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Murder on Smuttynose: A New Ballet
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    Ballet poster The haunting tale of the Smuttynose Island murders of Karen and Anethe by Louis Wagner in 1873 just will not die. It survives in nearly every artistic form possible - as a ballad by John Perrault, an essay by Celia Thaxter, a play by Jeff Symes, a novel by Anita Shreve, books of nonfiction by many authors, a web site by and soon a movie by Oliver Stone. Now comes the ballet by Christopher Kies and C. Laurence Robertson of the University of New Hampshire. The following notes were written by the director and composer for the February 2000 production at the University of New Hampshire Dance Theater

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    Murder on Smuttynose
    By C. Laurence Robertson
    University of NH, Theater

    "At the Isle of Shoals, on the 5th of March in the year 1873, occurred one of the most monstrous tragedies ever enacted on this planet," wrote Celia Thaxter in her article, A Memorable Murder, featured in the ATLANTIC MONTHLY MAGAZINE about the murder of two Norwegian women on the island of Smuttynose. Louis Wagner, a Prussian immigrant, was convicted, and executed for the crime. But was he the real killer, or was it the third Norwegian woman who survived the attack, that had accused Wagner of the evil deed? Some people have looked back on the crime and have cast doubts as to who really did commit the murders. The events and circumstances are still discussed and debated 127 years later.

    In 1983, I became aware of this story due to my interest in wanting to do a ballet based on some local topic or event. Dr. Joe Batchelor, professor in the Department of Theatre and Communications back then, suggested this story to me and gave me some background information. I read it, was interested, but felt it needed specially composed music to do it justice. A few years ago Chris Kies and I started collaborating on ballets. He was as interested in the tale as I was and he could write the music. Since the summer before last we have explored the island of Smuttynose, talked to numerous people, delved into many areas for information, and decided upon a scenario as a basis for the development of the music and the action of the ballet.

    Most of what is known about the murders originally comes from court transcripts, numerous newspaper articles, and Celia Thaxter. The news articles' initial inaccuracies and over-blown reporting of the events led to some early confusion; however, Celia Thaxter was actually on Appledore Island at the time of the murders. She had seed Maren, the only woman to survive the murderer's attack, the day after the crime happened. We also received information from Gloria Nielsen, great granddaughter of Thora Ingebretsen and distant relative of one of the families residing on Appledore during the murders. Thora, a young girl at the time of the murders saw the dead bodies the day after the murders took place.

    Celia Laighton Thaxter, born June 30, 1835, was a popular poet and writer. Her parents, Eliza and Thomas Laighton, built and operated a summer resort hotel on Appledore Island. Thaxter's writing helped to form a friendly relationship among the group of barren islands known as the Isles of Shoals. She portrayed them vividly in her book, AMONG THE ISLES OF SHOALS, published in 1873. But the murder on Smuttynose would shatter the peace among the islands, scatter the Norwegians and, according to Gloria Nielsen's view, impact many generations to come.

    Chris and I did not want the ballet to focus only on murder. We wanted to capture the essence of the time, the people, and the places where it all took place. The research and production have been fascinating and difficult. I now have a clearer understanding of what it may have been like to live through this tumultuous time and why its appeal is undying.

    Who actually committed the murders? This is still discussed today. After reading the court transcripts, newspaper articles, Celia's story, and talking to historians who have specialized on the event, I have decided for myself who was guilty; I could reach no other conclusion than that which is reflected in this ballet.

    DIRECTOR: C. Laurence Robertson, "Larry", UNH Director of Dance, is the director, choreographer, and creator of Murder on Smuttynose. Larry received his early training at the U. S. International University School of Performing Arts. He studied with Richard and Nancy Carter, co-directors of the San Diego Ballet Company, and Erling Sunde and Elaine Thomas, formerly of the Royal Ballet. He danced with the Houston and the Boston Ballet. He has choreographed for the Boston Ballet, the Pioneer Valley Ballet, the San Diego Ballet Company, the Walnut Hill School of the Performing Arts, and the Mount Laurel Ballet Company. He is co-director of the Robertson School of Classical Ballet and the Seacoast Ballet Company with his wife Colleen.

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    Murder on Smuttynose
    By Christopher Kies

    The music for MURDER ON SMUTTYNOSE was composed over a four-month period beginning in August of 1999. However, I began to research and assemble the material for the musical score in June of 1999. My intention from the outset was to bring to life the musical culture of the two main groups of people portrayed in the ballet, the Norwegian immigrants living on the Isles of Shoals and the townspeople of Portsmouth living on the mainland. To achieve this goal, I borrowed numerous melodies for use in the ballet and categorized them as either traditional folk melodies and Lutheran hymns from Norway or as traditional folk songs and folk dance tunes from New England.

