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.

Read More

“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.

27 Dec, 2023

New Focus releases highlighted in year end lists

New Focus titles were highlighting in several 2023 best of the year lists: Alex Ross's Notable Classical Recordings 2023 list in The New Yorker - Claire Chase: Density 2036,” Parts VI, VII, VIII: works of Olga Neuwirth, Pamela Z, Phyllis Chen, Sarah Hennies, Liza Lim, Matana Roberts, Wang Lu, Ann Cleare; Claire Chase and various collaborators (New Focus) - George Lewis, “Afterword”; Joelle …

Read More

12 Oct, 2023

New Focus releases on 2023 Grammy Ballot

New Focus releases on 2022 Grammy Ballot:Best Engineered Album/ClassicalEngineer, Ryan Streber - Eric Richards/loadbang/Ekmeles: The Consent Of Sound And Meaning - The Music Of Eric Richards Best Opera Recording Reiko Füting: Mechthild Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance; Best Contemporary Classical Composition; “And the Moses Drowned” by Mahdis Golzar KashaniRecording of the …

Read More



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


Boston Globe

Rather than corral a selection of Emily Dickinson's poetry for yet another song cycle, Eric Nathan, a composer at Brown University, has crafted something more unusual and engaging: a 50 minute vocal work based not only on her poetry but on correspondence with abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson (New Focus Recordings). The libretto reaches beyond their friendship to illuminate ideas of freedom and division in Civil War America. Nathan's music -- for soprano Tony Arnold, baritone William Sharp, and pianist Seth Knopp - is quietly compelling, attuned to the themes in the text yet restrained enough to let the words take center stage.

— n/a, 12.27.2023


Music City Review

The 2023 release of Some Favored Nook is a project that brings together the talents of an impressive collective. Sonically weaving a web of cultural and societal connections, librettists Mark Campbell and Eric Nathan have adapted texts by Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Messages penned hundreds of years ago still resonate quite clearly for the twenty-first century listener.

Composed and workshopped during Eric Nathan’s residencies at the Copland House, Yellow Barn, and the American Academy in Rome, the live premiere of this work was given in 2019 at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, Texas. Interestingly, Aaron Copland also set the words of Emily Dickinson to music, in the very place in which Nathan created parts of this project.

Eric Nathan found inspiration from Brenda Winapple’s book, White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Winapple reports how two strangers, presumably so different, defied odds and found a friendship of sorts. Winapple accounts Dickinson’s proclivity to be a reclusive poet, so much so that she was rather unknown during her day, having only published ten poems. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, quite differently, was a prominent essayist, minister, military commander, abolitionist, and supporter of women’s rights. Dickinson and Higginson wrote to each other for twenty-four years, but only met in person twice. Still, with the help of Mabel Loomis Todd, Higginson worked to posthumously publish the first edition of Emily Dickinson’s collected poetry.

Some Favored Nook is not a piece for the passive listener. One must engage and focus to truly benefit from the composition. Listening and experiencing the work almost becomes as active as does playing, singing, and, when being created, writing the piece requires.

Nathan’s work is composed in fifteen movements that are organized into three parts:

Part I
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
Part II
VI. To see if we were growing
VII. War feels to me an oblique place
VIII. There suddenly arose
IX. Emancipation
X. All sounds ceased
XI. There came a wind like a bugle
XII. Attending to the wounded
XIII. That shamed the nation
Part III
XIV. These are my introduction
XV. My Wars are laid away in Books / No Prisoner be

Various poems of Emily Dickinson appear throughout Some Favored Nook, accompanied by exchanges and commentary on Dickinson pulled from Higginson’s diaries and essays. Pulitzer Prize winning librettist Mark Campbell opens the work with the first correspondence between Dickinson and Higginson. Co-librettist Eric Nathan was focused on choosing texts that addressed, directly and obliquely, slavery and the American Civil War. It is an impressive feat how Campbell and Nathan have combined material spanning many years and from different formats into such a streamlined thread. Musically, however, the poems are not differentiated from other source material, which seems to be a bit of a disservice to the listener. The play within the play, as it were, can become a bit lost.

Part I introduces Nathan’s economy of composition. Silence quickly becomes as significant a texture as does sound. The piano is scored in the mid-to-high range, interjecting as if to eavesdrop, while leaving traces of dissonance and pitch references for the vocal forces.

Soprano Tony Arnold’s contributions open with a clear, beautiful tone, utilizing vibrato brilliantly to encourage energy within the dialogue. It quickly becomes clear why Arnold is an international contemporary ensemble guest with leading groups throughout the world and on faculty of the Peabody Conservatory and Tanglewood Music Center.

Within the text of the opening movement, Higginson mention’s Emily Dickinson’s lack of punctuation, instead using dashes to provide structure to her poems. It doesn’t seem as though when a dash is present in the libretto that it is given any significance with music. Citing Higginson’s commentary about punctuation, but not addressing the chosen punctuation with a leitmotif of sorts, seems to be a missed opportunity.

“The nearest dream recedes unrealized” may require a slight edit. Higginson’s last phrase of this movement listed in the accompanying booklet actually exists for the track of the next movement, “Could you tell me how to grow?” During the latter, Seth Knopp’s piano playing begins to substantially expand its range, somehow both grounding the work and heightening the drama. Knopp’s artistry regularly enriches his community as a faculty member of the Peabody Institute, a founding member of the Peabody Trio, and artistic director of both Yellow Barn and New Music at the Nasher.

