In Norway in 1899, an asset bubble burst, the major banks collapsed, and a “fourth great wave of emigration” began. Thousands of Norwegians boarded steamers to New York. Among them was Peter Mandius Nerland, a 16-year-old from the tiny island of Finnoy. Nerland would go through processing at Ellis Island, continue by rail to a farm job in Roland, Iowa, marry in 1909, and farm his own land in Iowa for decades. His 1962 obituary mentions fourteen grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren, so he had reason to hope he'd be remembered. But he could hardly have imagined that half a century later, in 2011, he would be the focus of an original choral masterpiece.
It was conceived of by one of his great-grandchildren, Tracy Resseguie. A high-school choral director in Kansas City, Resseguie commissioned the text from poet Charles Anthony Silvestri and the music from composer Dan Forrest. The poet did extensive research, and found his creative "hook" in a seemingly insignificant detail on an obscure document. Nerland’s 1917 draft card lists his eye color as "grey," and Silvestri realized that grey can also be the color of the waves of the Atlantic. Composer Dan Forrest responded to the poet's imagery with music that, writes Silvestri, “paints all sorts of word pictures, from the spray of the ocean waves, to the rocking of the ship, to the grey Norwegian coastline.”
Most of the poem is in English, but the title, Over Havet, is Norwegian for “across the sea.” After premiering the work, Resseguie took the Staley High School choir to perform it at Nerland’s birthplace, Finnoy Island, and later at Nerland's first American stop, Ellis Island. And not far from where Nerland lived out his adulthood, Aimee Beckmann-Collier and the Drake Chamber Choir have performed Over Havet a number of times. Their wistful, evocative, entrancing performance is the finale to their latest album, This Is a Good World. Give it a listen: