On the night of April 2, 1981, a special musical performance took place at Furman University. Everyone involved had ties to Greenville: the librettist, Keller Cushing Freeman, the musical composer, Sally Wyche Coenen, and the singers. The event was the premiere performance of an original song cycle called The Death of Arthur: a Requiem for Six Voices. The singers represented important characters in the life of the legendary king of the Round Table.
The Death of Arthur was the first public appearance of Emrys, but it had its real beginning when two friends dreamed, planned, and worked to make some ambitious ideas come to fruition. Who better to tell about this than one of the co-founders, Keller Cushing Freeman:
“It wasn’t quite the first act of Puccini’s La Boheme, where a cluster of young artists and poets shared their dreams and a bottle of vin ordinaire in a Paris garret. But it was close. Our setting was a basement apartment on Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C. Serving up the cabernet was Dan Coenen, a law clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Blackmun. Tossing the salad was Dan’s wife, Sally Wyche Coenen, a native of Greenville, S.C., currently taking photography courses and continuing her study of piano with Spencer Fellows. Sally also harbored ambitions as a composer, although 1980 was not a year when the world clamored for the music of emerging young composers—male or female. To date Sally had not had even the nibble of a commission.
“I was the fortunate dinner guest that icy winter evening, warmed by more than 20 years of friendship with Sally and the Wyche family. Like Sally, I, too, had a closet stuffed with dreams. Although teaching philosophy was my day job, I wrote poetry on the sly. Recently I’d completed a series of poems based on the legends of King Arthur. The material seemed made for music, so I labeled the poems lyrics and set off to find a composer to collaborate on a song cycle. Sally was my first choice.
“That evening over melting bowls of ice cream we reflected on the obstacles confronting writers, composers, and artists who were in sore need of a place to present their work, an audience to receive the work, and a patron to subsidize the projects. Without realizing it, we had begun to articulate the mission statement for the organization that was to become The Emrys Foundation—to promote excellence in the arts, especially literary, artistic, and musical works of women and minorities.
“Nearly a year later we felt ready to present our first collaboration, a song cycle for piano (later scored for chamber orchestra), narrator and six voices.
“To choose a name for our new partnership we turned to Welsh lore that had inspired our first collaboration. Learning that King Arthur’s sorcerer, Merlin, was actually named Emrys, we agreed that this rather mysterious word had a special ring to it. When we discovered that Emrys was translated Child of Light, we felt certain that this was a name of good omen.”