Opera Collection Spotlight: American Indian Themes in Music
Interest in American Indian themes and melodies started in the 1700s, carrying through to performing groups in the late 1800s in the circus, Wild West shows and the various World’s Fairs. In the late 1800s ethnographers, folklorists and others interested in American Indian culture began to publish on their melodies. One of the earliest publications was Alice Fletcher’s A Study of Omaha Indian Music (1893). By the beginning of the 20th century musical themes were more about the “romantic notion” of the American Indians and noble savage.
In his book Imagining Native America in Music, Michael Pisani argues that there was no such thing as an "Indianist" movement in American music, but that the borrowing by American composers of melodies from native America (beginning around 1890) was simply one part of a larger interest in the use of folk music of all ethnicities on American soil. (A similar interest can be found in the work of several classical composers of Central and South America at this time as well.)
Poia: Blackfoot Indian Legend, a Grand Opera in Three Acts
Walter McClintock was an ethnographer and photographer of the Blackfeet Indian. McClintock was first introduced to the West in 1896. His interest was in the region continued as he returned to the Blackfeet reservation in Montana from 1898 until about 1912. He was adopted into the tribe by Mad Wolf, an influential leader. McClintock recorded his observations through photographs, sound recordings, film and notes. He became interested in the legend of Poia (Scareface) who is the son of Morning Star and the Sun God that tells of the origin of the Sun Dance
Arthur Nevin (April 27, 1871 - July 10, 1943) was an American composer, conductor, teacher and musicologist. Along with Charles Wakefield Cadman, Blair Fairchild, Charles Sanford Skilton, and Arthur Farwell, among others, he was one of the leading Indianist composers of the early twentieth century. Nevin received musical instruction from his father before enrolling in the New England Conservatory in 1889. After he completed his classes, in 1893 he traveled to Europe where he studied piano with Karl Klindworth and Ernst Jedliczka, and composition with Oits Boise and Engelbert Humperdinck. During the summer of 1903, Walter McClintock invited Nevin to the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana where Nevin studied Blackfeet music and folklore. He soon became recognized as an expert on Indian culture. Walter McClintock commissioned Nevin to compose an opera in 1903. The result is Nevin’s three-act opera “Poia,” for which he is best known. The opera is based on a Blackfoot legend. Randolph Hartley who composed on the libretto.
Poia Book: MS.533 folder 17
“Poia” was first heard in concert in Pittsburgh in 1907 and received good reviews. That same year, Theodore Roosevelt invited Nevin to the White House to give an illustrated talk on his work, but further interest from the American musical establishment was not forthcoming although during this time Hartley and Nevin tried to interest the Metropolitan Opera to perform the opera. Nevin and McClintock travelled to Germany to see if they could raise interest in the opera. Nevin studied and worked with Humperdinck during his three year stay in Germany. He re-wrote the music and “Poia” was given its stage premiere in April 23, 1910 at the Royal Opera House in Berlin, in a German translation. The opera only remained open for four performances and Kaiser Wilhelm and his wife attended the second performance. From there it fell into obscurity; a group in Great Falls, Montana performed it in 2005.
Nevin went on to compose numerous other works. He worked with Hartley on a one-act opera, initially titled “Twilight,” which was said to have been accepted for performance at the Metropolitan Opera, but never saw the stage there. It was performed as “A Daughter of the Forest in Chicago” in 1918. Nevin's other output includes a number of dramatic works, some pieces for chorus, and some chamber music, as well as four works for orchestra.
Randolph Hartley was a dramatist, librettist and theatrical agent. He wrote librettos for several operas beginning in 1895 with a romantic opera “The Juggler.” He seemed to fall quickly into obscurity and died in Montreal in 1931.
Montreal Gazette April 1931
“POEM SPEEDS HOME COMPOSER OF "POIA"; Librettist Hartley Wires Metrical Comfort to Arthur Nevin, Leaving Critical Berlin.
New York Times, May 8, 1910
|1||American Indian Themes in Music|
|2||Wax Cylinder Recordings in the Braun Research Library|
|3||Ephemera Collection in the Braun Research Library|
|4||The Dodge City Cowboy Band|
|5||Denver's Tabor Grand Opera House|
|6||Puccini's American West in Three Acts|
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