Pamela Nash writes:
In Charlotte Brontë's Villette, the protagonist Lucy Snowe wrestled with the grief of unattainable love and "dreamed strangely of disturbed earth, and of hair, still golden and living, obtruded through coffin chinks." A family record passed down to the composer Robin Walker echoes the imagery: his great-great-grandfather, in attending Charlotte's funeral, recalled seeing a violet-coloured (hair?) ribbon hanging out of her coffin*. A potent yet simple detail which provides for us a rarefied token of a tragic end, and whilst the Villette comparison lends a further frisson to the pathos of her death, the real tragedy perhaps lies in the paradox between the unrequited love in the pages of the author's work and that played out in her own life; while Lucy Snowe managed to repress the tyranny of desire - the “bottled storm” - Charlotte Brontë herself could not, as her letters to Constantin Heger reveal.
Nothwithstanding his ancestral connection, Robin Walker finds a powerful artistic affinity with Charlotte through these letters to Heger, and in commemoration of her bicentenary, he has composed a song setting of two of the letters for soprano and piano. Having also produced a song-cycle of five of Emily Brontë's poems (premiered in 2014), he continues to draw inspiration and solace from the work of both sisters, arising partly out of a sense of “fellow feeling” and partly out of the absolute contemporary relevance of their work to him as a composer. He identifies particularly with the emotional evaluation within their writing - the processing of experience through feeling - and, like the Brontës, his own compositional processes are founded in an instinctual response to both discipline and passion.
It is the meeting of these elements which forms the equilibrium in the new song: although structurally a conflation of the two Heger letters, the wording is completely preserved and the approach to crafting the music reflective of the letters' own expressive shape: “introduction - desperate statement - then, calm.” Robin's response to the texts was nothing short of visceral: “I felt the force, the beating heart; that completely understandable rage at unrequited love for a man who gave her a unique taste of power and affection.” What interested him most however - and what he dramatised in the song - was the conflict within Charlotte's “inner life”: behind all her expostulating was a desperate need to escape the stifling constraints of Protestantism and the patriarchy of her father. “She is externalising her own drama, with the purpose of relieving herself; through writing the letters, Charlotte overcomes her state of mind - from a state of uncertainty and turbulence to one of stability and sanity, but with literary restraint and structural control. That containment and rationalising of the emotional response is the same process that we as composers have to undergo in order to make it recognisable as emotion to others: the transmutation of what it is to be alive, into an artefact.”
* See Betty Emmaline Walker, The Green Lanes: A Westmorland Childhood (York, 1998), pp. 49-50