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An Unusual Poem by Carl Sandburg Sparked the Imagination of Michael Tilson Thomas

By Office of Emergency Management [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Swedish-American poet Carl Sandburg (1878-1967)

America was celebrating its bicentennial when Michael Tilson Thomas first became intrigued by a Carl Sandburg poem. As WRTI’s Susan Lewis reports, nearly 40 years later,  he premiered his musical setting of  Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind with a cautionary message still relevant today.

On Sunday, September 23 at 1 pm on WRTI, Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra in his work, Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind.

Born in  Illinois in 1878, Carl Sandburg laid bricks, delivered milk, and worked on a farm before serving in the military during the Spanish American War and later turned to writing.

In the dawn of the roaring 1920s, he wrote Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind, a poem that looks back at the glory days of a city now inhabited only by rats and lizards. 

Composer Michael Tilson Thomas says, “Although the text of Playthings of the Wind  is sobering, it also describes a party atmosphere. I’ve always thought of it as the kind of  party that's given the night before civilization ends.”

Tilson Thomas combines musical styles, creating a work for solo soprano, backup singers, bar band, and chamber orchestra; setting to music the story in which  strong men built cities and  paid women to sing praises.

“The golden girls, as they’re called, who are being asked to entertain these people of great power and influence, who repeat the line over and over again. We are the greatest city, the greatest nation. Nothing like us ever was. Most of the time they are saying that in the most optimistic, happy, ‘let-the-good-times-roll’ kind of  way.”

But the celebration doesn’t last.  As the music goes on, “you begin to sense that even they,  in the midst of their performance, are becoming aware of how hollow and desperate these lines are becoming.”

Sandburg, says Tilson Thomas, is known for 'pretty poems,' but had another period of more radical poems, of which this is one.  "It is  prescient, he says, “in its examination of the arrogance of societal,  perhaps specifically American,  imperial ambitions.”


Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.