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American Indians inspired Kansas composer

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Monday, May 31, 2010, at 12:05 a.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, June 1, 2010, at 3:42 p.m.

This is one in a series of vignettes celebrating history. The series’ name comes from the state motto, Ad astra per aspera: “To the stars through difficulties.”

It took hearing a love song to change Thurlow Lieurance’s life. During the fall of 1911, the composer and musician heard and recorded a haunting melody while visiting the Crow Reservation in Montana. The melody stuck with him. Lieurance was inspired to compose “By the Waters of Minnetonka.” It brought him international fame and encouraged many Americans to have a growing awareness and appreciation of American Indian music.

Lieurance later wrote:

“That night marked an epoch in my life, opened to me a new world. What work I have since done has been due chiefly to that song.”

Lieurance served as the dean of fine arts at Wichita University — now Wichita State University — from 1926 to 1945.

He was born near Oskaloosa, Iowa, on March 21, 1878. When he was still a child, his family moved to Neosho Falls.

When the Spanish-American War began in 1898, Lieurance served as a bandsman in the 22nd Kansas Volunteer Regiment.

Following the war, he studied at the Cincinnati College of Music. While there, he began teaching and directed town bands.

Lieurance was in his mid-30s when he visited his brother, Edward, an Indian Service physician in Montana. It was then Lieurance heard the song that changed his life.

According to notes from WSU’s Libraries Information System, Lieurance left a typewritten note explaining how the song was based on a legend:

“Moon Deer, daughter of the Moon Clan, loved Sun Deer of the Sun Clan,” the note began.

Tribal law forbade the lovers to marry — so, they ran off to a lake called Minnetonka.

But the lake was also where the tribe’s enemies, the Chippewa, lived.

Fearing the wrath of their families — and not wanting to die or become separated at Chippewa hands, the couple chose to die together by slipping into the lake’s waters.

After the Sioux drove the Chippewa to Lake Superior, the couple’s tribe was camped on the shores of Lake Minnetonka.

“They heard the waters singing a weird melody and, in the moon-path on the waters, two lilies appeared and grew to the skies,” Lieurance wrote. “The lilies were the spirits of Moon Deer and Sun Deer.”

Lieurance preserved other American Indian music by putting it down on paper, recording it on early phonographs and transforming portions of the traditional songs into symphony and orchestral music.

The federal government hired Lieurance to make Indian records, some of which are still in museums in Washington, D.C.

His music enthralled audiences. All told, he wrote more than 300 compositions.

He was one of the first performers to use the American Indian flute in contemporary music, collecting flutes and making them. He also wrote a handbook of Indian music, art and language.

The Eagle reported on Feb. 27, 1930, that the Damrosch Symphony Orchestra in New York was scheduled to play four songs Lieurance wrote in a suite called “Campfires”:

“For years he has lived among the Indians at stated intervals, talked and sung with them through their ceremonials. He has taken into his heart their deep, reverent natures, nurtured by years and decades of a life close to the limitless stretches of land, the vastness of silent forests and the sounds of many waters.”

Lieurance died in Boulder, Colo., in 1963. Wichita State University retains a vast collection of Lieurance’s music. And much of his research collection, including more than 1,500 records of American Indian music, is housed in the Smithsonian Institution.

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com.

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