The Story of Hiawatha

Hiawatha Speeaks to His PeopleIn Coleridge-Taylor’s Opera, the story of Hiawatha comprises excerpts from Longfellow’s epic poem, ‘Song of Hiawatha.’ The piece by Longfellow is a narrative poem, which tells of Hiawatha’s youth, through to him becoming chief of his people, to his tragedy and his eventual departure.

In the poem, Hiawatha is reared by the Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis. Nokomis helps him acquire the power and wisdom he needs as an Ojibwe Indian leader. Upon reaching manhood, he seeks to avenge his mother, Wenonah, against his father, The West Wind. The combat fruitfully ends in reconciliation, with Hiawatha becoming the leader of his people.

His rule is marked by prosperity and peace.

Hiawatha and Minnehaha walk through the Eastern WoodlandsIt is here where the scenes selected by the composer, Coleridge-Taylor take the shape of a sweeping trilogy, from vibrant and rhythmically exhilarating, ‘Wedding Feast of Hiawatha’, to the somber and passionately heartrending ‘Death of Minnehaha’, to its poignantly sad, yet majestic end, ‘Hiawatha’s Departure.’

The scene is set in a peaceful eastern woodland village where Hiawatha, chief of his people is taking the hand of the lovely Minnehaha, Laughing Water. The wedding is a joyous one, with feasting and good will passed among the gathering, with dancing, singing and story telling to appease the guests and ensure that all are contended.

However, shortly after the wedding, the winter comes and the village is plagued by a severe bout of famine and fever. Minnehaha falls ill and dies during the winter. Overwhelmed by his sorrow, the grief-stricken Hiawatha urges her to return no more to suffering and sadness, promising to follow her to “the land of the hereafter.”

After the winter passes, visitors from afar come into the village of Hiawatha. Noting their peaceful approach, he bids them a generous welcome. They bring their messages and their tales of religion from far lands, all of which convince Hiawatha that they mean his people well. Before long, he announces his departure, expressing a desire to travel westward, leaving the guests behind, under the careful watch of Nokomis. Bidding farewell to his people, Hiawatha departs. Before doing so, he advises his people to accept the white man, whose coming he has predicted.

The Death of Minnehaha
And they said, "Farewell forever!"
Said, "Farewell, O Hiawatha!"
And the forests, dark and lonely,
Moved through all their depths of darkness,
Sighed, "Farewell, O Hiawatha!"
To the Islands of the Blessed,
To the Kingdom of Ponemah,
To the Land of the Hereafter!

-Hiawatha’s Departure, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Hiawatha's Departure

Compiled by: JCF August 2008
Artwork: Mary Evans