    Among the Norwegian melodies two hymns are prominent in the ballet. The first hymn to appear in the prelude is called "Norske folketone" (from OPPDAL). This folk tune has been given several religious texts since the 18th century but I used it for its musical qualities. As a haunting melody in a minor key it is used in the prelude and elsewhere to help create an atmosphere of dark foreboding. By happenstance, this melody bears some resemblance to part of the "Dies Irae" melody used in many requiem masses. The second hymn, "Den Signede Dag "(O Day Full of Grace), contrasts with the first hymn as it is in a major key and used as a background to the happy and, at times, joyous lives that the Norwegian families shared on the islands during most of the first scene. Another Norwegian melody used in the ballet is an old lullaby from Tolga in Osterdalen. I used this lullaby at the beginning of scene four with new text from Celia L. Thaxter's poem, "Karen." The poem, written before the murders occurred on Smuttynose, is about one of the two victims, Karen Christensen. This changing of texts is something the Norwegians often did with their melodies. In scene five, I used "Iddan Hermund" (Hermund the Evil), a song about a notorious killer, played by the organ and other instruments.

    Two important fiddle tunes used in the ballet are "Sordolen, gangar" (named after Sigurd Sordal, the last person to be publicly executed in Setesdal, 1797). He killed his girlfriend at a barn dance and by legend, he sang this melody as he was brought to the gallows. The strings play this melody at the end of the trial in scene five. The second and most important fiddle tune, "Gorrlaus," is featured throughout the ballet. The "Gorrlaus" tunes are famous in Setesdal, a region in southern Norway not far from the native land of the Norwegians depicted in the ballet. By tradition, a fiddler would only play a Gorrlaus tune when he wanted to fill the listeners with a feeling of horror and dread, or in any case when the fiddler was very upset about something. This melody exists in different versions as played by many different fiddlers from Setesdal, but the two I borrowed, "Gorrlaus I" and Gorrlaus II, appear in the prelude, during the murder in scene four, and elsewhere. These tunes featured a special tuning of the fiddle where the lowest string would be even lower than normal, yielding an abnormal, growling sound. The versions I used are those played by Vidar Lande, a brilliant contemporary Norwegian violinist, to whom the ballet is dedicated. Without the inspiration of his fiddle playing, especially of the Gorrlaus melodies, this ballet could not have existed in its ultimate form.

    In addition to the actual Norwegian fiddle tunes, there is a "synthetic" tune that I created for a dance in scene one. This tune is constructed according to the rhythmic and metrical characteristics of a traditional "springdans" (running dance) and is preceded by the usual "forespel" (introduction). The dance has a three-beats-per-bar meter but the third beat is shortened according to tradition, hence an "asymmetrical" triple meter. The traditional fiddle player, whether playing the Hardanger fiddle or the ordinary violin, might well play all the notes in this piece normal, but for the sake of non-Norwegian violinists, I composed this piece for two violins and wood-block (substituting for the traditional foot stamp). The melodic bases for the synthetic "springedans" are both from the Lutheran hymn tunes mentioned above, "Den Signede Dag" and from OPPDAL - the latter being used in inverted form. In this dance, the violins tune their lowest string up a whole step (another Norwegian fiddle tradition)!

    The music from Murder on Smuttynose also features the following songs. Norwegian melodies: Gammel Pols Fra Vingelen (Old Polsdance from Vingelen, played by solo flute), Der Fekk Eg Sja Kerr Ha Kari Sto (I Saw Kari Standing There), Vinndans I Jo'ansjaloen (Harvest-dance in Johan's Barn). Traditional New England melodies (used in scenes two and three): Pleasant and Delightful (a pub song), Beautiful Dreamer by Stephen Foster (though not from New England), Pirates Chorus by M.W. Balfe (founded in a collection by S. Foster of melodies for amateurs to play together), Boston Come-All-Ye (or The Fishes - a forecastle song), Mulb'ry Bush (or Nancy Dawson or Jennia Jones), Fishers' Hornpipe, Washington's Grand March, Hull's Victory, Portland Fancy, The British Grenadiers, To Portsmouth (originally an English round from the 17th century, used both in standard form and more frequently in its retrograde form), Soldier's Joy, Cape Cod Girls (a capstan-chantey), A-Roving or Amersterdam (a 19th century capstan chantey, here used only in retrograde in the Pas-de-deux of scene three).

    Christopher Kies, UNH Associate Professor of Music, is the musical director and composer of MURDER ON SMUTTYNOSE. Christopher has been a member of the UNH Music Department faculty since 1979. His undergraduate degrees in piano and composition are from the New England Conservatory, and he received an M.F.A. and Ph.D. in composition from Brandeis University. MURDER ON SMUTTYNOSE is his second ballet composed for the UNH Dance Company, the first being PINNOCHIO, staged in 1997. His other compositions are for S.A.T.B. chorus, children's chorus, solo piano (especially ragtime), and two pianos, and various instrumental chamber groups.

    Theater notes Copyright © 2000
    Christopher Kies and C. Laurence Robertson

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