The Story of Pioneer Songs
Posted by Eric Houghton in History on Apr 13, 2018
It was early 1992. Robert Marquis, a 47-year-old father of four, with a thriving public relations business, walked into my piano studio at the Westminster Conservatory of Music in Princeton, NJ and began taking lessons. This big bear of a man with an even larger laugh, was eager and excited about starting up lessons again after a 30-year lapse.
Bob had a bit of talent, and was plodding through some of the easier Chopin and Schumann, when I suggested he try out a couple new piano pieces I had just composed. I was new at the craft, but these two were not too difficult, and seemed pleasing enough to the ear…at least my ear. Bob came back the next week full of excitement. He had worked diligently on the “Folk Song” and “Cradle Song”, the second dedicated to my wife, Carol and our first child, Katie.
“These pieces are terrific, Eric!” Bob boldly announced at the lesson. “They have an early-American sound to them. I love them!” I was very happy to hear that, but stunned at his next rapid-fire onslaught: “You know, I’ve always wanted to write a show, Eric…a show about pioneers, This style seems perfect, doesn’t it? Let’s write a musical about the pioneers! We’ll have four soloists, narrator, and you can play the piano. What do you say?”
I said yes. That was the start. And we got to work. He would give me ideas: “We need an opening piece, with our young travelers gathering together, calling the audience to join them,” Bob told me. The next week we had “Gathering.” “We need a piece listing all the crap they tried to bring with them on the long journey,” said Bob. The song “Preparation” was born, with over 80 items hilariously listed and sung. The same for the father’s sad “Farewell” to his daughter, and the young man wanting to go, but so unsure about leaving became “Beckoning.” And so it went. The two piano pieces Bob had learned, “Folk Song” and “Cradle Song”, became the “Proposal” piece, and “Marriage Vows,” where our young pioneer couple get themselves hitched before starting toward California. The uneasy, yet dramatic “Departure” ends the first half.
The second half, Bob told me, was to be the journey itself. After the “Prelude to Act 2”, we created “Doins’ of the Day”, a snapshot of life on the trail, with narration co-mingling with the singers and vamping music. Next came the “stars” of the show, and the most troublesome and dangerous for those adventurers, “The Prairie”, “The Oxen”, “The Desert,” and “The Mountains.” After they barely made it over the Sierra Nevada mountains, Bob told me, they were just about dead. And so “Petition” is the prayer-like hymn that came next. In it we hear their humble plea to their God to somehow give the strength to keep moving ahead.
“They made it! They all made it!” Bob wrote in the narration, after each successive obstacle was conquered by the group. Indeed, these first pioneers Bob used as a guide, the 1841 Bidwell Party, with Ben and Nancy Kelsey as our main “characters”, all did make it into the lush green valley of northern California. “Celebration”, the final number in Pioneer Songs, pulls together thematic material heard earlier, combines motifs, and triumphantly ends the show with the words, “New Life!”
By May of 1993, the show was finished. Bob produced an infomercial that was shown all over America in the wee-small hours, hoping the sell the CD recording he had just funded. We weren’t very successful with that, but, undeterred, Bob produced the debut performance in Princeton in August, and began making big plans for future performances and an expansion of the show.
Tragically, time and life-on-life’s terms were not in Robert Marquis’ favor. In early January, 1994, only two days after he told me, “Eric, I am more optimistic right now about the future of Pioneer Songs than ever before…” I received a call from his wife, Karen that he had passed away the night before from a massive heart-attack. Everything stopped.
Eventually, a few more performances were staged, and I hand-wrote an orchestral score the following year, but the end of Bob Marquis, I certainly believed, was the end of Pioneer Songs. For many years it was.
Then, in the fall of 2016, I met the original soprano, Joy Bechtler, for coffee to discuss a possible rebirth of the show. I decided to go for it. I had the software and some more experience with orchestration to put together a full and expanded score of the work. With Bob “perched atop my shoulders”, for six months, I worked and created a new and improved Pioneer Songs.
Indeed, this version has “new life”, with choral backing to eight of the songs, an orchestra featuring all the normal instrumentation, plus guitar and piano, tubular bells and even newly added music. It is now primed and ready to return to the stage, as Bob Marquis would have wanted it to be. After 25 years, the show has come full circle and is longing to be heard.
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