Ghost of the White Deer: Overture for a Native American Legend

Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate (From jerodtate.com)

On Valentine’s Day weekend of 2020, the Dallas Symphony Orchestras performed a concert of musical works based on love stories. Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet? Of course. But how about Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate’s Ghost of the White Deer Bassoon Concerto? Yup, that, too. In fact, it was a world premier for this piece, and it fit right in.

Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ (pronounced like a triplet and four sixteenth notes, according to the composer) was born to a Chickasaw father and an Irish mother in a highly musical family. Trained in classical piano, he made an early decision to compose music based solely on Native American history and culture—an endeavor that he became highly successful at.

“Ghost of the White Deer” is based on a Native American legend about a young Chickasaw brave and a Chickasaw maiden who are in love. But before they can marry, the girl’s father—not a fan of the marriage—insists that the young man bring him a white deer, knowing that the chances of finding such a rare creature are almost nil, which is the point.

Let’s see now: hostile father, near-impossible task, a magical deer—uh…this isn’t going to end well. And it doesn’t. The brave does find a white deer and shoots it, but instead of dying, the deer charges him with “red eyes glowing” and “horns sharp and menacing” (heavy on the brass here; double forte).

But then, like an eternal cliffhanger, the story pretty much ends. We never do know what happens to the deer or the young man. The tribe gives up waiting, but not the Indian maiden. She has a secret: in the campfire smoke on moonlit nights she sees the wounded white deer and lives with the belief that one day the deer will die and her beloved will return.

In this musical rendition, modern instruments evoke the narrative, but it is a single deep bassoon that most depicts the events and characters—especially “the timbre and calling of the sacred white deer.“ Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate successfully adds one more dimension to a story that is already powerful and appealing.