Jonathan Chenette
Dean of the Faculty and Professor of Music
Vassar College
124 Raymond Av.
Poughkeepsie, NY 12604-0004

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Oh Millersville!

by Jonathan Chenette

Poems from the Book Oh Millersville!, by Fern Gravel (a.k.a. James Norman Hall)
Used with permission of Conrad Hall and Nancy Rutgers


            Oh Millersville! consists of 9 songs to poems written purportedly by a 12-year-old Iowa schoolgirl named Fern Gravel.  Composed in 1990, the songs were orchestrated in 1991, on commission from the Dubuque Symphony Orchestra.  The premiere took place at the Five Flags Theater, Dubuque, Iowa, on February 22 & 23, 1992, with Kristie Tigges, soprano, conductor Nicholas Palmer, and the Dubuque Symphony Orchestra.

            The 58 poems of the original Oh Millersville! were actually written by James Norman Hall, who published the book as a literary hoax in 1941.  Best known as the author of Mutiny on the Bounty, Hall had been away from Iowa for many years when he wrote this light-hearted tribute to his boyhood home of Colfax, near Des Moines.  The songs, like the poems, aim to portray a vivid picture of various aspects of small town life, and their musical styles, ranging from Schubert to Schoenberg, correspond to young Fern's own eclectic eye. 

            The following brief descriptions introduce some prominent musical elements of each song.  The Journey to Come alternates between Victorian parlor song and free-flowing 20th century through-composition, corresponding to Fern's alternating moods of sentimental remembrance and wanderlust.  Winter Music  employs a musical style inspired by the North Indian khyal genre of vocal music - a sympathetic reference to all those poor countries "without a bobsled or a sleigh."  Arithmetic Again  employs a mathematically derived series of notes and numerically expressed meters such as 2+2+3 over 4.  Iowa is a rousing, patriotic march, featuring the brass and percussion.  Winter Complaints uses a solo xylophone to capture the bone-chilling cold of the season.  The Electric Button tinkles with the sound of bells interrupted by mischievous silences.  Places is a short and accelerating trip of the imagination to Nebraska and beyond.  The Suicide is Schubertian melodrama at a headlong pace.  And Before the Looking Glass employs series of notes in the melody with their mirror images in the accompaniment.

created by Jonathan Chenette,11/5/03
last modified, 12/27/08