‘The Song Cycles of Beachy Head’ Has New York Debut

Beth Dolan, an associate professor of English, and composer Amanda Jacobs present lecture recital at Carnegie Hall.

Story by

Kelly Hochbein

Photography by

Christa Neu

The Song Cycles of Beachy Head

'The Song Cycles of Beachy Head' had its New York City debut at Carnegie Hall.

The soaring sounds of piano and mezzo soprano filled Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall on Nov. 4 as “The Song Cycles of Beachy Head” had its New York City debut. The musical components of the piece, punctuated by Beth Dolan’s detailed narrative, brought to life Charlotte Smith’s 731-line poem in five art song cycles presented in lecture recital format.

“The Song Cycles of Beachy Head” is the product of a unique partnership between Dolan, an associate professor of English, and composer and playwright Amanda Jacobs.

The two met at Chawton House in Hampshire, England in 2014, each on the grounds of the estate of Jane Austen’s brother for a different reason: Dolan was a Chawton House Library Fellow studying the children’s literature of English Romantic poet and novelist Charlotte Smith, and Jacobs was the Jane Austen Society of North America’s first composer-in-residence.

A dinnertime conversation led Jacobs to ask Dolan if she could suggest any poems to set to music. Dolan sent Jacobs some of Smith’s sonnets as well as a much more challenging option: Smith’s notably long blank-verse poem, “Beachy Head.”

Over the course of about a year, the two read through and discussed the poem via Skype. Dolan edited the poem to draft the lyrics and Jacobs composed the music, the process for which involved reading the poem over and over again.

Dolan says she and Jacobs had no sense of the scale of the piece when they began work.

“It was a big poem and I didn’t know if [Jacobs] would want to set it at all or if we would just set a part of it,” she explains. “What Amanda’s accomplished is really unusual. There are other song cycles—[German composer Robert] Schumann, for example—but they tend to be collections of poems that are set to music, not based on one massive poem. ... It’s amazing.”

The piece, says Jacobs, is grounded in scholarship, and the collaboration between composer and scholar helped her and Dolan unravel the mysteries of the 1807 poem and break new ground in the musical realm.

“The whole process enabled me to wrap my head around this poem, and hearing the words in the music really helped,” says Dolan.

Says Jacobs: “Through our collaboration we made discoveries that allowed for independent and interdependent song cycles. So each set of songs can function independently and be pulled out, but as the whole of the 26 songs they function as a gigantic song cycle. It’s song cycles within a song cycle. What we’ve done musically through our collaboration and understanding has been able to expand a musical form … I have never had that kind of collaboration in setting art songs. This is a remarkable thing: an exchange of knowledge in a reciprocal way that allowed for greater discovery and artistic choice.”

Mezzo soprano Shelley Waite added a new dimension to the piece.

“I can’t even begin to describe to you the emotional reaction that I have in the performance as I feel audiences responding to this poetry,” says Jacobs. “It’s beautiful.”

Dolan and Jacobs performed the piece in England and Australia, at Lehigh’s Zoellner Arts Center and in several states. The Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall was their largest performance venue to date.

“‘Beachy Head’ is the finest composition that I have created,” Jacobs says. “And I could not have done that without the scholarship that Beth contributed.”

A studio recording of the piece will be available on iTunes in April.

Story by

Kelly Hochbein

Photography by

Christa Neu


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