What Does the Piano Song Mean in ‘1883’?

The Big Picture

  • The music in the Yellowstone prequel 1883, is haunting yet beautiful, reflecting the bloody road West as depicted in the series trailer.
  • The piano performance by Elsa Dutton in Episode 4, “The Crossing,” adds depth to the emotional journey of the pioneers crossing the rough waters of the Brazos River.
  • Elsa’s choice to play Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” during the performance symbolizes her love for Ennis and hints at the tragic fate that awaits the characters, capturing their defiance and pursuit of their dreams.

Yellowstone prequel 1883 follows the success of its Paramount Network’s neo-Western predecessor, which became one of television’s most-watched scripted series. A masterpiece and one of the best Western television shows ever created, one element that makes 1883 stand out is its music. It is haunting as it is beautiful, reflecting the bloody road West, as the series trailer correctly depicts it.

Set in a dark era coming on the heels of the American Civil War, with a message of liberation, 1883‘s music needed to be appropriate, and Brian Tyler, the show’s music composer, does a splendid job at that. The show’s theme song is as addictive as it is beautifully haunting. But the music needed to reflect and match every situation in the series. For example, in Tim McGraw‘s flashback as James Dutton reflecting on the Civil War, alongside Tom Hanks as General George Meade, the latter’s understanding of the horrors that the opponent faced in defeat, despite little dialogue, called for the type of music that Tyler provided for the short but powerful scene. But perhaps the most harrowing scene of the Duttons’ journey to the Northwest is in Episode 4, ”The Crossing,” where we see the pioneers’ greatest nightmare come to life: crossing rivers in the old West jungle. And again, music elevates this scene, this time in the form of a piano performance by none other than the series lead, and narrator, Elsa Dutton, portrayed by the incredible Isabel May.

Elsa’s Piano Performance Is Outstanding and Significant in ‘1883’

Image via Paramount+

“Cool heads cross rivers. Hot heads drown.” These words by Thomas (LaMonica Garett) during the “The Crossing” of Brazos River in 1883 best describe the ultimate test of those who dared to take the road west. It was tumultuous and emotional, both physically and mentally. Many were forced to leave instruments of their livelihoods behind as they couldn’t make it across the rough waters, and as Shea (Sam Elliot) told them, they were ceasing to be who and what they were before, and taking up new roles in the world unknown. They were simply “pioneers”. In this emotional state, Elsa’s impeccable piano performance breathed depth into the already charged emotions. Encouraged by her boyfriend, Ennis (Eric Nelsen) who is accompanied by Wade (James Landry Hébert), to play for them, Elsa takes up an abandoned piano by the river and begins the unforgettable performance.

At that very moment, Elsa’s parents, along with the experienced Thomas and Shea, were helping the pioneers cross the river. And what a way to cap that moment with a composition by one of the greatest composers, if not the greatest, of all time! Elsa’s choice to play a rendition of Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” was one of the highlights of the series. The sonata was aptly named by German Romantic poet Ludwig Rellstab in a review that likened the music to “a boat floating in the moonlight” amid “heavy waves that strike the dark shore” and “gloomy wooded mountains rising.” Perhaps Elsa had in mind the crossing of the Brazos River as a similar journey, despite its ferocious waters.

It’s a performance that affected actor Eric Nelsen, who revealed in a podcast that he was moved to tears despite his cowboy character, Ennis, expecting him to be tough while performing the scene alongside Isabel May. At the end of the sorrowful performance, Ennis asks Elsa if there are any happy compositions she knows, and Elsa replies that she has never been attracted to happy ones, unbeknownst to them, hinting at their tragic fate. Elsa’s piano performance movement from solemn to stormy and ferocious is as emotional as it is rebellious, a fitting description of both the challenging river-crossing scenario and the exploratory attitude of those on the journey to the unknown at that point of no return.

RELATED: Who Narrates ‘1883’?

Like Elsa’s Performance for Ennis in ‘1883,’ Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” Was a Dedication to His Lover

Image via Paramount

Beethoven dedicated his “Moonlight Sonata” masterpiece to one of his piano students, a 16-year-old girl with whom he had fallen in love. Like Beethoven, Elsa was in love with Ennis and dedicated the moving performance to him. Unknown to her, as the music played, her mother was struggling with her own life trying to save a drowning crosser and getting entangled in the aggressive waters herself.

Like Beethoven’s composition, which was initially dedicated to a love interest and ended up taking many interpretations with the most common being a tragic one, so was Elsa’s performance in 1883. While she performed for Ennis and Wade, the performance was more fitting of the crucial moment that defined the group’s departure from civilization to the Wild West in which as a premonition, many tragic events awaited, including both their demise. The music also captured their defiance to pursue their dreams no matter what. The “Moonlight Sonata” wasn’t the only time Elsa performed for Ennis. During their cowboy duties, she had been shy when Ennis found her singing for cows, and it took his convincing to make her sing for him. Music added a layer of beauty to their teenage-like dreamy romance.

Taylor Sheridan‘s 1883 is a thought-provoking masterpiece that asks us to reflect on the hardships endured by our ancestors and the indomitable human spirit’s desire for a better life. Through the eyes of the Duttons, Sheridan has presented us with insights into various historic times: their origin in 1883, their journey in the early 20th century in 1923, and their neo-Western days on their modern ranch in Yellowstone. Sheridan manages to transport us through generations, shedding light on what it took to be where we are today. And Elsa’s piano performance at the tumultuous crossing of rivers back then, is not far-fetched from today, as many still lose their lives trying to cross oceans. At a time when immigration is a hot-button issue, 1883 reminds us that the human spirit has always fought for a better future, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

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