River Moons (#2 from Two River Nocturnes)

SATB (divisi) a cappella

Recording credit: from the Delos CD titled American VoicesProvided to YouTube by NAXOS of America; Choir: John Alexander Singers; Conductor: John Alexander

Recording credit: from the Gothic CD titled Shadows on the Stars. Provided to YouTube by NAXOS of America Conductor: Ethan Sperry; Choir: Oregon Repertory Singers


Recording credit: Choral Arts Ensemble, conducted by Michael Culloton, from the CD This Shining Night

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The double moon, one on the high backdrop of the west, one on the
curve of the river face,
The sky moon of fire and the river moon of water, I am taking these
home in a basket, hung on an elbow, such a teeny weeny elbow, in
my head.
I saw them last night, a cradle moon, two horns of a moon, such an early
hopeful moon, such a child’s moon for all young hearts to make a
picture of.
The river—I remember this like a picture—the river was the upper twist
of a written question mark.
I know now it takes many many years to write a river, a twist of water
asking a question.
And white stars moved when the moon moved, and one red star kept burn-
ing, and the Big Dipper was almost overhead.
— Carl Sandburg (1878–1967)
from Smoke and Steel (1920)


River Moons was commissioned in 2005 by the Choral Arts Ensemble of Rochester, Minnesota for a concert of works entitled A Word’s Worth, featuring choral settings of texts by a variety of English-language poets, including Dickinson, Blake, Tennyson, Whitman, Bridges, and Shakespeare. The work was premiered in May 2006.

When CAE Artistic Director Michael Culloton approached me about this commission and told me about the theme of the concert, I immediately turned to Carl Sandburg, whose Prairie Waters by Night I had set on a commission from The Dale Warland Singers in 2003, the world premiere of which Michael had heard in 2004. I had for some time considered writing several companion pieces for Prairie Waters by Night that would constitute a short suite of “Prairie” Nocturnes based around the theme of water.

As with Prairie Waters by Night, I was struck by the beauty of the colorful language that Sandburg uses to describe various images of nature (“double moon, ““sky moon of fire,” “river moon of water,” “it takes many many years to write a river”). Sandburg’s poem takes a simple image of the moon reflected in the water of a river and turns it into a vivid memory from one’s youth, full of the nostalgia, mystery, and wonder that youthful memories invoke so powerfully, all of which I tried to capture in the musical language of the work.

Both poems (Prairie Waters by Night and River Moons) invoke a sense of memory: “The river—I remember this like a picture…” and “…sheer waters showing the russet of old stones remembering many rains.” Because they are intended to be companion pieces and because they share similar images, I wanted to establish a musical connection between the texts, which I did in several places in River Moons, particularly in the following passages, which are musically related to passages in Prairie Waters by Night.

“The sky moon of fire and the river moon of water, I am taking these home in a basket hung on an elbow,…”

“The river—I remember this like a picture—the river was the upper twist of a question mark…”

The music makes frequent use of antiphonal passages between the women and the men, the former representing the “sky moon” and the latter representing the “river moon.” As with most of my choral works, there is ample use of text painting; however, in River Moons I sought primarily to invoke the emotional content of the memory and wonder that Sandburg so wonderfully paints with his poem.

River Moons is dedicated to my father, Gene Muehleisen, who, as the dedication reads, “taught me to appreciate the sacramental beauty of Nature.” His long and eminent career in law enforcement was framed by service as a seasonal ranger in Yosemite National Park, a place of wonder and grandeur that he taught me to appreciate and to love. On the numerous trips that he and I took together throughout Western America and Europe and in the arboretum near his home that he so lovingly tended for more than 25 years, he passed on to me his love of Nature, teaching me that it is the echo of a loving Creator, the handwriting of God writ upon the earth, and a connection with a God who is beyond understanding, yet who can be known through the grand, as well as the intimate beauty of his creation. In four days from now, on Dec. 28, 2005, he will celebrate his 90th birthday, and this work is in part a birthday present and a thank you card to him.