation
XIII. That shamed the nation

Some Favored Nook - Part III

14XIV. These are my introduction
XIV. These are my introduction
15XV. My Wars are laid away in Books / No Prisoner be
XV. My Wars are laid away in Books / No Prisoner be

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 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 the 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.

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“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 “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 “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, “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 Dickinson’s poem, “Emancipation.” Some of the work’s most emphatic music is heard in “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 “That shamed the nation,” Higginson reflects on the bitter knowledge that until Black people 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

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

Eric Nathan

Eric Nathan’s (b .1983) music has been called “as diverse as it is arresting” with

a “constant vein of ingenuity and expressive depth” (San Francisco Chronicle), “thoughtful and inventive” (The New Yorker), and as “a marvel of musical logic” (Boston Classical Review).

Nathan, a 2013 Rome Prize Fellow and 2014 Guggenheim Fellow, has garnered acclaim internationally through performances by Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, National Symphony Orchestra, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Scharoun Ensemble Berlin, International Contemporary Ensemble, Boston Symphony Chamber Players, Nouvel Ensemble Moderne, Boston Musica Viva, JACK Quartet, American Brass Quintet, Ensemble Dal Niente, A Far Cry, Momenta Quartet and performers including vocalists Dawn Upshaw, Lucy Shelton, Tony Arnold, Jessica Rivera and William Sharp, violinists Jennifer Koh and Stefan Jackiw, trombonist Joseph Alessi, pianists Gloria Cheng and Gilbert Kalish, and violist Samuel Rhodes. His music has additionally been featured at the New York Philharmonic’s 2014 and 2016 Biennials, Carnegie Hall, Aldeburgh Music Festival, Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music, Aspen Music Festival, MATA Festival, Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, Ravinia Festival Steans Institute, Yellow Barn, Music Academy of the West, 2012 and 2013 World Music Days, and Louvre Museum.

Recent projects include three commissions from the Boston Symphony Orchestra, including a chamber work, “Why Old Places Matter” (2014) for the Boston Symphony Chamber Players, and two orchestral works, “the space of a door” (2016), that Andris Nelsons and the BSO premiered in November 2016 and commercially released on the Naxos label in 2019, and “Concerto for Orchestra” which Nelsons premiered on the 2019-20 season-opening concerts.

Nathan has received additional commissions from the New York Philharmonic for its CONTACT! series, Milwaukee Symphony, New England Philharmonic, Tanglewood Music Center, Aspen Music Festival for the American Brass Quintet, Boston Musica Viva, Collage New Music, New York Virtuoso Singers, The Serge Koussevitzky Music Foundation in the Library of Congress, Barlow Endowment and Fromm Music Foundation. Nathan has been honored with awards including a Copland House residency, Civitella Ranieri Music Fellowship, ASCAP’s Rudolf Nissim Prize, four ASCAP Morton Gould Awards, BMI’s William Schuman Prize, Aspen Music Festival’s Jacob Druckman Prize, a Charles Ives Scholarship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and Leonard Bernstein Fellowship from the Tanglewood Music Center.

In 2015, Albany Records released a debut CD of Nathan’s solo and chamber music, “Multitude, Solitude: Eric Nathan,” produced by Grammy-winning producer Judith Sherman. Poisson Rouge presented a CD release concert of Nathan’s music in October 2015. In 2020, Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project released a portrait album of Nathan’s orchestral and large ensemble music on the BMOP Sound label.

Nathan is currently Composer-in-Residence with the New England Philharmonic . He previously served as Composer-in-Residence at the 2013 Chelsea Music Festival (New York) and 2013 Chamber Music Campania (Italy). He received his doctorate from Cornell and holds degrees from Yale (B.A ) and Indiana University (M.M.). Nathan served as Visiting Assistant Professor at Williams College in 2014-15, and is currently Associate Professor of Music in Composition-Theory at the Brown University Department of Music.

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The Emily Dickinson opera is a striking work

"Some favored nook" alludes to the unequal conditions of men and women.

Poet Emily Dickinson's correspondence with abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson has become an American chamber opera. The title "Some favored nook" alludes to Higginson's forward-looking statements about the unequal conditions of women artists, and it is a striking work performed by soprano Tony Arnold, baritone William Sharp and pianist Seth Knopp. In Mark Campbell's libretto, Emily Dickinson's will to be herself meets a kind of parallel struggle for the abolition of slavery and women's rights. Composer Eric Nathan, who among others had Sven-David Sandström as a teacher, writes in a rather tightly held expressionistic style that grows with the listenings. Here strong emotions are contained between the lines, sung in a flowing parlando. A snippet of blues whizzes past as well as a quote from "God save the king". Dickinson and Higginson's liberating unromantic relationship ends achingly beautifully with the voices freeing themselves from the piano and plunging into dizzyingly bright a cappella modes.

— Hanna Höglund, 11.01.2023

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