Categories: Oratorio/Cantata

God's First Temples

Synopsis (Full text below)

"The hills and groves were God’s first temples, and the more they are cut down and hewn into cathedrals and churches, the farther off and dimmer seems the Lord Himself."
- John Muir

“God’s First Temples” is an oratorio for orchestra, chorus, and soloists, telling the story of the first great battle of the environmental movement, the fight to bring water to San Francisco by damming the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park. The text is made up of quotations from President Theodore Roosevelt, father of the National Park System; Gifford Pinchot, Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Interior and America’s first professional forester; and John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club and its spiritual leader.

We meet John Muir wandering through the Hetch Hetchy Valley, admiring its beauty. He decides to leave his city life and go live in the mountains. Contacted by President Theodore Roosevelt, he takes Roosevelt on a four-day camping trip in Yosemite, during which they become fast friends. Later, Muir camps with Gifford Pinchot, and they too become friends. These friendships set the scene for a painful showdown over Hetch Hetchy, when Congress proposes a law damming the valley as a source of water—with Pinchot in favor, Muir strongly against, and Roosevelt caught in the middle, forced to decide between political practicalities and his love for Muir and Yosemite. We hear the words and thoughts of each man, leading to Roosevelt’s fateful decision to support Pinchot and dam the valley.

In the end, Muir is left alone to ponder Hetch Hetchy and its meaning. He leaves us with questions: I often wonder what man will do with the mountains. Will human destruction work out a higher good, a finer beauty? What is the human part of the mountain’s destiny?

🔍 PDF Score Samples

Instrumentation: 2 Flutes, 2 Oboes, 2 Clarinets, 2 Bassoons, 2 Trumpets, 4 Horns, 3 Percussion, Strings, Chorus (at times only women's or men's), 3 Tenor Soloists (John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, Theodore Roosevelt).

Four Sierra Scenes
Previous Composition Based on Text by John Muir

Complete Text


Female Soloist
The hills and groves were God’s first temples, and the more they are cut down and hewn into cathedrals and churches, the farther off and dimmer seems the Lord Himself. (John Muir)

Beginning and ending with an offstage horn solo, this movement is a solemn musical setting that features a lone female vocal soloist.

- 1 -

Combined Chorus
Imagine yourself in Hetch Hetchy. It is a bright day in June; the air is drowsy with flies; the pines sway dreamily, and you are sunk, shoulder-deep, in grasses and flowers.

You behold a bare granite wall, all glowing with sun-gold, from its green-grovy base to its brow in blue air. Tall pines and spruces feather its base.

From this wall extends a most sublime wilderness of mountains, rising rapidly higher, dome over dome, crest over crest, to a line of snowy peaks on the summit of the range.

If you go to the midst of these mountains, the hardest rocks will pulse with life, secrets of divine beauty and love will be revealed to you by lakes and meadows, and a thousand flowers.

In God’s wildness lies the hope of the world—the great fresh unblighted, unredeemed wilderness. The galling harness of civilization drops off, and wounds heal ere we are aware. (John Muir)

Beginning with an a capella choir in a slow and reverent tempo, the movement transitions into a lively and bright allegro which features both the chorus singing of the wonders of the Sierra and supported by orchestra. The movement concludes with a return to to the opening section, and this time the chorus is accompanied by flute and clarinet.

- 2 -

John Muir
I suppose I am doomed to live in some of these noisy commercial centers…. Now that I am among machines I begin to feel that I shall turn my whole life into that channel, unless things change.

This is a good place to be housed in during stormy weather, to write in, and to raise children in, but it is not my home. Up there is my home.

I want to wander just anywhere in the wilderness… not as a mere sport or plaything excursion, but to find the law that governs the relations between human beings and nature.

I cannot tell the glow that lights me in turning to the mountains. I feel strong enough to leap Yosemite walls at a bound, I will fuse with spirit skies, I will touch naked God.

This movement features pizzicato strings and muted staccato brass, giving the feeling of hectic and dissonant business—in other words, the extreme opposite of the peaceful feeling one gets from the wilderness. John Muir speaks (sings) of his dismay at having to live in such commercial centers, followed by a slower, and more lyrical section where Muir sings of his desire to be in the wilderness.

