The Death of Minnehaha

Composed by Mary Montgomery Koppel (b. 1982)

In the wigwam with Nokomis,
With those gloomy guests that watched her,
With the Famine and the Fever,
She was lying, the Beloved,
She, the dying Minnehaha.
“Hark!” she said; “I hear a rushing,
Hear a roaring and a rushing,
Hear the Falls of Minnehaha
Calling to me from a distance!”
“No, my child!” said old Nokomis,
“‘T is the night-wind in the pine-trees!”
“Look!” she said; “I see my father
Standing lonely at his doorway,
Beckoning to me from his wigwam
In the land of the Dacotahs!”
“No, my child!” said old Nokomis.
“‘T is the smoke, that waves and beckons!”
“Ah!” said she, “the eyes of Pauguk
Glare upon me in the darkness,
I can feel his icy fingers
Clasping mine amid the darkness!
Hiawatha! Hiawatha!”
And the desolate Hiawatha,
Far away amid the forest,
Miles away among the mountains,
Heard that sudden cry of anguish,
Heard the voice of Minnehaha
Calling to him in the darkness,
“Hiawatha! Hiawatha!”
Over snow-fields waste and pathless,
Under snow-encumbered branches,
Homeward hurried Hiawatha,
Empty-handed, heavy-hearted,
Heard Nokomis moaning, wailing:
“Wahonowin! Wahonowin!
Would that I had perished for you,
Would that I were dead as you are!
Wahonowin! Wahonowin!”                                                                                                                        

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem The Song of Hiawatha was inspired by stories of the Ojibwe people. The poem tells the story of the hero Hiawatha, (loosely based on the legendary Nanabozho), and follows the hero’s life from before his birth, through adventures, battles, and discoveries, until he rides off into the sunset, telling his people to embrace Christianity as he leaves.

Prominent in The Song of Hiawatha is the love story between the hero and Minnehaha, whose name means “laughing water” or waterfall. Minnehaha is a maiden of the Dacotahs, and Hiawatha proposes marriage both out of his love for her and to seal peace between their tribes. Their love is mutual and powerful.

Famine and fever strike Hiawatha’s people, and Minnehaha falls victim. While Hiawatha is out hunting for food, she sings her dying song with Nokomis, Hiawatha’s grandmother. Despite Nokomis’ pleading with the young bride, Minnehaha sees feverish visions of her homeland, of her people, and finally of the glaring eyes of Pauguk, the spirit of death. She dies with Hiawatha’s name on her lips, calling to her husband while Nokomis wails in mourning.

My setting of Minnehaha’s death song juxtaposes the frightened bride in her fevered delusions with the calm, comforting grandmother trying in vain to soothe and nurse her charge back to health. The music is inspired by traditional Ojibwe flute music, which is pentatonic and melodically simple. As Minnehaha approaches death and her fever increases her hysteria, the music shifts rapidly between modes, and her song clashes with that of Nokomis, who remains of this world. An Ojibwe prayer song shapes Nokomis’ final lamentation, “Wahonowin.”

–Mary Montgomery Koppel

The commission for this piece was made possible in part by a grant from the Boston University Ministry and Music Endowment .

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