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Kaza: Celebrating a 200-year voyage

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"Jolly Flatboatmen in Port" by George Caleb Bingham

George Caleb Bingham's "Jolly Flatboatmen in Port" (1857)

Courtesy of St. Louis Art Museum

New Year’s Eve marks the end of Missouri’s bicentennial, 1821-2021. The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra will celebrate the occasion by premiering a new symphonic work by Missouri composer Stefan Freund, conducted by SLSO Music Director Stéphane Denève.

As a classical musician, I have spent my career performing the works of Bach, Beethoven and Bartók, among many others. These composers channeled the spirit of their homelands so masterfully that their music has come to dominate concert programs ever since. But Missouri’s music is its own inimitable stream, with tributaries as varied as Native American songs, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, fiddle tunes, rock and rap.

Given this embarrassment of musical riches, I wondered how Freund, a University of Missouri music professor, would find a theme for his composition. As a musical narrator, he had designated the French horn, my instrument, to tell the story. Coincidentally, the French horn was invented almost the same decade — the 1670s — as Europeans first sighted what would later become Missouri. Early explorers such as Captain James Cook carried a pair of French horn players onboard to announce their arrival in port. But what music would this horn announce to tell the story of Missouri?

I was thrilled when I learned Freund had bypassed many obvious musical heroes in favor of a group of lesser-known but intrepid explorers that first blazed the water highways of our state: the French-Canadian voyageurs.

After Father Jacques Marquette and fur trader Louis Joliet made their epic journey down the Mississippi in 1673, French Catholics established a mission at the mouth of River Des Peres in what is now south St. Louis. Fur traders began ascending the Missouri River, past future Jefferson City, Kansas City and beyond. When Pierre Laclede and Auguste Chouteau established the city of St. Louis as a fur-trading post in 1764, they hired voyageurs from French Canada to bring home the lucrative pelts on which the city’s fortunes were built. Their canoe journeys covered thousands of river miles, and they sang the whole way.

At that time, St. Louis was a melting pot of French-Creole, French-Canadian, Spanish, African slaves and Native Americans, who in general were treated well. The French, interested in the fur trade, had few designs on the land itself, other than some farms and lead mines. So for half a century, relative peace prevailed with the Osage, Illini and Missouria tribes. The French voyageurs had long ago formed deep alliances with their Native business partners; intermarriage was common.

Freund’s composition, “Voyageur Fantasy,” starts at dawn, with the weary paddlers rising to meet a misty, overcast day. The French canoe song “C’est L’aviron” is heard in a blues-inflected setting. “It’s the oar that leads us, that leads us, it’s the oar that leads us to the High Country.”

The “High Country” originally referred to the vast Canadian wilderness, but it could just as easily invoke the opening of the American West via its natural water route, the Missouri River. Lewis and Clark’s expedition included several French-Canadians, notably Toussaint Charbonneau, husband of the iconic Sacagawea. One of Clark’s main interpreters was multi-lingual François Labiche, of French and Omaha Indian parentage. The Voyage of Discovery’s overall success with Indigenous peoples was in no small part a result of the shrewd diplomacy and long personal experience of these French-Canadians. They continued on as singing boatmen long after the Louisiana Purchase transferred Missouri territory to the United States. John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company alone employed more than one thousand voyageurs. Only a change in fashion in the 1840s put an end to their labors.

I am by no means a French voyageur. I’m not even a native Missourian. But during the pandemic, I spent more time on Missouri’s waterways than I have in the 24 previous years I’ve lived here. I explored Ozark streams by kayak; I rafted the Missouri River with a group of friends and fellow musicians. I even swam in a spring-fed Ozark pond. And every day, I played my French horn. Water and music sustained me, just as they did the French voyageurs 200 years ago.

As we near the end of Missouri’s bicentennial year, I’m sure I’m not alone in worrying about where we’re headed as a state and a nation. But I also think it’s worth remembering how much we have to celebrate. As we journey toward the “High Country” we are capable of becoming, may Missouri’s early visitors, the voyageurs, inspire us to paddle together. And if we can make music along the way, I say bravo.

Roger Kaza is principal horn of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

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