The Prairie is a setting of an epic poem by Carl Sandburg,
which falls into seven short movements. The quality of sound
in this recording is immediately striking, as is the quality
of the performance, from both soloists and orchestra.
This is one of Foss’s earliest works, and one which had
an important impact on the start of his career. The compositional
style is unquestionably American, capturing the spirit of Copland
and combining it with the European influence of Hindemith and
Stravinsky. The orchestration is imaginative and supports the
soloists well. The overall compositional style is full of optimism
The piece makes use of repeated melodic figures and a simple,
well defined tonal language, giving a sense of unity between
the movements but never becoming stale. Foss’s approach
to instrumental writing is to treat them as voices, and the
resultant effect is a rich texture of melodic lines and colours.
Foss was not originally American, but moved to Philadelphia
in 1937 with his family at the age of 15 in order to escape
Nazi Germany. He embraced American culture and made it his own,
creating a distinctive voice for himself as an American composer.
There are certain modernist elements to The Prairie,
which are especially evident in the more dramatic moments, such
as in the last part of the fourth movement, When the Red
and the White Men Met. In these moments, one gets the sense
of a young composer emerging from tradition with innovative
ideas and an individual approach.
The opening movement serves as a prologue, setting the scene
and describing the landscape. Frank Kelly’s tenor voice
is arresting here, with a beautiful tone and expressive phrasing.
Folk-inspired material takes centre-stage towards the middle
of the work, making use of open harmony based on fourths and
fifths. A prolonged oboe solo evokes shepherds, and sparse orchestration
accompanies the haunting soprano solo, O Prairie Girl.
A dramatic orchestral interlude introduces the final song, which
looks towards the future with an optimistic but at times solemn
outlook. The end of the work is punchy and energetic, with syncopated
rhythms, bright instrumentation and driving forward movement.
This forms the main climax of the work, and this recording is
both exhilarating and dramatic.
Sandburg’s text was adapted by Foss to suit his plan for
the music, broken into songs and at times re-ordered from the
original. However, the poem has a strong identity, and there
are some beautifully evocative lines.
This is an excellent recording which captures the essence of
the work very well.