Shenandoah program notes


by David Kidwell

Shenandoah is an area of western Virginia which encompasses the Blue Ridge Mountains (part of the Appalachian chain) and the Shenandoah Valley. The name is of Native American origin, said to mean “River of High Mountains.” Various Native American tribes, which had been living in the area for thousands of years, died off or were driven out by epidemics of new diseases brought to the continent by European settlers. The mountains were repopulated in the early 1700s, and the region grew into an isolated and fiercely independent community of farmers, traders, and craftsmen. Farming the rocky and uneven mountain land was always difficult, but by the early 20th century, with the land stripped and overworked, it became nearly impossible. In addition, the Chestnut Blight and the onset of the Great Depression devastated the local economy. In 1926, the U.S. Government decided to make the area into a national park and required all landowners to sell their property. Although some families gratefully accepted such a buyout, many others refused to leave and had to be forcibly evicted.

Shenandoah National Park was established in 1936. After more than 200 years of human use (and abuse), the area’s flora and fauna rebounded quickly. Today the Park features the scenic Skyline Drive (built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps), numerous campgrounds and tourist attractions, and a vast network of hiking trails, including a 100-mile section of the Appalachian Trail. On many trails, one may still find tombstones, fences, house foundations, and other reminders of the people who once lived in the mountains.

Shenandoah: A Symphonic Portrait is a musical depiction of both the mountains and the mountain people. (In each of the movement titles, the first word is an aspect of the mountains, the last an aspect of the people.) I have attempted to bring some of the rich tradition of mountain folk music to the piece, both by using ethnic instruments such as the fiddle, guitar, and dulcimer, and by incorporating some of the genre’s style and flavor into my own musical aesthetic. The folksong “Oh Shenandoah” is quoted in its entirety in the fourth movement, but all of the remaining melodies are original folksong emulations (which in fact were all derived by various methods from the “Oh Shenandoah” melody itself).

The first movement represents the sturdiness, stability, and constancy of the mountain people and of the mountains themselves. Movement is slow but steady, and open intervals are prominent. Harmonies are built from overlapping, or stacked, intervals of the fourth, creating a firm foundation and a modal flavor. Familiar “horn fifths” are also important, being derived directly from the overtone series–the bedrock, as it were, of Western music. Near the end of the movement, the main melody appears in the woodwinds at three different speeds simultaneously. The bitonal closing chord is an homage to Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring.

The second movement is in two parts. It opens with a simple melody, played by a solo violin and guitar, reminiscent of a campfire song. The rest of the first section is a set of variations on that melody, gradually building in power, then eventually returning to the original instrumentation. The second section is a depiction of a country hoedown. After a brief transitional section which simulates the tuning of fiddles, two episodes are presented, both in the traditional 16-bar AABA form, and both sharing a common refrain. The third episode, in minor, closely resembles an Irish jig, one of the many ancestors of Appalachian folk music. After a reorchestrated return of the first episode, there follow two “breaks,” one for solo violin and one for the bass section. The first two episodes then return in reverse order at a breakdown (faster) tempo, and the movement closes with two codas. All of the material in the hoedown section is derived from the opening campfire song, which is in turn derived from “Oh Shenandoah.”

The third movement features the interplay of two different ideas. The first is the haunting melody played at the beginning by the dulcimer. This theme returns twice more in the movement and is later intertwined with fragments of “Oh Shenandoah.” The second idea is an original hymn tune, which one might imagine being sung in a tiny white-frame mountain church. Two fragments of the hymn are played by the woodwinds, each time in a key foreign to the strings in the background, creating an eerie feeling of frozen time. The hymn is eventually played in its entirety by a string quartet, and the movement ends bitonally with an Amen in the strings and fragments of the modal melody in the winds.

The fourth movement, “Rebirth and Remembrance,” opens immediately with the “Oh Shenandoah” melody played by a solo cello without accompaniment. A set of variations follows in which the solo becomes a trio, then a three-part canon (round), then a powerful statement for the full orchestra. The “remembrance” aspect is accomplished through intervening contrasting episodes based on material from each of the preceding three movements. After gradually receding into a quiet restatement of the very beginning of the piece, the movement quickly builds again to a majestic multi-layered conclusion.

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