Lukas Foss: The Prairie

Words adapted from “The Prairie” by Carl Sandburg

NEA Festival: American Masterpieces
8 p.m. Saturday, March 3, 2007
VMA Arts and Cultural Center, Providence

Andrew Clark, conductor

The Providence Singers

Elizabeth Weigle, soprano
Gigi Mitchell-Velasco, mezzo-soprano
Frank Kelley, tenor
Aaron Engebreth, bass

About the Composer

Lukas Foss

Lukas Foss was born Lukas Fuchs on August 15, 1922, in Berlin. He was the son of a philosophy professor and a painter, born into a cultivated Jewish family that recognized his talent. He began to study piano and theory at an early age.

Foss fled Nazi Germany with his family – first to Paris in 1933 and then to the United States in 1937. He was 15 when he arrived in Philadelphia to begin his studies at the Curtis Institute, but he was hardly a beginner. Foss had been composing since he was 7 years old, and now at age 15 G. Schirmer was publishing a series of his piano compositions. His gifts were plainly evident; he became – at 23 – the youngest composer to win a Guggenheim Fellowship.

His musical training and pedigree – conducting with Fritz Reiner and Serge Koussevitzky and composition with Paul Hindemith, for example – prepared him for a life in music and for artistic success on several fronts. He was a superb and highly acclaimed pianist, serving for a time as pianist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He enjoyed great success as a conductor (Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, Buffalo Philharmonic, Milwaukee Symphony, Brooklyn Philharmonic) and as a guest conductor around the world. Music critics applauded his gifts as a concert programmer and tireless advocate of the new and interesting. (In 1986, The New York Times wrote, “Our musical life would be richer if Lukas Foss ... could hire himself out as a sort of ‘programmer at large.’ He seems incapable of a mechanical idea.”) Foss was an influential educator as well, serving as faculty member or composer-in-residence at UCLA (succeeding Arnold Schoenberg), Tanglewood, Harvard, the Manhattan School of Music, Carnegie Mellon University, Yale University, and most notably at Boston University, where he has been professor of music, theory and composition since 1991.

It was his work as a composer, however, that brought him the most attention, and it was The Prairie (1944) that established him as a significant new voice in American music. American culture – literature, painting and sculpture, film and photography, music – was on the cusp of explosive post-war development. Eminent European composers – Schoenberg, Hindemith, Stravinsky, Bartok – had fled to America and found productive places in academe and elsewhere. Popular music, jazz, blues and folk traditions were prominent new influences, as were new developments in recording technology and the rapid growth of mass communication.

Foss embraced his new homeland – “... as a boy of 15, I fell in love with America,” he said – becoming a U.S. citizen in 1942. He found Carl Sandburg’s poem when he was 19 and began almost immediately to set it to music, adapting it himself without a librettist. He was well along with the work when someone suggested that he should obtain the poet’s permission to set the text. Foss sent Sandburg a long, pleading letter and received a copy of a note Sandburg sent to his publisher: “This young man has the right sporting spirit; give him a break.”1

Composer’s Commentary

On May 15, 1944, when the legendary American choral conductor Robert Shaw presented the world première of Lukas Foss’s The Prairie, the printed program included the composer’s own prologue:2

The attempt to develop an oratorio style based on the American soil and spirit is not new, but Sandberg’s epic poem, it seems to me, offers new possibilities in its earthy and almost religious approach. It is a new expression of an old faith drawn from the native soil. The protagonist, simply, is the prairie, but through this poem the prairie grows until it becomes the symbol for the all-embracing principle of growth itself.

Foss has written the following about the themes and structure of his cantata:

The opening movement, which has the nature of a prologue, speaks of the prairie as we are accustomed to visualize it. The author, in a pastoral tenor solo, sings of open valleys and far horizons, and the music breathes fresh air.

After this pastoral introduction, a fugue is heard in the orchestra, above which the chorus takes up a new theme in the manner of a chorale. This is the voice of the prairie: “I am here when the cities are gone. I am here before the cities come. ... I am dust of men. ... I who have seen the red births and the red deaths of sons and daughters, I take peace or war, I say nothing and wait.”

As a complete contrast, a folk-like movement follows, but the melodies remain original throughout the work, no native tunes having been used. With the re-entry of the chorus, the prairie becomes “mother of men, waiting.” Then the author reaches far back into the past and we see the cities rising on the prairie, out of the prairie, while the chorus chants of the years when the red and the white man met. A male voice calls out: “To a man across a thousand years I offer a handshake; I say to him: ‘Brother, make the story short, for the stretch of a thousand years is short.’”

In rugged 5/4 and 7/4 rhythms follows what may be styled the industrial section, ending with a fugue for male voices on the words: “What brothers these in the dark of a thousand years.”

A lyrical intermezzo brings us back to the prairie. This consists of a short a cappella chorus, “Cool Prayers,” a soprano song, “O Prairie Girl,” and a scherzando duet, “Songs Hidden in Eggs.” These are held together by a dreamy little shepherd’s lay, a nostalgic woodwind refrain of the prairie.

The tenor’s voice introduces the seventh and last section, and everyone joins in the final hymn to the future, expressing the healthy and sunny optimism unique to this country: “I speak of new cities and new people. I tell you the past is a bucket of ashes. ... I tell you there is nothing in the world, only an ocean of tomorrows.”

Thus, having opened to us the past and the present, the prairie announces the future, “Tomorrow is a day.”

Text of The Prairie

I. I was born on the prairie

I was born on the prairie and the milk of its wheat, the red of its clover, the eyes of its women, gave me a song and a slogan.

