“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”).
This work 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.