The Open Range

“The Open Range” is a suite in two movements derived from a larger symphonic work entitled “Roundings: Musings and Meditations on Texas New Deal Murals.” The first performance of the complete work was given on April 8, 2000, conducted by James Setapen with the Amarillo Symphony, which commissioned it for its 75th anniversary. This suite has not yet been performed as a separate suite; therefore, the premiere of this suite is still available. The orchestration consists of three flutes, with third flute doubling on piccolo, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, and strings.

The music of this suite combines the Windmill and Lariat movements from Roundings. Both contain compelling orchestral representations of the somewhat rudimentary machines which they describe, rudimentary in the extreme in the case of the looped rope that was one of the cowboy’s most valuable tools. Together, the two movements portray a sense of the open territory and, with the advent of settlers and their need for water, of the profound changes that were to come. As with the parent suite, each of these movements is based on a mural painted by an artist in the New Deal, sponsored by the federal government to help artists during the Depression find employment and to articulate to the people through these murals something of their survivor’s spirit.

Water, of course, is basic to life, and in an area where wind is plentiful, but water is not, it seems inevitable that our forebears would figure out how to harness the one to help us get the other. In the first movement of this suite I have tried to show several things about windmills: the familiar scaffolding of the derrick is portrayed in a widely-spaced up and down motive in the woodwinds, which opens the work and which appears again several times. The constant circular motion of the multivaned windwheel is suggested by an undulating figure appearing first in the violas and later in various sections of the orchestra. One can hear in the bassoon, as well as in the cellos and basses, a rocking figure, reminiscent of the up-down motion of the pump. This material is balanced by frequent plaintive phrases that seem to call out for water. After a brief middle section which symbolizes for me the actual attainment of water and the slackening of thirst, the first section returns, but this time with major instead of minor intervals, signaling the satisfaction—for a time, at least—of this, one of the most essential needs not only for humankind but also for all things that grow.

One cannot think of the history of the open range, of course, without thinking of the significant impact that the raising and herding of cattle has had upon it. And one simple machine, the looping of a rope into a moveable, living snare, became not only an indispensable tool of the trade but also one of the icons typifying the cowboy’s work itself. The central motive of the second movement of this diptych is a musical figure that describes the physical action of the lariat, the circular gathering of force, then the unleashing of energy as the rope is thrown. You will hear it first in the solo cello, then later all throughout the string section.

I have thought of this second movement as depicting an old cowherder, one of the great ones, someone like Charles Goodnight, sitting around a campfire some starry evening reminiscing with several of the younger hands about how it used to be in the good old days. I imagine he is bragging about his skills with the lariat, and bits and pieces of remembered cowboy songs come floating by. In the middle section, someone sings two songs in their entirety, “Strawberry Roan” and “Git Along Little Dogie,” both presented in sonorous orchestral garb, the first as an English horn solo and the second in various other instrumental doublings. I have always considered the refrain of the second of those tunes to be one of the most haunting moments in American folk song.

Then the storytelling resumes, led off this time by the solo double bass, with the volume later intensifying as all the hands join in. In the end, however, the old Boss, in the person of the solo cello, gives one final demonstration of his mastery with the rope.

Program Notes by Samuel Jones