OMAHA, Neb. — There have been all kinds of celebrations of the 150th anniversary of the nation’s first transcontinental railroad this May – from ceremonies at Promontory Summit, Utah, to the Big Boy steaming to and from Ogden, Utah’s, Union Station, to special exhibitions at museums all along the original route — but the sesquicentennial has also inspired new musical works written and performed for the occasion.
The Reno (Nev.) Philharmonic was lead commissioner of an orchestral piece by Chinese-born composer Zhou Tian. Called “Transcend,” it premiered on April 27.
Tim Young, the orchestra’s president and CEO, said his organization was looking to do a work for its own 50th anniversary, but then realized it was also the 150th anniversary of the railroad.
“We just got more and more excited when we realized how seminal the transcontinental railroad was to our community,” recalled Young. “I think many people here don’t realize that Reno only exists because of the transcontinental railroad. Charles Crocker stood outside what became the city and pulled the name out of a hat. It was Jesse Lee Reno. And he said ‘Okay, this town is going to be named Reno.’ And the next day the lots went on sale and that’s how the town began in 1868.”
The orchestra approached Zhou Tian, who had other pieces performed in Reno.
“I was very excited,” he said. “And it’s such a big honor. I must say, at the time, I didn’t know that much about the first transcontinental railroad. I said ‘yes,’ but at the back of mind, I was like, ‘Okay. Time to research what to do with this topic.’”
So, the composer went on a tour along the route, gathering information about the railroad and connecting with some of the 13 other orchestras that co-commissioned the piece — among them, the Utah Symphony, which will play “Transcend” on May 17 and 18, and the Omaha Symphony, which will play it next September.
The Reno Philharmonic’s music director, Laura Jackson, accompanied Zhou Tian into the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where the Chinese workers for the Central Pacific toiled and many perished.
“I’m walking through the Donner Pass tunnel with Zhou and I’m thinking, ‘what have I done? What have I done?’ said Jackson. “I’ve asked a Chinese-American composer to compose a piece commemorating this history that just annihilated so many people that share his heritage. And I just turned to him and I said ‘we are not just celebrating. We are commemorating. We’re commemorating a transformation of this nation.”
Throughout his trip, Zhou Tian says he found inspiration, from the echo of the pebbles underneath his feet, as he walked through the tunnel, which he used in the first movement, “Pulse,” to the information he received while touring the Union Pacific Railroad Museum in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and the Durham Museum in Omaha. He learned how, at the railroad’s completion, a coast-to-coast telegram went out.
“And it was just one word. It’s done. D-O-N-E, exclamation point,” recalled the composer. So, he decided to hear what it sounded like in Morse code. “And it happened to be a very musical and exciting rhythm,” he said. “I actually used it in the piece and that became the very last movement of this work. The title of that movement is simply D-dash-O-dash-N-dash-E.”
Each orchestra will feature talkbacks with Zhou Tian, as well as additional events.
“We’re trying to amplify the performances that we’re giving, trying to place them in some historical context,” said the Utah Symphony’s president and CEO, Paul Meecham. Before that orchestra’s concerts, a traditional Chinese ensemble will play in the lobby, which will also feature an exhibit on the building of the railroad. In Omaha, the piece will kick off the fall season. Union Pacific is one of the symphony’s major donors.
Jennifer Boomgaarden, the orchestra’s president and CEO said,“with Union Pacific having its headquarters here and, of course, the railroad running through, it made complete sense for us to be to be part of it. Things like this can help celebrate a momentous occasion.”
The Utah Opera decided to come up with its own way to celebrate – it commissioned four ten-minute operas, to be performed in various sites around the state in late May, including in Ogden Union Station’s auditorium. According to education director Paula Fowler, “It just seemed like a perfect opportunity for us to find a way to support some new works, to keep the opera form lively, to provide an opportunity for creative work by our own Utah artists or artists that have a connection with Utah, and to commemorate the Golden Spike.”
Three of the operas focus on the railroad’s workers and the fourth, No Ladies in the Lady’s Book, is a comic operetta that looks at some of the contributions women brought to the railroad.
“I always ask the question first: where are the women?,” said Rachel Peters, the opera’s librettist. Her research brought her to Godey’s Lady’s Book, a popular publication in the late 19th century, which stated: “No woman has laid a rail. No woman has made a survey. The muscular force and intellectual guidance have come alike from men.”
But she discovered many women who, in some way, participated, including one woman with 27 patents.
“Her name is Eliza Murphy,” explained Peters. “And in addition to being an inventor, she was also a physician. So, she was quite a busy woman. One of her most famous patents was for axle grease, which doesn’t seem all that entertaining,” Peters said laughing. “But we’re making it sing.”
And, just like Zhou Tian, Peters and her collaborator, composer Lisa DeSpain, a Utah native, found musical inspiration from the telegraph. They discovered two women who operated the telegraph on the original line.
“All of a sudden these two telegraph operators show up,” said DeSpain, “and we were working with Morse code and we were struggling with it.” Peters says there were too many words to translate into Morse code to make the number work, so they settled on the word “stop,” as the rhythmic motif for the song, called “Dit-dit-dah.” The lyric, in part, says: “Perfect rhythm, absolute precision/Each dit saves you from collision/Keep it running according to plan/Earning three quarters as much as a man.”
Another work of musical theater, Gold Mountain, was presented in Salt Lake City and Ogden, over the 150th anniversary weekend. A full-length musical, written by Jason Ma, it looks at the plight of the Chinese workers on the Central Pacific and was co-sponsored by the Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association.
“It’s a small little scrappy group of activists and actual descendants of the men who built the railroad,” said Ma. “And they feel like they’re just finally breaking through and being seen. This particular piece of history wasn’t taught in my high school. I didn’t learn about this until well into my adult years.”
Ma’s script touches on many aspects of that history — the dangerous work of blasting through the Sierra Nevadas with black powder and nitroglycerin, the harsh winter conditions, the strike the Chinese workers called, when they discovered they were being paid less than the white workers.
“It’s been a difficult thing for me and for actors to actually find something in ourselves, that they can do justice and portray sort of the invincibility of these men who actually made it through and thrived in these particular situations,” explained Ma.
Of course, the railroad has long inspired songs and pieces of instrumental music. The 150th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad has allowed a new generation of writers to reflect on the history of this venture and add their own voices to the repertoire.