Composing the History of White Bear Lake

Lakes and Legends set to music.

Over the years, the long, rich history of White Bear Lake has been told in books, articles and anecdotes passed on—with varying degrees of veracity and accuracy—from generation to generation. Century College music instructor Shirley Mier has told the story in a new way, in the form of a four-movement composition she debuted last spring, called Of Lakes and Legends.

Mier has been at the college for 10 years, starting as a music instructor and eventually becoming a full-time, tenured faculty member. She first dabbled in composing as a high school student, trying to figure out songs on the radio and playing them by ear. Then she and a friend “started writing little songs,” Mier says. “I’ve always liked analyzing why music works so well, what makes it tick.”

As a composer, Mier has written music for about a dozen musical theater productions around the Twin Cities, and at the University of Minnesota, plus “incidental” music for other shows. Mier has also been commissioned by area schools and community groups to compose music for large ensembles.
She enjoys the challenge of making the music educational and fun to play. She’s only written a few pieces for full orchestras; at the U of M, she orchestrated a piano prelude written by composer Alexander Scriabin. She and fellow Century faculty member Elliot Wilcox have talked about collaborating on a piece of orchestral music.

Mier wrote the Of Lakes and Legends composition as one of her projects while on a one-semester sabbatical from teaching. In 2016, Mier was looking for opportunities to write an original work for the Century Chamber Orchestra. “I remember seeing a sign, ‘Welcome to White Bear Lake, City of Lakes and Legends.’ I remember thinking that that would make a good title for a piece; I brought the idea up to Elliot, and he liked it.”

Mier finished the piece in December 2016, made slight revisions through the winter and spring, and the Century Chamber Orchestra premiered it at Century last May 7.

Each of the piece’s various movements is based on quintessential White Bear Lake moments. The opening movement is based on the legend of an early Native American brave who battles a predatory white bear. The second alludes to the railroad’s role in the city’s early development; the third movement imagines a parlor recital at the historic Fillebrown house on the lakeshore, where the late Helen Fillebrown gave piano lessons to several generations of area residents, including a young Wilcox. The final movement, in 6/8 time, conveys the speed of a sailboat regatta.

When doing her historical research, Mier found no shortage of musical possibilities, more than she could include in the composition. “There’s a lot of good history there,” she says. One idea she would like to pursue is a piece based on the 1930s gangster era, when Al Capone and other “public enemies” were rumored to have vacationed at the lake.

White Bear Lake Mayor Jo Emerson met Mier when she was researching the history of White Bear Lake as she prepared to write her composition. Then Emerson and her husband were at the premiere of Mier’s composition in May at Century College. “For our city to have such a composition in its honor is wonderful,” Emerson says. “She really captured the various eras in our history.”