Program Notes - December 4, 1999 Concert
Into the Dark and Darker Cold
Mark Lanz Weiser
In the spring of 1846, a group of emigrants led by James Reed and George Donner left Springfield, Illinois to establish a home in California. En Route they were told of a new "cut-off" discovered by Lansford W. Hastings that was purported to be three hundred miles shorter than the traditional route. Although met with some resistance, Reed and Donner convinced their party to take the new trail. Tragically, Hasting's cut-off was not only untried and difficult to navigate, but ultimately longer. The party met with many obstacles along the way, including crossing the Great Salt Lake desert, where many almost died of thirst.
While traveling along the Humboldt River there was a scuffle between two wagons that got tangled attempting to ascend a small hill. One of the drivers, a young man named John Snyder, began beating the other wagon's oxen. When James Reed tried to intervene, Snyder turned on him. Reed, in self-defense, accidentally killed Snyder. It was decided that rather than hanging Reed, the party would banish him, forcing him to continue to California on his own. The Donner party fell behind schedule and were unable to pass the summits of the Sierra Nevada mountains. They quickly ran out of food. Many died, and some resorted to cannibalism for survival. It was James Reed who, after making it through to Sutter's Fort in California, led the first rescue party to bring the survivors out of the Sierras. No Reed family member perished, and none of them resorted to eating human flesh. What follows is a fictional narrative, based on fact, of the ordeal told from the perspective of James Reed's oldest daughter, Virginia.
We hardly think of bread, we've not had any since I can remember. What awful meat is left we mix with boiled hide, charred bone, leaves, bark. Oh, there is nothing at hand but death. Snow, dark snow, black snow past the windows of our shacks, foul air, scant sugar warmed and pressed to dying lips.
We hardly think of bread, we've not had any since I can remember...
Springfield; my only home; left behind to find the myth of California, abandoned to search for paradise: more calicoes, more sugar, vast solitude. Green land, the garden of the world. We are told to take the well-worn trail and never leave it, but a stranger knew a quicker way, a nigher road, Father says. So we took it, we took the cut-off.
It is a lavish Spring! Tall wagons white against the solitude of space. Such space! Unending sky and soft green land. We ride, spellbound by altitude, through an endless sea of sage until the black night covers us.
The land is stark, then lush, then choked with green. A cluster of clear, fresh springs comes up.
Hard driving then. Father leads us through a chaos of aspen and willow. In six days we only make eight miles. Crossing the great salt desert our wheels sink to the hubs. The awful stretch is twice as long as we were told. No scent of water, the oxen mad with thirst. We sleep with the dogs at night for warmth.
Then this: awoke to the crack of John Snyder beating his oxen, stuck fast, already near dead. Father tries to quiet him. Hard words. A violent blow to Father's head; more blows; Mother runs between the men - knocked down. Quick as a thought, Father's knife. John Snyder is dead! A meeting is called. What? Banished? Father is banished from the camp! No! Father don't leave us! No one will care for us as you have! Don't go!
We hardly think of bread, we've not had any since I can remember.
Home was plenty. Everlasting plenty: books, music, watercolors. Father always watching over us. Now I see him only in my dreams, growing smaller as he rode away on that awful day.
Oh why did we not listen to the prophets of good reason? Why keep driving ceaselessly into the dark and darker cold?
If what the others came through was unspeakable, let me not speak of it. Only remember: they want to live and see their children live. Only remember, such disaster makes of anyone a wretch, a terror, and unknown to himself. Remember the blood red trail of those who tried to walk from camp. Wild rhythm of death, whistling, leafless. Conscience-torn, hunger-torn, the pitiful scraps of sound that are our breathing.
We hardly think of bread, we've not had any since I can remember.
Mother and I have gone out for food. Little Patty and Thomas remain behind at camp. Nothing at all to eat but hides and snow water. We walk over great high mountains steep as steps -- snow to the knees and waist. Too bright. So bright. Too bright to see - is it? Father coming? Yes! I cannot breathe. It is not blindness! And in his pockets - bread! Father! For me! Bread! Better than any gold we had hoped to find. Father...
When we came out from the dark and snow it was spring in California. Beautiful! I walked in wildflowers, kissed my own hand as the sun did. We drank the breath of goodness there, and in that land, found ourselves husbands and wives. Saw each other: cruel, cunning, ghoulish in the sun. Will, forever, see behind the rose and apple sharp, hollow faces, sharp blades that were our arms arranging bits of rag against the biting cold. What had we been? Why were we made to know the lash of desperation, the way the body crumbles without food? With such a past upon us, what, ever after, shall we be?
