Any way you look at it, the story of the Mormon pioneers is one of the great epics of the American West. Over the years it has been looked at in many ways: Words have been written, songs have been sung, dances have been danced.
A new project sponsored by the Sons and Daughters of Utah Pioneers brings all these elements together in one heartfelt package featuring music by Robert Cundick, poetry by Edward L. Hart and dance choreographed by Virginia Tanner and Christine Ollerton.
The combined one-disc CD/DVD had its beginnings long before either of those technologies were available. Back in the early 1960s, Cundick had set the words of "To Utah" by Hart into a choral arrangement and had also composed "Woman the Pioneer" for a modern dance Tanner was doing for the Seattle World's Fair. But both works have been little-heard-of since then.
Last fall, Cundick's wife, Charlotte, was finishing a term as president of the Canyon Rim Company of the Daughters of Utah Pioneers and she challenged her husband to make an equal contribution to the Sons of Utah Pioneers in honor of his own pioneer heritage.
"It was kind of a dare," he says with a laugh. But Cundick, organist emeritus with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir as well as a composer and former music professor at Brigham Young University, began seriously thinking about it. He remembered his two works from 40 years ago and began to explore possibilities. He asked Roger Miller, senior musicologist at the University of Utah School of Music, to write commentary for an accompanying booklet. Lloyd Carr, musician-owner of Carr Printing, and audio-visual specialist Glen Glancy and others were brought on board. Both DUP and SUP organizations pledged support, and the project became a reality.
Putting it all together has been a labor of love and donation by all involved, says Cundick. All proceeds from "The Mormon Pioneer Saga," which sells for $24.95, will go to future production costs, so it will be a self-perpetuating enterprise. (Distributed by BYU Creative Works, it is available at Deseret Book and other retail outlets.)
"It is our gift to the memory of the pioneers," says Cundick. "It is through memory that their story stays alive."
Looking at the pioneer story through artistic eyes is a good way to understand what it means to people both the participants and those who share its legacy, says Miller.
"The experience of any individual or group is so small compared to the overall experience. Some were burdened with all kinds of difficulties; some found an adventure, a lark."
To try to give a picture of the pioneer experience, he says, artists often take a kind of mythic approach. "In the overall, myth is often more true than history. History can never tell the whole truth. Music, dance, poetry can say what plain words can not say."
From the beginning, Cundick loved Hart's poem. "The thing that drove me was a great desire to keep that piece alive." Just as it is also important to keep the heritage of Virginia Tanner alive, he says. "Fewer and fewer people realize what a monument of vision and energy she was."
Setting poetry to music offers its own challenges, says Cundick. "Good poetry has its own music. You don't want to destroy that." But, adds Miller, "the right music can add emotional depth." The poem's author "has a genius for distilling meaning, for putting just the right word in the right place to achieve maximum impact. Bob's music does the same."
His music has been described as "tonal and directly expressive," Cundick says. In this case it is traditional; it weaves in phrases of hymns and folk music. "My ideal has always been to write something that does not need a lecture to understand but goes right to the heart."
The various media involved in this project mean you can approach it in many ways, says Cundick. "I'd hope people will approach the poem as a poem first, and when they understand it, then add the music. But, with dance, it's the other way around. I'd hope they become familiar with the music, and then add the visual. Dance turns music into motion."
In both cases, he hopes the listener will be challenged, will involve himself in the process. That's what adds depth and dimension, he says. "As with any work of art, you hope it will be a catalyst to a larger view. "The pioneer trek was a physical journey, adds Miller. "People crossed deserts with grime on their faces and calluses on their hands. But it was a spiritual journey, too. That sense of the sacred is so beautifully portrayed here."