- 3 -

John Muir
An influential man from Washington wants to make a trip into the Sierra with me. I might be able to do some forest good in talking freely around the campfire.

Theodore Roosevelt
My dear Mr. Muir:
I wish to write you personally to express the hope that you will be able to take me through the Yosemite. I do not want anyone with me but you, and I want to drop politics absolutely for four days and just be out in the open with you.
Sincerely yours,
President Theodore Roosevelt

John Muir
Dear Mr. Roosevelt:
I sincerely thank you for the honor you do me in hoping I may be able to take you through the Yosemite…. And of course I shall go with you gladly.
Faithfully yours,
John Muir

Theodore Roosevelt
I trust I need not tell you, my dear sir, how happy were the days in the Yosemite I owed to you, and how greatly I appreciate them. I shall never forget our three camps: the first in the solemn temple of the giant sequoias; the next in the snow storm among the silver firs near the brink of the cliff; and the third on the floor of the Yosemite, in the open valley fronting the stupendous rocky mass of El Capitan,with the falls thundering in the distance on either hand.

Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah for Yosemite, Mr. Muir!

Solo woodwinds and strings set the stage for the famous meeting of Muir and Theodore Roosevelt, and at the end of the movement a short brass fanfare sets the stage for Roosevelt to exclaim, "Hurrah!”

- 4 -

Women’s Chorus
Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. (John Muir)

The chorus sings the words of John Muir, and brass and percussion are featured heavily in this cheerful and positive allegro, highlighting the wonders of being in nature.

- 5 -

Gifford Pinchot
“How would you like to be a forester?” asked my farsighted father one fortunate morning in the summer of 1885. It was an amazing question for that day and generation. When it was asked, not a single American had made forestry his profession.

I had no more conception of what it meant to be a forester than the man in the moon. But at least a forester worked in the woods, and I loved the woods. Whatever forestry might be, I was for it.

The American colossus is fiercely intent on appropriating the riches of the richest of all continents. The most rapid and extensive forest destruction ever known is in full swing. Hundreds of millions of acres of forest are given away. I am more and more convinced of the imperative need of government control.

Theodore Roosevelt
Surely our people do not understand even yet the rich heritage that is theirs. There can be nothing in the world more beautiful than the Yosemite, the groves of giant sequoias and redwoods, the Canyon of the Colorado, the Canyon in the Yellowstone, the Three Tetons; and our people should see to it that they are preserved for their children and their children’s children forever with their majestic beauty unmarred.

In this allegro movement, we are introduced to Gifford Pinchot, as both he and Theodore Roosevelt speak of forestry and its contribution to society. At times, especially at the beginning of the movement, these two principle characters sing alone, but toward the end of the movement they sing with various combinations of orchestral instruments, each combination highlighting an aspect of the text.

- 6 -

Gifford Pinchot
I met the commission at Belton, Montana. To my delight, John Muir was with them. In his late fifties, tall, thin, cordial, and a most fascinating talker, I took to him at once.

John Muir
At the Grand Canyon we built a fire to dry our drenched clothing. Pinchot and I went a hundred feet up a ridge… heavy rain during the night. All slept in the tent except Pinchot.

Gifford Pinchot
With John Muir I spent an unforgettable day on the rim of the Grand Canyon. We made our beds of cedar boughs in a thick stand, and there he talked until midnight.

  • John Muir
    How narrow we selfish creatures are in our sympathies. How blind to the rights of all the rest of creation!
  • Gifford Pinchot
    The earth belongs of right to all its people…. The public good must come first.
  • John Muir
    The world we are told was made for man—a presumption that is totally unsupported by the facts. Why ought man to value himself as more than an infinitely small composing unit of the one great unit of creation?

Gifford Pinchot
It was such an evening as I have never had before or since. In the early morning we sneaked back like guilty schoolboys.

For a large part of this movement, both Pinchot and Muir sing alone, giving their own perspectives of their meeting. But when the orchestra finally enters we see that Muir and Pinchot have different ideas about the wilderness and its relationship to humanity.

- 7 -

Men’s Chorus
We come this year to Washington, I think, with the good will of those heretofore opposed, possibly with the exception of the gentlemen who are devoted to the preservation of the beauties of nature.