When we came out the paper skins of poppy were in bloom. We drank the breath of goodness down. The reds and greens, the flowerings. We saw each other in the sun. And in that land, began to make again, some kind of home.
When Mark Weiser first asked me to collaborate on this project, I was cautiously intrigued. The story of the Donner party, though well known, is recalled, primarily, as a tale of gore, horror and supreme misfortune, a kind of Gothic pilgrimage tale of the American West - included in history books to get kids to sit up straight and pay attention. Reading firsthand accounts of the journey, letters of the travelers and witnesses to the events, however, reveals a story - many interconnected, refracting stories - far more complex than a mere gruesome interlude in what was a voracious "push" to settle America.
Mark and I soon realized that we meant to approach the project from a similar aesthetic, with similar concerns. What to make of the blind, and sometimes not-so-blind journey into vast wilderness, the relentless drive for more, the fraught consequences of pride and expediency? What, too, to make of the pioneers' seemingly bright end, the light of riches survivors cast back over such darkness in their writing? These questions compelled me forward as did questions of craft - among them, the challenge of dramatic compression, and the necessity of choosing points along the way which would function as a narrative, with peaks and depths, in response to the kind of dire elemental forces we, today, can barely imagine enduring.
Symphony no. 7 in D Minor, op. 70
It is well known that Antonín Dvorák, 1841-1904, was the grandest proponent of the Czech Nationalist movement in music. But what does that mean? There were nationalist musical trends stirring over the entire European continent, and soon to come, in the United States. Formally, these composers sought to incorporate their homelands' indigenous music into the Western Classical tradition; to put the sound of their folk music into the concert hall.
For centuries, Western music came from Italy, Germany, and France, and by the mid-1800's it seemed that all serious music (the symphony in particular) was coming from, or written like, the composers of Germany. But countries such as Finland, Norway, and the blossoming Czech Republic felt that they had not established their national identity in the world. In the political rivalries and fought-over boundaries, national identities were sought, even in the concert hall. A typical debate could be heard in the music parlors of the day: "And what has your country to claim in the concert hall?" It seemed as though the strongest countries monopolized everything, even the Western musical tradition. Composers like Smetana and Dvorák were extremely conscious of this, and vowed religiously to offer a nationalistic musical identity.
Perhaps deeper than this was a growing reaction to the Western musical tradition. Countries in Europe, with centuries of a traditional musical culture, were keenly possessive of their folk music. It was the music that everyone heard in the countryside, a music that relatives sang in nearly every aspect of their daily lives. The folk traditions were deeply set, and, to most, this music had great national meaning and evoked strong emotions. In a very deeply rooted way, the Nationalist movements in Europe were an attempt to do two things: bring about political awareness and revitalize a rather stodgy Western music. The answer was to turn back to the folk music of the people, and let the inspiration have its genesis there.
Dvorák knew humble beginnings. He was born in a small village on the banks of the Vtlava, some 45 miles north of Prague. At age 11, he left school to become an apprenticed butcher. His musical interest and abilities, however, eventually won his future. He studied organ, viola, and piano. For a time he was an orchestral violist, but gave this up to spend all his time composing. In 1874, he entered no fewer than 15 works for the Austrian National Prize, which compelled the interest of Johannes Brahms. From this point, the success of Dvorák rose to great heights.
The Seventh Symphony was composed between 1884-85, while Dvorák was on his first of nine visits to London. It is largely regarded as his finest symphony, though it bows to his New World Symphony (No.9) in popularity. By this point in his career, Dvorák had come to blend Czech folk music with the formal structures of the Western tradition in an expert hand. He had gained international success as one of the finest living composers in the world. His music transcended all political issues, and his nationalist-romantic writing was fresh and welcomed.
The Seventh does not stray too far from the formal Classical structure of the symphony. The movements transpire in the formal way: (1) Allegro Maestoso, (2) Poco Adagio, (3) Scherzo, Vivace-Poco meno mosso, and (4) Finale, Allegro. However, one cannot miss the strong Slavic currents expressed throughout the whole work. Dvorák had hoped that his Seventh would "shake the world." Such was the typically passionate character of this composer. It is a sweeping narrative, this symphony, though spoken in the language of the classical tradition. There is always a poignant urgency in the work; the mood of tragedy laid upon a tapestry of solemnity and foreboding overtones. One cannot help being entirely consumed in the vastness of this remarkable piece.