Prairie Songs: Remembering Ántonia
Composer’s Notes: What a rich journey it has been to write a song cycle based on the work of Willa Cather, one of America’s greatest literary figures. The seed for the project was started when my friend and colleague, Dr. Scott Miller, discussed the possibility of a new work after talking with Elizabeth Burke (Cather Project, UNL). As an avid reader who has devoured a long list of American and European classics, I was thrilled at the prospect of creating a song cycle based on Cather’s work.
The initial phase of the project consisted of reading Cather’s most significant novels (My Ántonia, O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, One of Ours, A Lost Lady, Death Comes for the Archbishop, The Professor’s House, Shadows on the Rock, and Lucy Gayheart) to gain a deeper understanding of her work, themes, and writing style. Although each novel could form the basis for a song cycle, I quickly settled on the narrative arch of My Ántonia.
A second phase of the project consisted of a detailed formal analysis of My Ántonia which provided the narrative outline for the song cycle and initial themes for the songs. In some cases, poetic phrases such as “dome of heaven” provided the inspiration for a song, and in other cases phrases were culled from throughout the book to form song lyrics. (“Lena” and “Prairie Dawn” are two examples of the latter.)
The final phase of the project consisted of a visit to Red Cloud and subsequent visit to the Cather archives at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. The visit to Red Cloud was profoundly inspiring and helped me to develop a better feel for the prairie and Cather’s childhood surroundings. Similarly, the days spent in the Cather archives provided a deeper understanding of Willa Cather’s life and personality. My mantra throughout the project has been to honor Ms. Cather by writing something she would like while maintaining a rich compositional palette that embraces some of the sounds and rhythms associated with 21st century art music.
I am deeply grateful for the support of Elizabeth Burke and Guy Reynolds, representatives of the Cather Project, and my sincere hope is that this collection of songs will provide new perspectives on Cather’s writing for individuals who already know her work, and will expose her writing to individuals who have not yet had the pleasure of reading her novels.
Vandrovali Hudci (instrumental)
Many of Cather’s books refer to the violin, a diminutive instru- ment that was easily transported by early settlers, and the violin plays a significant role in the song cycle as a representation of the immigrant voice. The song cycle opens with “Vandrovali Hudci” (Wandering Fiddlers), a composition for solo violin that was based on a Czech folk tune that features a migration of soul motif common to many old tales. According to an email exchange with Dr. Ondrej Skovajsa, a literary historian and folklorist, the ballad is ancient and represents a daughter who is cursed by her mother (for unknown reasons) and turned to wood. This modern interpretation of “Vandrovali Hudci” represents the migration of immigrants from the old world to America.
“Prairie Dawn” is based on Cather’s descriptions of the sights and smells of the prairie juxtaposed with Jim’s longing for home. The song starts and ends with what might be described as a “bell leitmotif ” that celebrates the majesty of the prairie and summons listeners into the story. The bell motive is used in other movements including “Dome of Heaven.” Harmonically, a third relation helps to underscore the majestic nature of the prairie, and bitonal resources help to establish Jim’s homesick- ness and longing for the hills of home.
The Hawthorne Tree
“The Hawthorne Tree” was inspired by the idyllic youthful friendship of Jim and Ántonia described in the first chapter of My Ántonia. The text combines Cather’s poem, “TheHawthorne Tree,” representing youthful love and exuberance, with her descriptions of the vibrancy of springtime. While the “Hawthorne Tree” is set in strophic form, a contrasting section in compound meter, followed by a return to the opening section, serve to unify the song as a traditional da capo aria.
In 2016, I had the opportunity to visit the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie near Red Cloud, Nebraska. One of the things that immediately struck me was a beautiful and sublime silence punctuated by wind and birdsong. Although I was aware of the passing of an occasional car, it was easy to envision the profound vastness and silence that early settlers experienced. “Silence” utilizes minimal compositional resources to evoke the stillness of a distant prairie, which can be characterized by warmth and beauty, but also a sense of loneliness and awe at the vastness of the landscape.
Death at the Crossroads
“Death at the Crossroads” is based on the story of Ántonia’s father, Mr. Shimerda, who committed suicide. Much of the text for the song comes from Jim’s grandmother who states “Oh, dear Savior! Lord, Thou knowest” and “poor soul, poor soul.” The story is particularly poignant in that it is based on a real event, and the crossroads, where a body was buried for a time, is still evident at the intersection of two remote roads in the Nebraska countryside near Red Cloud. The song concludes with a tender musing by Jim: “Even when I passed his grave, I always thought of him as being among the woods and fields that were so dear to him.”
