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The Lakes (grade 4.5)

The Lakes


The Lakes was commissioned by Sam McIlhagga and the Lansing Concert Band in celebration of their 75th anniversary. I have known Sam since our days together as graduate students at Northwestern University and he has continued to be a great friend throughout the years, so it was a real honor to be asked to compose something for him and the band. One of the only stipulations for the piece was to relate it somehow to Michigan and the Great Lakes, and I was immediately inspired by the idea of a multi-movement work representing each lake in turn. Because there are five lakes, I almost immediately decided to make the number five an important building block for the structure of the piece. Therefore, the piece uses five different versions of a pentatonic scale and each movement is centered in a key area that is a fifth lower than the previous movements, so the key areas for each movement are as follows: G, C, F, Bb, and Eb. Also, most of the movements move through five different key areas, each a fifth apart. 

The first movement, Erie (The Battle of Lake Erie and Oliver Hazard Perry), focuses on the historical importance of the lakes by celebrating one of the first great naval victories for the young United States. Fought on September 10, 1813 as part of the War of 1812, Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry led the U.S. to victory over the British, leading to his famous quote, “we have met the enemy, and they are ours.” I represented this movement through the use of a minor pentatonic scale (G, A, Bb, D, Eb) and an additive process, which gradually creates layers of complex interlocking material that are intended to represent the building intensity of the battle. The main melodic material for the movement, presented in the initial horn and flugelhorn passage, is also structured using fifths, ascending through the notes G, D, A, Eb, and Bb.

The second movement, Huron (The Ballad of Minnie Quay and the Ghosts of the Lakes), focuses on the ghost legends associated with each of the Great Lakes. Minnie Quay was supposedly a young fifteen year old girl who had fallen in love with a sailor against the wishes of her parents. When her lover perished at sea, she is said to have jumped off the pier at Forester, drowning herself in the waters of Lake Huron. Her ghost supposedly still roams the beaches there, waiting for her lover to return. I attempted to depict this through the use of a minor pentatonic scale (C, Eb, F, G, Bb), which gives the movement a “folk tune” flavor. Five soloists are featured in the movement, including piccolo, clarinet, flugelhorn, horn, and euphonium. Each key change in the movement is slightly blurred by having different instruments move at different times, hopefully creating an atmosphere that is both ethereal and eerie.

The third movement, Ontario (Kingstie and the Monsters of the Lakes), focuses on the monster legends that permeate stories about each of the lakes. In particular, this story refers to a famous hoax initially created by some fishermen in 1934 who used water bottles as flotation to create a “monster” that looked strikingly similar to the famous Loch Ness monster. I attempted to create an energetic, scherzo-like movement using an altered minor scale (F, G, Ab, C, D) and a process in which various “licks” are introduced and repeated in a way that creates constantly shifting counterpoint. 

The fourth movement, Superior (The Edmund Fitzgerald and the Legend of the Three Waves), focuses on sunken ship legends and the enormous natural power of the lakes. The story of the Edmund Fitzgerald was, of course, forever immortalized in the song by Gordon Lightfoot, but the tragedy remains one of the great legends of the lakes, in which the ship mysteriously disappeared, lost with her entire crew of 29 men during a storm on Lake Superior on November 10, 1975. The Legend of the Three Waves is one of many possible explanations for the tragedy, describing a storm system in which three waves strike consecutively, with the final wave being of enormous power. I attempted to represent this movement through a minor scalar collection of Bb, C, Db, Eb, F and a rondo-like structure (ABACA), with the A sections representing the three waves and the final A section being the longest and most powerful.

The fifth, and final, movement, Michigan (The Legend of Sleeping Bear Dunes), focuses on the Native American relationship to the Great Lakes and the legends that are associated with that history. This Chippewa legend tells the story of a mother bear and her two cubs who are seeking escape from a fire on the shores of Wisconsin. They attempt to swim across Lake Michigan to safety on the opposite shore, but the cubs do not have the strength to survive the journey and die just short of the shore line. The mother bear lays down at the edge of the lake, forever watching the spot where her cubs drowned. The Great Spirit then creates North and South Manitou Islands on the spot where the cubs perished and then covers the mother bear with a great sand dune. The poignant nature of this story appealed to me as a fitting conclusion to the work, and I attempted to represent it using the scale Eb, F, G, Bb, Cb. The melody is a return to the melody from the second movement and the piece ends with a final dramatic arrival in Eb major before fading away with the sun glistening off the blue waves of the lake. 

The Lakes - Erie
00:00 / 02:53
The Lakes - Huron
00:00 / 02:45
The Lakes - Ontario
00:00 / 03:11
The Lakes - Superior
00:00 / 03:30
The Lakes - Michigan
00:00 / 03:57
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