Today, New Hampshire’s Monadnock Music Festival presents the Harvard Summer Chorus and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project in a performance of Lukas Foss’s 1944 cantata, “The Prairie,” based on Carl Sandburg’s poem. Foss, then 22, was already well on his way to a long career as a composer, conductor, pianist, and — even into old age — perennial musical whiz kid. “The Prairie,” though, marked a particular milestone: The German-born Foss had started the piece in 1942, the year he became an American citizen.
Foss confidently dived into Sandburg’s poem, cutting and rearranging the verses. Sandburg himself didn’t mind — “You have revitalized the old poem,” he wrote Foss — but the surgery made crucial alterations to the poem’s atmosphere and effect. Musicologist Beth Ellen Levy has pointed out, for instance, how Foss edited out all of Sandburg’s references to specific places, abstracting the heartland into an archetype.
At the time, thinking about the American West was still dominated by an abstraction: Frederick Jackson Turner’s idea of the frontier as a driving force in defining American character. The historian first set out his theory in a wildly influential 1893 paper, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” proposing that many stereotypical American traits — inventiveness; practical, industrial energy; profound individualism — resulted from Europeans’ and Europeanized Easterners’ encounters with the ever-advancing frontier.
Turner’s thesis, for all its influence, was and is problematic. But it is interesting to compare Turner’s image of the European-American reaction — “The wilderness,” Turner wrote, “takes [the European colonist] from the railroad car and puts him in the birch canoe” — to the Depression-era emergence of a familiar strain of musical Americana. Aaron Copland pioneered the style, repurposing Stravinskian, Russian-by-way-of-Paris neoclassicism: a European musical movement made distinctly American by its encounter with romanticized images of the American West.
The Copland-like qualities of “The Prairie” were evident to contemporary listeners (Foss “proclaims his debt to Copland,” wrote one critic). In retrospect, however, one can also hear, in Foss’s thicker harmonies and counterpoint, how American music would evolve away from such lean, oracular neoclassicism. A new American frontier, an intellectual frontier of big science and high technology, would eventually find its musical echo in a different European arrival: serialism and atonality.
Foss, for his part, disclaimed any historical consciousness. A fellow composer, reading over “The Prairie,” asked why Foss was trying to write "so American." “I wasn’t,” Foss recalled. “I was in love. I had discovered America.”
Andrew Clark conducts the Harvard Summer Chorus and the Boston Modern Orchestra project Sunday at 3 p.m. at the Peterborough Town House, 1 Grove St., Peterborough, N.H. (tickets $25; www.monadnock music.org).Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at email@example.com.