“Cowboy Song” can be described as a farcical romp representing Otto Fuchs, a hired hand who worked for Jim’s grandparents. The original working title was “Salt of the Earth” which was sketch based on Otto and Mrs. Shimerda, two of the more colorful characters in the book. However, the initial sketch led me in the direction of a cowboy song. Unlike traditional cowboy songs such as “The Dying Cowboy” or “Ten Thousand Miles Away,” this song features frequent metric changes that provide a quirky underlayment for the text and serve to underscore Otto’s eccentric character. After completing the song, I realized there were some similarities to “Marche du soldat” in Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du soldat, a composition that also embraces eccentric and farcical elements.
Dome of Heaven
The full force of Cather’s poetic prose is evident in “Dome of Heaven.” Although I knew I wanted to write a song based on the words, “dome of heaven,” after I noticed the phrase in the book, the complete text for the song did not develop until I had finished the novel and had selected poetic phrases from several sections of the book. While the composition is largely diatonic, chromatic harmonies punctuate several cadences to underscore the beauty and majesty of a changing landscape.
Blind d’Arnault (instrumental)
Blind d’Arnault, like several characters in My Ántonia, could be considered a transient character. However, the story serves to enhance the narrative arch of the novel and illuminate a gathering of townspeople for a special performance. In the novel, Blind d’Arnault is described as “rocking himself, his head thrown back” and references are made to “My Old Kentucky Home” and “good old plantation songs.” These descriptions led me to explore digitized recordings of early 20th century wax recordings provided by the Library of Congress. One ebullient song, “Deep Down In My Heart,” recorded in the 1920s, provides the foundation for the intermezzo representing Blind d’Arnault. Given that the original piece is sung in a swing rhythm, the piano intermezzo represents the most deliberate use of jazz resources in the song cycle.
Early in the composition process I knew I wanted to find a way to pay homage to Schubert and Schumann, two of the great masters of art song repertoire. In My Ántonia, a dying Pavel tells a disturbing story about a bridal party who, after leaving a joy- ous wedding celebration in their horse-drawn sledges, attempt to outrun a pack wolves. The disturbing imagery immediately reminded me of Franz Schubert’s Die Erlkönig, a story in which a child, riding on a horse in the arms of his father, is frightened by a supernatural being. “Pavel’s
Tale” is unabashadly Neo-Romantic in its use of 19th century chromaticism, shifting tonality, and other techniques and, thus, provides a deliberate nod to the masters of 19th century art song.
Summer Dance (instrumental)
“Summer Dance” is an instrumental intermezzo that represents the youthful exuberance for a town dance. As Cather so aptly describes: “At last there was something to do in those long, empty summer evenings, when the married people sat like images on their front porches . . . Now there was a place where the girls could wear their new dresses, and where one could laugh aloud without being reproved by the ensuing silence.” “Summer Dance” is a flowing waltz that serves to elicit images of a small-town dance on a warm summer evening. The piece is also meant to embody Cather’s description of harp and violins: “They called so archly, so seductively, that our feet hurried toward the tent of themselves.”
Cather makes frequent reference to the strong immigrant women who worked the land, and “Field Song” is intended to portray the important contribution of the women fictionally characterized in the novel as well as the steadfast work of real pioneer women. The piece starts with an ostinato that evokes the imagery of plodding oxen, and modal mixture serves to underscore the hardships endured by these early settlers. Flowing rhythms, polychords, and Phyrgian modality provide contrast for a lyrical second section, and the original ostinato returns to underscore the final phrase:
The girls who helped break up the sod learned so much from life and poverty. Been awakened and made observant coming at a tender age from an old country to a new.
Although I didn’t set out to impart a political message, “Field Song” is essentially an ode to gender equity and to the quiet fortitude of the women who settled the prairie.
Lena Lingard is a complex character in My Ántonia. Her exotic beauty and indifference to men belie her steadfast friendship of Jim, and Jim’s lifelong infatuation creates a subtle tension in the novel. The song titled “Lena” uses frequent metric changes (5/4, 4/4, 3/4, 7/8, 3/8) to underscore the complexity and independent spirit of her character. As with other songs in the collection, the lyrics were created by adapting many passages throughout the book.
One of the most poignant scenes in My Ántonia occurs when Widow Steavens describes a visit to Ántonia where she learns that Ántonia’s fiancé ran away. As Mrs. Steavens described the encounter to Jim: “I’m not married, Mrs. Steavens,” she says to me very quiet and natural-like, “and I ought to be.” “Pioneer’s Lament” tells the story of Ántonia’s betrayal by her fiancé, stoic acceptance of her pregnancy, and deep love of her child. The use of chord mutation evokes a sense of poignancy, and a contrasting rhythmic ostinato serves to underscore the tension of Ántonia’s meeting with Mrs. Steavens and subsequent birth of her child. Although key changes obscure the underlying form, the use of alternating refrains and contrasting episodes unify the song as a rondo.
