Pioneer Women! – Sym. No. 14

By Barbara Harbach

I. I Am a Pioneer!
II. A Woman Ought Not
III. Complexity
IV. Then Peace

Catalogue Number: 1014
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Pioneer Women! is a collection of four portraits of American women who helped to settle the wilds of Alaska. Taken from their diaries, letters, monographs, and journals, the texts chronicle their journeys throughout Alaska, from Skagway, the Southeastern entrance into Alaska, to White Mountain, near Nome, on the western coast of the Bering Sea.

I. I Am a Pioneer! – Catherine Van Curler and her husband landed in Skagway August 24, 1898, where they began the difficult journey to Dawson, by land and treacherous water. They took a train over the White Pass to White Horse and arrived in Dawson on September 1. Her portrait portrays the struggles of traveling across Alaska.
After a dramatic opening, the music spins into a cheery excitement as she begins her trip across Alaska. Then develops a section with ostinato strings while the woodwinds detail the long seven days, leading to turbulent music where the water was so rough and treacherous. After their arrival, the mood recaptures the cheeky excitement of the beginning of the journey.

II. A Woman Ought Not – As a young divorcee, Cordelia Nobel came to Nome in the early 1900s to make a life for herself. By 1913 she was living in Seattle; for reasons unknown, she committed suicide in November. While in Nome, she wrote regular letters to her mother telling of her quest for adventure, even wintering up North for the sake of the experience. She assured her mother that she did not have all sorts of “affairs of the heart.” “There are a great many of the opposite sex (God bless them) that I like very much, but therein lies the great and insuperable trouble – if they could be rolled together and made into one grand Composite Man, then I could fall in love and stay in love for all time, but that is an impossibility and therefore I am heartwhole.” Noble’s portrait is of a self-assured coquette, able to take care of herself and reveling in it.

“I didn’t come up to this country to get married, and don’t expect to marry for many a long year yet. When I’m about forty I would like to look around and choose a companion for the rest of my life, and settle down, but, unless I greatly change, nothing of the sort will happen any sooner than that. I have had things my own way for so long a time, that I doubt if a man could get along with me happily. For a woman ought not to have much of a mind when she is married!”

The music captures the playful rivalry between major and minor modes, the woodwinds carrying the main melodies with catchy imitation while the refrain underscores “A woman Ought Not.”

III. Complexity – Margaret Murie was an early environmentalist. She writes, “I think my main thought is this: that perhaps Man is going to be overwhelmed by his own cleverness; and I firmly believe that one of the very few hopes left for Man is the preservation of the wilderness we now have left; and the greatest reservoir of that medicine for mankind lies here in Alaska.” The portrait of Murie captures her anticipation and exhilaration in the rugged environment she explored. “All creatures fit in; they know how from ages past. Man fits in or fights it. Fitting in, living in it carries challenge, exhilaration, and peace. All creatures fit in; they know how from ages past. Man fits in or fights it. Fitting in, living in it carries challenge, exhilaration, and peace.”

Strings create the environmental atmosphere of wind and rain, while the woodwinds give intermittent sighing comments. A three-part canon in the brass portrays the ongoing challenges, before coming to the final challenges.

IV. Then Peace – A single woman, Gertrude Fergus Baker spent two years (1926-1928) in Alaska as a nurse. One year was spent at White Mountain, and in 1927 she moved to Tanana. In 1928 she served on a government hospital boat on the Yukon River. She later married and settled in Clallam Bay, WA. As a nurse in Alaska, she traveled by dogsled to outlying villages to provide health care to the natives. The portrait quotes her poetic words of the magic of nature’s colors and the beauty of its silence.

“Through the beauty of the ever-changing colors of sunset and moonrise, we came home. Mauve and rose, gold and jade, turquoise and opal. The ever-changing colors of sunset and moonrise on glistening ice and snow-covered hills. And all around, the silence of it. Long purple and blue shadows crept across the hills. And the silence was intense. As we rounded the great barrier of ice on the shore, we were greeted by the howling huskies at Chinik. And then, “Through the beauty of the ever-changing colors of sunset and moonrise, we came home.”

The strings carry the peaceful motives, the woodwinds portray the ever-changing colors, always with imitation among the melodies before leading into the “howling huskies at Chinik.” Peace returns with the ever-changing colors, and “I came home.”