Prairie Waters by Night (#1 from Two River Nocturnes)

SATB (divisi) a cappella


Recording credit: Premiere performance by The Dale Warland Singers, conducted by Dale Warland

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TEXT

CHATTER of birds two by two raises a night song joining a litany of run-ning water—sheer waters showing the russet of old stones remem- bering many rains.

And the long willows drowse on the shoulders of the running water,
and sleep from much music; joined songs of day-end, feathery throats and stony waters, in a choir chanting new psalms.

It is too much for the long willows when low laughter of a red moon comes down; and the willows drowse and sleep on the shoulders of the running water.
Carl Sandburg (1878–1967) from Cornhuskers. 1918

PROGRAM NOTES

Full Version
Prairie Waters by Night was written as one of four pieces commissioned by the Dale Warland Singers for a “suite” of works by four different composers tied together by the theme, A River Journey. The works were premiered on a concert of the same name by the Dale Warland Singers as part of St. Paul, Minnesota’s Grand Excursion celebration in April 2004. The other composers and works were Bill Banfield (The Negro Speaks of Rivers), Steve Heitzeg (Elegy on Water), and Kirke Mechem (The Rivers of Babylon).

Prairie Waters by Night marks for me a “rediscovery” of the poetry of Carl Sandburg, whose extensive catalog of poetic work has for several decades fallen out of favor with many readers of poetry. As I was searching for a text for this work, I focused on works about the Mississippi and on writers and poets from Minnesota and the Midwest. I had for a long time owned a copy of The Complete Poems of Carl Sandburg, but had never found inspiration until this opportunity arose.

I was struck by the peaceful, pastoral, nocturnal quality of the text and by the beauty of the colorful language Sandburg uses to describe the various images of nature (the birds, the water, the stones, the willows, the moon). I was particularly drawn to the wonderful musical metaphors that Sandburg used throughout the poem: “chatter of birds…raises a night song…and the long willows…sleep from much music; joined songs of day-end, feathery throats and stony waters” and the way that he tied together all of the elements of nature “in a choir chanting new psalms.” The text was so well suited for the occasion and for a choral work that it was a clear choice.

The music serves to amplify the images in the text and to bring them to life through song: the “chatter of birds,” the “running water,” the clarity of the “sheer waters” and the veiled nocturnal quality of the drowsy willows as they “sleep on the shoulders of the running water.” So much of the poetry of the past 100 years arose from the stranglehold of the nihilistic and expressionistic aesthetic of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which focused primarily on the dark side of humanity; while the expression of beauty was frequently relegated to a distant back seat, to an “old fashioned” and, for many, irrelevant world. What a joy it has been to rediscover Sandburg’s poetry, with its expression of the natural world in images of peace, beauty, and awe; poetry that uplifts, refreshes, and renews in the spirit of the writings of one of America’s greatest writers on Nature: Henry David Thoreau.

Abridged Version
Prairie Waters by Night was commissioned in 2003 by the Dale Warland Singers for a suite of works by four different composers unified by the theme, A River Journey. As I was searching for a text for the commission, I focused on works about rivers and water by poets from the Midwest and soon stumbled upon my copy of The Complete Poems of Carl Sandburg, which I had owned for many years, but in which I had never found inspiration until this opportunity arose. As I read Sandburg’s beautiful poem, I was struck by the peaceful, pastoral, nocturnal quality of the text and by the beauty of the colorful language Sandburg uses to describe the various images of nature. I was particularly drawn to the musical metaphors throughout the poem: the “chatter of birds,” “a night song,” “songs of day-end” and “the long willows” that “sleep from much music.” In the climax of the poem Sandburg unites these elements of nature “in a choir chanting new psalms.” The text was so well suited for the occasion and for a choral work that it was a clear choice.

The music serves to amplify the images in the poem and to bring them to life through song: the chatter of the birds, the running water, the veiled nocturnal quality of the drowsy willows, and the clarity of the sheer waters. Several of these images are also to be found in Sandburg’s poem River Moons, which I set as a companion work in my own Two River Nocturnes. Because of these shared images, I created several musical connections between the two works that can be heard in several musical passages.

So much poetry and literature of the twentieth century has focused primarily on the dark side of humanity, while the expression of beauty has frequently been relegated to a distant back seat, to an “old fashioned” and, for many, irrelevant world. What a joy it has been to rediscover Sandburg’s poetry, with its expression of the natural world in images of peace, beauty, and awe; poetry that uplifts, refreshes, and renews in the spirit of one of America’s greatest writers on nature: Henry David Thoreau.