The following is the first in a series of three guest posts by Music Division Archivist Anita M. Weber.
No vacation for you this summer? Me either. But I’ve found a way to take a few trips through music, plotting out three escapes that provide something for everyone. For many people summer vacation means a road trip. So for our first trip let’s hop in the car and head for western North America – a land of extreme beauty and grandeur.
I’m a native Chicagoan, so on this vacation we are taking iconic Route 66 west (because it’s my dream world, the road is in its heyday). “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66” by Bobby Troup and sung by the Nat King Cole Trio is setting a nice swing-y mood that will take us almost all the way to California. On the way, we’ll “see Amarillo, Gallup, New Mexico, Flagstaff, Arizona” and won’t “forget Winona” or Kingman, Arizona, before heading northwest to our first stop: Death Valley National Park.
Here Ferde Grofé will be our guide to this often bleak and desolate land. Grofé composed his Death Valley Suite in 1949 to celebrate the centennial of the “49ers” trek through Death Valley on their way to the California gold fields.
In four movements Grofé takes us on a journey to the “Funeral Mountains” (grim, bleak, dark, foreboding), a “Desert Water Hole” (with a magisterial opening that becomes playful as it segues into “Oh Susannah,” cinematic in sound) and through a “Sandstorm” (a swirling, whirling, tempest, followed by the clearing sky and calm/peace). We also take a ride on an “Emigrant Train” (a rollicking jaunt, train wheels rolling, movement, and a sense of fun/camaraderie).
Now let’s continue 500 miles northward to a different type of beauty – Lassen Volcanic National Park in northern California.
When it became a national park in 1916 (just two years after its last eruption), Lassen Peak was the only volcano protected by the federal government. Five years after this plug dome volcano joined the national park system, Samuel B. Fields poetically described the “torrents of foam, shouting geysers, cinder cone, hot boiling cauldrons, icy caves and flow’r-y glade [that] in turn delight the eye” in his simply titled “The Lassen Volcanic National Park.”
After hiking a bit at Lassen and perhaps taking a dip at the park’s cooling Manzanita Lake it is time to drive 870 miles east-northeast to Montana to visit Yellowstone National Park where our two guides, Joseph Adam and Nicolas Slonimsky, await.
Austrian-born Joseph Adam, director of the music department and professor of piano at Montana State University in Bozeman, composed Yellowstone National Park Suite, op. 5 in 1923. The movement names serve as a guide to this glorious park: the “Old Faithful Inn” built of towering lodgepole pine logs, the great polychrome “Morning Glory” pool, wildlife in the form of bear “Cubs,” and the “Grand Canyon” created by lava flow and carved by the Yellowstone River. Adam’s suite is a set of tone poems that bring the beauty of the park to life through sound, especially “Morning Glory” which one listener noted is descriptive of the pool with music that has “a tone poetry that is as iridescent as the subject.”
Our next guide, Nicolas Slonimsky, takes a different tack. In his Yellowstone Suite, written in 1951, the Russian-born musical trickster takes us on an altogether different tour of Yellowstone. Five movements of this suite also take us to the park’s sites: “Paint Pot Basin,” “Clepsydra (Water-Clock Geyser),” “Roaring Mountain,” and of course, “Old Faithful.” But in his imaginative introductory text and his off-kilter music Slonimsky also reminds us of some of the dangers in the wild.
One is forewarned about the steamy vents: “Fumaroles and solfataras,” he notes in the introduction to movement three, “are tiny but mean volcanic vents. Fumaroles fume; solfataras exude solfo, which is Italian for the odor of over-ripe eggs.” “One of these geyserlets,” Slonimsky complains, “sent a jet of steam up the author’s trouser leg, scalding his ankle sufficiently to enable him to display raw flesh burns for fully a week.”
Instead of Adam’s “Cubs,” Slonimsky sees black bears and reminds us that “Black bears of Yellowstone Park are, in the words of the National Park Service brochure, ‘apparently friendly but potentially very dangerous.’” Thus forewarned, with bear bells and bear spray in our packs, we can spend a week or more taking in the geysers, fumeroles, and hiking trails of this vast, glorious park before resuming our journey.
With passports in hand, we’ll drive 670 miles along the spine of the Rocky Mountains where our final stop finds us in Alberta, Canada at beautiful Lake Louise with its turquoise lakes and the Victoria glacier.
Russian-American conductor Andre Kostelanetz visited this area by train in 1927 while on a cross-country trip to California. The beauty of the area and the lake itself inspired him to compose “Lake Louise,” for solo harp.
And here’s a treat for you – a chance to listen to Mr. Kostelanetz, himself, play his composition (transcribed for piano) and enjoy a peaceful respite at the end of our long journey.