Part I ends, overall, with two strong movements: “They shut me up in Prose” and “My barefoot rank is better.” The penultimate movement could leave the listener slightly confused in that the libretto offers, “They shut me up in Prose . . .” at a moment when the work is scored to be most active and regular to this point – the libretto and score seem to be in conflict. Any such conflict is quickly resolved as the composition dies out and makes a strong impact with the text, “That it manages to exist at all.” The final movement is host to such vulnerability. “My barefoot rank is better” could not possibly end in a more effective manner.

Part II is the strongest segment of the work. William Sharp’s baritone voice catapults the text into the listener’s soul. Sharp is no stranger to bringing new works to life, having participated in premiere performances and recordings by the likes of Leonard Bernstein, John Harbison, John Musto, Jon Deak, Libby Larson, David Del Tredici, Lori Laitman, Steven Paulus, Scott Wheeler, and David Liptak. Inspiring future generations as a pedagogue since 1977, Sharp has been on faculty of the Peabody Conservatory since 2002.

“To see if we were growing” abruptly changes textures, with the work scored in a strong and full manner that brilliantly continues to showcase Sharp’s voice. Images of war are referenced with a chattering telegram being received in the piano as a galloping calvary of soldiers assembles. Eric Nathan scores a meaningful arch of sound that positively milks content of all emotion possible.

The only moment where performance briefly dips occurs in the following movement, “War feels to me an oblique place.” Here, the voice and piano are not in agreement with respect to pitch, which is quickly adjusted, but nonetheless present. Nathan composes this movement in a less-aggressive manner than that which immediately proceeds it, but somehow manages to create an aesthetic still heavy with a gravitas of subject matter and meaning.

“There suddenly arose” seems to fluctuate with respect to the composition’s motivation and inspiration. At times, text painting is present, whereas other moments seem to divorce the text from that which Nathan has scored. What doesn’t fluctuate is the movement’s sense of home; a repeated pitch mesmerizes the listener, especially as other textures ultimately collapse into this solitarily sonic shelter. A strategic use of attacca connects to “Emancipation” and the repeated pitch which brought closure is now the point of departure as the work keeps unfolding. As relevant today as it was when penned by Dickinson in 1862, the text offers that, “Captivity is consciousness, So’s liberty.”

Eric Nathan flexes his Schubertian muscles, bringing together text and music to tell a story in “All sounds ceased.” The movement ends simply with the piano resonating those sounds that came before, depicting a smoke-laden battlefield. As has become expected by now, Sharp’s voice adds a magical tone quality and emotion to match. The consequences of the previous movement’s actions are powerfully answered in the next movement, “There came a wind like a bugle.” This landscape dissolves into a Copland-esque portrait, perhaps an homage, ending with an eerie acapella recitation of Dickinson’s poem, “A death-blow is a life-blow to some.”

Part II ends with “That shamed the nation.” Nathan scores opening dissonances which are patient and serve to somewhat heal the experience of this entire segment. Judgement seems to then be made from the bellowed howl of the baritone voice. The openness of the ending gestures have a profoundness that numbs the listener.

The compositional style that has been used throughout Some Favored Nookis starting to become exhausted by Part III. Only consisting of two movements, the loneliness of “These are my introduction” gives way to the final movement, “My Wars are laid away in Books/No Prisoner be.” Text and music shapes are repeated in both the soprano and baritone voices, with preference given to the affect created by Arnold. Balancing also seems to favor the soprano texture over that of the baritone; it is unclear as to whether this is a deliberate performance choice, a mere reality of the scoring, or a post-production decision. The absence of the piano may remind one of a Greek chorus, teaching the listener the lesson this parable of a song cycle has attempted to offer. After the forty-five-minute journey that is Some Favored Nook, the weight of its charge is profound.

In addition to composing, Eric Nathan serves as associate professor of music in composition and theory at Brown University. Nathan has won numerous prizes and awards. It is no wonder why leading orchestras, chamber groups, and conductors continue to schedule performances from his catalogue of works. Take advantage of the recently released recording of Some Favored Nook. The artistry is sure to move the heart and its message will hopefully stir one’s soul. Below is a teaser from New Focus, and Some Favored Nook is available on Spotify and Amazon for streaming.

— Dennis Hawkins, 1.11.2024


The Arts Fuse

Emily Dickinson remains one of the vital spirits of her age. A century and a half later, readers still devour her poems and letters, and composers of diverse inclinations have found inspiration in her imagery and wondered about her life, views, and philosophy.

Eric Nathan’s Some Favored Nook, a song cycle based on Dickinson’s life and that of her devoted friend, Civil War colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, has just received its first recording, with renowned vocalists Toby Arnold (soprano) and William Sharp (baritone), and pianist Seth Knopp. The brilliant, concise libretto was fashioned by Mark Campbell from Dickinson’s letters to Higginson and from Higginson’s published reflections on her and on the war to end slavery. (Higginson’s famous “Black Regiment” is memorialized in a sculpture on the Boston Common.)

Inserted, like jewels, are delicious verses by the poet, often less familiar ones, though lovers of Aaron Copland’s songs will delight at Nathan’s fresh setting of “There came a wind like a bugle.” An online site allows one to listen to the whole recording or watch a two-minute video. The recording is also available as a digital download, with an excellent booklet offering the texts and essays — all in all, a riveting experience!

Nathan (b. 1983), a new composer to me, teaches at Brown University and was recently named Artistic Director of Collage New Music, “Boston’s longest-standing contemporary-music ensemble (now in its 51st season).” Some Favored Nook is one of the most approachable and communicative works I have encountered in recent years. The music matches the shifting moods of the texts, evoking the intensity of war as grippingly as the mysteries of poetic creativity. Much praise should go to the three brilliant performers, who are recorded vividly — I felt as if they were singing and playing, often quietly and thoughtfully, for me alone.

— Ralph P. Locke, 2.03.2024

Related Albums