There is no comparison between the highest use of the water—the domestic supply—and the mere scenic value of the mountains.

To provide for the little children, men, and women… is a matter of much greater importance than encouraging the few who… will sit on the peak of the Sierras loafing around the throne of the God of nature and singing His praise. (Various politicians)

This driving and rhythmic allegro, which constantly changes time signatures, features the men's chorus, and mocks Muir's vision of the wilderness as something spiritual. Only brass and strings are used, and the feeling is one of society constantly driving forward.

- 8 -

John Muir
Dear Mr. President:
There is now under consideration, as doubtless you well know, an application of San Francisco Supervisors for the use of Hetch Hetchy Valley as storage reservoirs for a City water supply. This application should I think be denied, for this Valley is a counterpart of Yosemite, one of the most sublime beautiful important features of the Park. To submerge it would be hardly less deplorable… than would be the damming of Yosemite itself.

I am heartily in favor of a Sierra or even a Tuolumne water supply for San Francisco, but all the water required can be obtained from sources outside the Park, leaving the twin Valleys, Hetch Hetchy and Yosemite, to the use they were intended for when the Park was established.
Devotedly yours,
John Muir

O for a tranquil camp hour with you like those beneath the Sequoias in memorable 1903.

Theodore Roosevelt
My dear Mr. Muir:
I gather that Garfield and Pinchot are rather favorable to the Hetch Hetchy plan, but not definitely so. I have sent them your letter with a request for a report upon it. I will do everything in my power to protect not only the Yosemite… but other similar great natural beauties of this country.
Faithfully yours,
Theodore Roosevelt

How I do wish I were again with you camping out under those great sequoias, or in the snow under the silver firs.

In this scene we first learn of the upcoming battle for Hetch Hetchy. Quite often in this setting Muir and Roosevelt sing only accompanied by a single instrument playing the same melody - muted trumpet in Muir's case and muted trombone in Roosevelt's. There are a few short interludes in this moderate-tempo movement, but Muir and Roosevelt are alone with their words.

- 9 -

Women’s Chorus
Oh, these glorious old mountain days, ripe and sweet and luscious like fruit to be eaten…. So hearty in their greeting, so warm and real yet so purely fine. So rocky and substantial yet so infinitely spiritual, exciting at once to work and rest, bestowing substance in its grandest forms. Yet throwing open a thousand windows to show us heaven. (John Muir)

Another rhythmic and sprightly allegro, in which brass and percussion accompany the chorus as they sing Muir's words about the wilderness and its spiritual aspects.

- 10 -

John Muir
Man has come with science and religion, preaching, plowing, planting, building. Wildness is going away.

The commercial invasion of the Yosemite National Park means that sooner or later all the public parks throughout our country may be invaded and spoiled. The Hetch Hetchy is a glaringly representative case.

What a glorious chance this gives Pinchot to distinguish himself and bless the world; but politicians I fear will try as hard as ever to get in their deadly work in spite of all we can do.

Gifford Pinchot
The present valley is only a swamp full of mosquitos. It is not a great tourist place. The lake will not fill the entire valley and certainly will not spoil the scenery.

John Muir
I cannot believe that Pinchot, if he really knows the valley, has made any such statements.

Gifford Pinchot
I am fully persuaded that the injury of substituting a lake for the present swampy floor of the valley is altogether unimportant compared with the benefits to be derived by the public from its use as a reservoir.

John Muir
I am sorry to see poor Pinchot running amuck after so much good and hopeful work—from sound conservation going pell mell to destruction of the wings of crazy inordinate ambition.

Gifford Pinchot
As for me, I have always regarded the sentimental horror of some good citizens at the idea of utilizing natural resources as unintelligent, misdirected and shortsighted.

In this moderato movement, harmonic dissonance and angularity are heard in strings and muted brass as Muir and Pinchot state their divergent and antagonistic views of the purpose and use of the Hetch Hetchy Valley. This angry music makes it clear that there will be no compromise.

- 11 -

John Muir
A great political miracle this, of “improving” the beauty of the most beautiful of all mountain parks by… burying all the azalea and wild rose three hundred feet deep. After this is done we are promised a road blasted on the slope of the north wall, where nature-lovers may sit on rustic stools, like frogs on logs, to admire the sham-dam lake, the grave of Hetch Hetchy.