The composition process can be mysterious: it is not uncommon to spend hours or even days writing only to discard the work, while other pieces seem to flow with little effort. “Enduring Love” is an example of a piece that was composed in just an hour or two sitting in a cabin without access to a piano. The initial idea for the song came from Ántonia who stated: “Ain’t it wonderful, Jim, how much people can mean to each other.” Most of the text comes near the end of the book when Jim visits Ántonia after talking to Mrs. Steavens, who describes how Ántonia came to be an unwed mother. For me, “Enduring Love,” is perhaps the most meaningful song in terms of love and relationship. The setting is simple, folksy, and restrained, but there is also a hint of blues and other American influences, and the interplay of the voice and violin represents Jim and Ántonia’s poignant reunion. In many respects, the song is an analog for Cather’s writing which might be characterized by a poetic use of ordinary words. Unlike most of the other songs in the cycle, the text for the first verse is original and provides the “glue” for Cather’s prose, which forms the backbone of the song.
Road of Destiny
In the summer of 2016 I had the pleasure of spending a few days in the Cather archives at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. It was informative and inspiring to read many of Cather’s letters and to get a better sense of her personality. One of the things that was evident was her love of music, and she often wrote to her brother about music and sent an occasional package containing albums. One letter was particularly intriguing because Cather talked about “From the Land of Sky Blue Water,” a song which she felt was one of the best examples of American songwriting. The amusing inference is that Cather liked a song that was later used in a commercial for Hamm’s beer. However, after playing through the original sheet music, it was clear that the music in the beer commercial was not based on the original song. The original version of “From the Land of Sky Blue Water” is characterized by beautiful linear harmony and a lyrical melody.
Given that “Road of Destiny” is the last song in the cycle, it seemed appropriate to base the composition on several elements from Willa Cather’s favorite song such as a flowing waltz meter, some modal mixture, and a lyrical melody. The text comes from the last page of the book. As always, Cather says it best through Jim’s poignant summary at the end of the novel: “Now I understood that the same road was to bring us together again. Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.”
Pines of Rome
Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936)
Program Notes by Laney Boyd
One of the leading Italian composers of the twentieth century, Ottorino Respighi is today best known for his “Roman Triptych,” a trilogy of orchestral tone poems. Though similar in structure to traditional symphonies, tone poems differ in that they are meant to illustrate a non-musical source such as a poem, story, or landscape and inspire pictorial or dramatic associations rather than present and focus on purely musical content and structure. The three tone poems of Respighi’s Triptych – Fountains of Rome (1916), Pines of Rome (1924), and Roman Festivals (1928) – each richly evoke different aspects of Roman landscapes and culture. As can be gleaned from its title, the four-movement Pines of Rome depicts pine trees in four locations throughout Rome at varying times of day and in various historical periods. Of the three tone poems, Pines is the most frequently performed work.
Respighi chose and musically rendered his four Roman locations with care, each distinctly lovely in its own way. The lively first movement starts the work at the Villa Borghese, a palace built in the seventeenth century complete with charming pleasure gardens. The contrasting second movement, somber and mysterious, depicts early underground Christian burial chambers. Resphighi then illustrates the Janiculum, one of the Seven Hills of Rome, with serene and melodic strings and a soaring clarinet solo. This third movement ends with a recording of a nightingale’s song, making it one of the earliest works to use electronics within its orchestration. The tone poem’s final movement recalls the ancient glories of the Appian Way, an important early Roman road, with an ever-building surge of sound that concludes in a blast of triumphant brass and percussion.
Respighi himself wrote detailed programmatic descriptions of each movement within the score to Pines of Rome:
The Pine Trees of the Villa Borghese – Children are at play in the pine groves of Villa Borghese; they dance round in circles, they play at soldiers, marching and fighting, they are wrought up by their own cries like swallows at evening, they come and go in swarms. Suddenly the scene changes.
Pine Trees Near a Catacomb – We see the shades of the pine trees fringing the entrance to a catacomb. From the depth rises the sound of mournful psalm-singing, floating through the air like a solemn hymn, gradually and mysteriously dispersing.
The Pine Trees of the Janiculum – A quiver runs through the air: the pine trees of the Janiculum stand distinctly outlined in the clear light of a full moon. A nightingale is singing.
The Pine Trees of the Appian Way – Misty dawn on the Appian Way; solitary pine trees guard the magic landscape; indistinctly, the ceaseless rhythm of unending footsteps. The poet has a fantastic vision of bygone glories. Trumpets sound and, in the brilliance of the newly risen sun, a consular army bursts forth toward the Sacred Way, mounting in triumph to the Capitol.