Gwyneth Walker

Prairie Songs

for Contralto and Piano (2019)
for Soprano and Piano (2020)

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Download a PDF file of poetry used in this work as text for printing in concert programs.

Commissioned by Kiya Fife -- premiered August 27, 2020 in Lincoln, Nebraska -- Kiya Fife, contralto; Michael Cotton, piano

The texts for Prairie Songs are taken from the writings of Willa Cather and Carl Sandburg. Three Cather poems ("Going Home," "Prairie Dawn", and "Prairie Spring") are framed by sections of the Sandburg extended poem, "Prairie." Together, these lyrics provide rich and abundant portraits of the prairie land, prairie spirit and prairie heart.

Of the Cather poems, the first, "Going Home," speaks of a train crossing the prairie. How smoothly the trains run beyond the Youth, running away...they run rejoicing...singing and humming. This is a song of nostalgia. Even in my sleep I know when I have crossed the river. Energetic train rhythms fill the piano accompaniment.

A second Cather poem is the brief "Prairie Dawn." A crimson fire that vanquishes the stars; a swift, bright lance hurled low across the world. Here the piano patterns are fluid like the stars, or the purple mists ascending. The voice is gentle and quiet, expressing the magical beauty of a prairie dawn.

"Prairie Spring" is a poem of contrasts, opening with a description of the sombre land, heavy and black, full of strength and harshness... and then suddenly changing to Against all of this, Youth, flaming like the wild roses. Musically the contrast is heard in the change from the dark tonality of F Minor into a bright D Major. Singing and singing, out of the lips of silence, out of the earthy dusk.

The Sandburg texts which connect the Cather poems are all excerpted from the poem, "Prairie." This writing is personal (first personal), narrative expressive poetry, which contrasts and balances with the Cather style of descriptive imagery. Sandburg writes I was born on the prairie. The prairie sings to me. O prairie mother, I am your daughter. I rest easy in the prairie arms. These words are exquisitely beautiful. They engender the music that opens and closes the Prairie Songs.

Certain poetic images suggested by the Cather and Sandburg poetry run through the songs. The listener might hear, and then envision, the expanse of open land, prairie grass blowing in the wind, a train crossing the prairie at night, stars, the mist rising, youth flaming like the wild roses. The astute listener might even hear strains of The Star Spangled Banner in the background while at a country picnic. These are the images of mid-America, of the prairie. The prairie sings to me...

Notes by the composer