O Pioneers! for Orchestra, Symphony No. 7
II. Now I See What Cannot Be
III. Always on Our Love Depend
Symphony No. 7 “O Pioneers!” was adapted from Harbach’s opera, O Pioneers! An American Opera, based on Willa Cather’s lyrical novel of tragedy and transformation, O Pioneers! In 2014, Harbach transcribed three songs from the opera to paint musical portraits of the characters Emil, Maria, Alexandra and Frank.
In the Willa Cather novel, it is 1910, and Nebraska is making the transition from frontier to prosperous rural heartland. It is the story of the Bergson family; Swedish immigrants in the farm country near the fictional town of Hanover. The novel explores two romantic relationships: one between Alexandra and family friend Carl Linstrum, and another between Alexandra’s brother Emil and the married Marie Shabata. Marie’s husband, Frank, is a mean, short-tempered man.
I. Conflict – trio: Frank, Marie and Ivar, a savant
Frank is angry because his neighbor’s pigs have gotten into his fields. Marie tries to console him, but their animosity escalates. A neighbor runs to tell them of the tragic news that their dear friend is dead. The trombones portray the anger and mean-spirit of Frank, and the high woodwinds reflect the strength of Marie who tries to assuage his anger. The horns carry the more melodic lines of Emil. The pounding timpani, octave leaps and the repeated notes in the strings all add to the tension. Near the end of the movement, a change of mood occurs signaling the tragic death of Amédée. The opening conflict returns with Frank unchanged in his dark and angry mood.
II. Now I See What Cannot Be – trio: Marie, Emil and Alexandra
In the wheat field amid the harvest, the men and women are just finishing lunch. Women are clearing tables and talking in groups to those who are finishing, men are tending their equipment and preparing to head back from the fields. Flirty repartee between Emil and Marie alternates between Emil’s theme, a seductive tango between the horns and strings, and Marie’s theme, lyrical and light with high woodwinds and harp. The scene ends with a rousing anthem dedicated to Nebraska, “Pioneers, O Pioneers!”
III. Always on Our Love Depend – duet: Alexandra and Carl
The deaths of Emil and Maria stun the community leaving Alexandra numb with grief and shock. Carl eventually returns after having heard news of the tragedy, and he and Alexandra begin a life of tenderness and measured happiness. With enduring and noble music in the brass, Carl tries to console the grieving Alexandra while she laments her loss with the melodic woodwinds and restive strings. A dialogue between the brass and woodwinds lead to a oneness of musical thought, a closure to her loss, and the abiding love of two people who have withstood the unthinkable.