Here the water went down, the icebergs slid with gravel, the gaps and the valleys hissed, and the black loam came, and the yellow sandy loam.

Here now a morning star fixes a fire sign over the timber claims and cow pastures, the corn belt, the cotton belt, the cattle ranches.

Here the gray geese go five hundred miles and back with a wind under their wings honking the cry for a new home.

Here I know I will hanker after nothing so much as one more sunrise or a sky moon of fire doubled to a river moon of water.

The prairie sings to me in the forenoon and I know in the night I rest easy in the prairie arms, on the prairie heart.

II. Dust of men

I am here when the cities are gone.
I am here before the cities come.
I nourished the lonely men on horses.
I will keep the laughing men who ride iron.
I am dust of men.
I am dust of your dust, as I am brother and mother
To the copper faces, the worker in flint and clay,
The singing women and their sons a thousand years ago
Marching single file the timber and the plain.
I hold the dust of these amid changing stars.
I last while old wars are fought, while peace broods mother-like,
While new wars arise and the fresh killings of young men.
I fed the boys who went to France in great dark days.
I who have seen the red births and the red deaths
Of sons and daughters, I take peace or war, I say nothing and wait.

III. They are mine

Have you seen a red sunset drip over one of my cornfields, the shore of night stars, the wave lines of dawn up a wheat valley?

Have you heard my threshing crews yelling in the chaff of a strawpile and the running wheat of the wagonboards, my cornhuskers, my harvest hands hauling crops, singing dreams of women, worlds, horizons?

They are mine, the threshing crews eating beefsteak, the farmboys driving steers to the railroad cattle pens.

They are mine, the crowds of people at a Fourth of July basket picnic, listening to a lawyer read the Declaration of Independence, watching the pinwheels and Roman candles at night, the young men and women two by two hunting the bypaths and kissing bridges.

They are mine, the horses looking over a fence in the frost of late October saying good-morning to the horses hauling wagons of rutabaga.

They are mine, the old zigzag rail fences, the new barb wire.

I am the prairie, mother of men, waiting.

Rivers cut a path on flat lands.
The mountains stand up.
The salt oceans press in
And push on the coast lines.
The sun, the wind, bring rain
And I know what the rainbow writes across the east or west in a half-circle:
A love-letter pledge to come again.

IV. When the red and the white men met

Out of prairie-brown grass crossed with a streamer of wigwam smoke – out of a smoke pillar, a blue promise – out of wild ducks woven in greens and purples –

Here I saw a city rise and say to the peoples round world: Listen, I am strong, I know what I want.

Out of log houses and stumps – canoes stripped from tree-sides – flatboats coaxed with an ax from the timber claims – in the years when the red and the white men met – the houses and streets rose.

A thousand red men cried and went away to new places for corn and women: a million white men came and put up skyscrapers, threw out rails and wires, feelers to the salt sea: now the smokestacks bite the skyline with stub teeth.

V. In the dark of a thousand years

To a man across a thousand years I offer a handshake.
I say to him: Brother, make the story short, for the stretch of a thousand years is short.
What brothers these in the dark?
What eaves of skyscrapers against a smoke moon?
These chimneys shaking on the lumber shanties
When the coal boats plow by on the river –
The hunched shoulders of the grain elevators –
The flame sprockets of the sheet steel mills
And the men in the rolling mills with their shirts off
Playing their flesh arms against the twisting wrists of steel:
what brothers these in the dark of a thousand years?

VIa. Cool prayers

After the sunburn of the day
handling a pitchfork at a hayrack,
after the eggs and biscuit and coffee,
the pearl-gray haystacks
in the gloaming
are cool prayers
to the harvest hands.

VIb. O prairie girl

Spring slips back with a girl face calling always: “Any new songs for me? Any new songs?”

O prairie girl, be lonely, singing, dreaming, waiting – your lover comes – your child comes – the years creep with toes of April rain on new-turned sod.

O prairie girl, whoever leaves you only crimson poppies to talk with, whoever puts a good-by kiss on your lips and never comes back –

There is a song deep as the falltime redhaws, long as the layer of black loam we go to, the shine of the morning star over the corn belt, the wave line of dawn up a wheat valley.

VIc. Songs hidden in eggs

Look at six eggs
In a mockingbird’s nest.

Listen to six mockingbirds
Flinging follies of O-be-joyful
Over the marshes and uplands.

Look at songs
Hidden in eggs.

VII. Tomorrow

O prairie mother, I am one of your boys.
I have loved the prairie as a man with a heart shot full of pain over love.
Here I know I will hanker after nothing so much as one more sunrise
     or a sky moon of fire doubled to a river moon of water.
I speak of new cities and new people.
I tell you the past is a bucket of ashes.
I tell you yesterday is a wind gone down,
a sun dropped in the west.
I tell you there is nothing in the world
only an ocean of to-morrows,
a sky of to-morrows.
I am a brother of the cornhuskers who say at sundown:
Tomorrow is a day.

Text adapted by the composer from Carl Sandburg’s “The Prairie.”

1 Anecdote cited by Eldonna L. May in “Family Values Revisited: A Critical Analysis of Lukas Foss’
   The Prairie,” a paper presented at the 19th Annual National Conference on Liberal Arts and the
   Education of Artists (October 19-21, 2005).

2 Cited in Robert Bagar and Louis Biancolli, The Concert Companion, (New York: McGraw-Hill
   Book Company Inc.; ©1947 by The Philharmonic-Symphony Society of New York), pp. 267-268.