Emily Dickinson had to travel from Rome to the Hudson River valley, and back to Rome, before Eric Nathan could finish.
Of course Dickinson never went anywhere—hardly leaving Amherst during her lifetime. But for Nathan, composing music to the involved correspondence between Dickinson and one of her early literary advocates, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, all that travel was a necessary for his song cycle “Some Favored Nook.”
Nathan’s setting, for soprano, baritone and piano, will get its second-ever performance on Sunday, March 3 at First Unitarian Church in Providence, a presentation of FirstWorks. Jessica Rivera sings Dickinson, Andrew Garland sings Higginson, and pianist Molly Morkoski accompanies.
The libretto, begun by Nathan but completed by Pulitzer Prize–winning librettist Mark Campbell, explores the long relationship between Dickinson and Higginson—“one incredibly famous, but hardly known in her lifetime,” as Nathan says, “the other—Higginson—who was known and even feared during his own life, and now is almost totally forgotten.”
In an 1862 Atlantic Monthly article, Higginson encouraged young poets; Dickinson wrote back, and that began a long, complex relationship that spanned the rest of Dickinson’s life. They corresponded about her poetry, and also, while Higginson commanded a regiment in the Civil War, about that conflict.
“I thought about their relationship, in that context,” Nathan says. “She’s sending him these poems and letters during the Civil War, asking about her work. He’s leading a black regiment in the south, fighting for abolition. It was many, many pages long.”
Nathan, assistant professor of music at Brown University, began his work on the libretto in Rome, during a 2013 fellowship at the American Academy there.
“It’s a lot of material,” Nathan says. “I assembled about 20 pages of text, but couldn’t figure out how to start the music.
“When I left Rome, I gave the pages to Mark Campbell. Right away he threw out half of them. When I got them back I was immediately ready to write the music.”
Nathan worked out the piece during a residency at Copland House in the Hudson Valley, and finished it in Dec. 2017—back in Rome, on another fellowship. After workshops, the cycle premiered in Dallas in January—almost six years after Nathan began the project.
Along the way, Nathan examined Dickinson’s handwriting—“I created fragile, birdlike, almost luminous musical motives,” he says, and visited her room in Amherst—“much brighter than I expected, right on Main Street.”
“Some Favored Nook” has three movements: the first explores Dickinson’s desire to be a writer; the second focuses on Higginson at war; and the final section describes their first meeting, in 1870.
“Dickinson ends the first part by writing, ‘My barefoot rank is better,’ meaning the she’s content not to be published,” Nathan says. “She might be okay with it, but we’re not okay with it. It’s hard to convey, but I told Jessica to sing optimistically. Dickinson was optimistic, even though we don’t want to believe it.”
The second part portrays Higginson, the longtime abolitionist, leading an all-black brigade of fighters in South Carolina, during the Civil War. When they finally meet in the concluding section, “I tried to create the sense that when you correspond, you know someone,” Nathan says, “but when you meet them in person they are different.”
“Some Favored Nook” is hardly the only composing project Nathan has worked on over this time. He’s already had several Boston Symphony Orchestra commissions—“the space of a door,” premiered by the BSO in 2016, was a rousing concert opener, and was repeated by the Louisville Orchestra this fall. Another commission will be a prominent feature of next year’s BSO season.
His double concerto—for violin (Stephan Jackiw) and clarinet (Yoonah Kim)—premieres with the New York Classical Players in May, with another performance next year by Boston’s New England Philharmonic.
The FirstWorks performance brings his new song cycle closer to home. “An unforgettable musical evening,” is how one reviewer said of last month’s Dallas premiere of “One Favored Nook.”
“I felt the story had to be told through music,” Nathan says. “I almost felt like a director in a film—trying to understand the character’s emotional state, and then getting the audience to understand it.”
FirstWorks presents Eric Nathan’s “Some Favored Nook” on Sunday, March 3 at 2:00 p.m. at First Unitarian Church, 1 Benevolent St., Providence. Tickets are $10–$25. Call (401) 421-4281 or visit first-works.org/events/some-favored-nook.