Men’s Chorus
As a lake it will be one of great beauty; there will be fine fishing in it, and boating, and so on, which would make the lake an improvement.

Muir is a man entirely without social sense. With him, it is me and God and the rock where God put it, and that is the end of the story.

I am sure Muir would sacrifice his own family for the preservation of beauty. He considers human life very cheap, and the works as God superior.

We cannot believe that you will allow this quibble to enter into a question of this kind while San Francisco is in desperate need of water. We want water with justice to all. (Various politicians)

Theodore Roosevelt
As for the Hetch Hetchy matter, it was just one of those cases where I was extremely doubtful; but finally I came to the conclusion that I ought to stand by Garfield and Pinchot’s judgment in the matter.

At the slow beginning of the movement, accompanied by a lonely solo clarinet, John Muir sings angrily and sarcastically about the plans to dam the Hetch Hetchy Valley. But suddenly there comes an explosion of rhythmic sound from aggressive strings, brass, and percussion, and the men's chorus sings about the benefits of damming Hetch Hetchy and the idiocy of Muir. The movement abruptly transitions into a slow section in which Roosevelt, singing against a single note held in the woodwinds, states that he has decided to side with Pinchot in the matter.

- 12 -

Women’s Chorus
Come to the woods, for here is rest. There is no repose like that of the green deep woods. Here grow the wallflower and the violet. The squirrel will come and sit upon your knee, the logcock will wake you in the morning. Sleep in forgetfulness of all ill. Of all the upness accessible to mortals, there is no upness comparable to the mountains.

The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness. (John Muir)

In an adagio tempo, a lone female voice sings with the strings about the regenerative and spiritual aspects of the woods, then at the end of the passage the chorus joins in.

- 13 -

Men’s Chorus
September 24, 1913
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that there is hereby granted to the city and county of San Francisco, all necessary rights of way in, over, and through certain
public lands, the Yosemite National Park, and
Stanislaus National Forest… for the purpose of constructing, operating, and maintaining aqueducts, canals, ditches, pipes, pipe lines, flumes, tunnels, and conduits for conveying water… to the city and county of San Francisco. (Congressional Record)

A very fast, repeating drumbeat accompanies the men's chorus as they speak, rather than sing, Congress’s decision that Hetch Hetchy is to be flooded and dammed. Their speech is accompanied at times by dissonant outbursts in the strings, brass, and percussion.

- 14 -

John Muir
Now the Hetch Hetchy battle is a thing of the past. The Hetch Hetchy protest is dead, like the valley itself in which several hundred men are now doing desolation work. It is a monumental mistake, but it is more, it is a monumental crime.

As to the loss of the valley, it’s hard to bear. But in spite of Satan and Company, some sort of compensation must surely come out of this damn-dam-damnation.

The conscience of the whole country has been aroused from sleep; and from outrageous evil compensating good in some form must surely come. We may lose this particular fight, but truth and right must prevail at last.

A lonely and melancholy viola solo accompanies John Muir as he sings despondently of losing the battle to save Hetch Hetchy. A few strings join in at the end, and finally a solo flute, as Muir expresses hope that other battles will be won and that "right must prevail at last."

- 15 -

Women’s Chorus
These beautiful days must enrich my life…. I will follow my instincts, be myself for good or ill, and see what will be the upshot. As long as I live, I’ll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I’ll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm, and the avalanche. I’ll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can. (John Muir)

The chorus sings alone in a slow tempo and in a solemn and devout manner, and this is reinforced by a chorale in the strings. Finally the chorus sings over this chorale of Muir’s hope to learn from the mountains.


Combined Chorus
I often wonder what man will do with the mountains. Will human destruction work out a higher good, a finer beauty? Will a better civilization come in accord with nature and all this wild beauty be set to human poetry and song? What is the human part of the mountain’s destiny? (John Muir)

Beginning with a fifth played by chimes and strings, the chorus sings in a slow tempo. This is followed by several dissonant chorales, at the end played in different keys by woodwinds and strings, leaving the chorus alone to ask Muir’s poignant questions. Finally the piece ends as it began, with an offstage horn solo.