|Masterworks VII: “American Landscape”|
Suite from The Heiress
From the get-go, movies have been the quintessential form of American popular entertainment. During the Depression, upbeat musical extravaganzas provided an escape into fantasyland from the grim economics that touched nearly every family in the country. By the mid 1930s, Aaron Copland embarked on a musical mission of incorporating folk idioms, the music of the people, into his musical language. Over the next few years, beginning with his ballet El Salón Mexico, he developed what was to become his most popular musical signature, an almost stereotypical “down home” American musical style. He wrote his first film scores: The City, a documentary film produced specifically for the 1939 New York World’s Fair; the film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and a year later for the film of Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town. During the war years, he went on to compose a handful of other film scores, ending his career in Hollywood in 1949 with the score to The Heiress.
Based on Henry James’ 1881 novel, Washington Square, The Heiress tells the story of a painfully shy, rich spinster who falls for a fortune hunter to the horror of her cold and critical father. The film, starring Montgomery Clift and Ralph Richardson, garnered four Academy Awards, including Best Actress for Olivia de Havilland.
But Copland’s music did not fare as well. Director William Wyler butchered the carefully prepared score, cutting and substituting without the composer’s approval. Copland, disgusted, washed his hands of the score – and from films in general.
Copland refused to arrange the music from the film into a suite as he did for his other films, but in 1990 horror-film composer Arnold Freed (1926-2019) arranged 8 sections of the film music into a continuous suite.
Copland’s score is typically, well, Copland. After watching the film, one can understand why the composer was put off by the slicing and dicing of cutting room editors. More prominently than anything in Copland’s score is the recurrence of the sentimental folksong “My Love Loves Me,” which Wyler substituted for much of Copland’s music. In order to produce a musically coherent piece, Freed glued together the shards of the score and adapted Copland’s original orchestration into a work that is a development of a few of the musical ideas: principally from the threatening opening credits; and from the scene in which Catherine dresses for what will be a fateful ball.
Interplay, American Concertette for Piano and Orchestra
Composer, conductor and pianist Morton Gould was a child prodigy who had his first composition published at age six, and at 16 presented a concert of his own works at New York University. Nevertheless, he began his professional life with an unglamorous job as a pianist in silent films and jazz bands.
Gould was best at composing enjoyable, tuneful, light pieces. He composed Broadway scores (Billion Dollar Baby and Arms and the Girl), music for television and ballet scores (Fall River Legend, Fiesta, I’m Old-Fashioned). His large orchestral output has been performed by orchestras around the world. For his activities in promoting and furthering the arts in America he was honored in 1994 by the Kennedy Center. He died while serving as Artist-in-Residence at the new Disney Institute in Orlando, Florida.
In the 1930s and 40s, the golden age of radio broadcasting, Gould composed four little symphonies for performance on the air, which he called Symphonettes. “That was a time when we used words like dinette and kitchenette, and since this was a little symphony, I called it Symphonette.” They were classically structured but used popular idioms, jazz and dance rhythms. Gould, in fact, represents a major link between George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein.
In 1943, serving as conductor and composer for two classical programs on CBS, Gould engaged popular pianist Jose Iturbi to appear on one of his programs. Searching for a lighthearted but unhackneyed piece, he composed a new one, naming it Concertette. It premiered in August of the year, and its cheerful tone was balm in somber times. Two years later, dancer and choreographer Jerome Robbins adapted the music for a new ballet, Interplay; the name stuck.
Gould’s “Concertette” derives the diminutive title from the brevity of its movements – and perhaps their lightheartedness. Structurally, however, the piece is conservative. The first movement is in standard sonata-allegro form with two contrasting themes. The development section is unusually long, perhaps in keeping with the jazz tradition that focuses on extensive riffs. The second movement is also conventional, an abbreviated scherzo/trio that features a topsy-turvy take on the theme.
The slow movement, a set of free variations conjures a sultry piano bar, rather than a concert hall. It seems to lull listeners into an alcohol fog so that they are jolted awake by the noisy fanfare introducing the finale’s first theme. In a call-and-response passage, the piano and orchestra present the second theme. At the climax of the movement, Gould combines the fanfare and themes into a contrapuntal melee.
Rhapsody in Blue
The musical idiom of jazz evolved in New Orleans in the early part of this century from ragtime and the blues. The origin of the term jazz is obscure, but it first appeared in print in 1913 in a San Francisco newspaper, in reference to enthusiasm at a baseball game. The application of the term to the specific kind of music occurred during World War I.
It was in Europe, however, where American dance bands were popular, that classical composers first incorporated the new idiom into their compositions: Claude Debussy in Golliwog's Cakewalk (1908); Igor Stravinsky in Ragtime (1918); and especially Darius Milhaud in the ballet La création du monde (1923).
George Gershwin was the first American composer to make jazz acceptable to the classical music audience. The son of poor Jewish immigrants in lower Manhattan, he was a natural-born pianist and left school at 16 to become a pianist with a Tin-Pan Alley firm, plugging their new songs. He soon commenced writing songs himself, eventually teaming up with his brother Ira as lyricist to become one of the most successful teams of song and musical comedy writers on Broadway. They created a string of immensely successful musicals from Lady be Good in December 1924 to Let ‘em Eat Cake in October 1933. The opening night of a George Gershwin musical comedy was a social and media event with Gershwin himself usually leading the orchestra
In 1923 Gershwin received the commission for an extended jazz composition from a conductor of popular music, Paul Whiteman, who promoted concerts of jazz music in New York’s Aeolian Hall. Whiteman was the self-styled “King of Jazz” who attempted to make jazz more symphonic and more respectable. He tried to adapt it from dance music to concert music. Whiteman’s commission followed an Aeolian Hall concert in the fall of 1923, at which Gershwin had played piano arrangements of a few of his songs.
Gershwin composed the Rhapsody in a mere three weeks early in 1924, in a two-piano version. Lacking the skills to orchestrate the work, he turned it over for piano and jazz orchestration to Ferde Grofé, a popular composer, pianist and arranger, who served as Whiteman’s factotum. Grofé practically lived in Gershwin’s house, orchestrating the work page-by-page as it came from the composer’s pen. He also rescored the Rhapsody two years later for full symphony orchestra.
The premiere, on February 12 1924, was a smashing success. Although the critics – true to form – mostly panned it, the audience loved it. Virtually overnight, jazz became respectable. Gershwin himself played the piano part, becoming an instant celebrity. Significant credit for the success must go to Grofé’s imaginative orchestration, which has ended up as his most enduring musical contribution, along with his Grand Canyon Suite.
It is useful to be aware that the rhapsody and fantasia of the classical tradition were the genres most related to jazz in that they embodied both freedom of form and improvisation or improvisatory writing. Gershwin's – and Grofé's – take on the form transfers the jazz idiom into a work Liszt would have been proud to have written.
The Rhapsody opens with probably the most famous clarinet riff in music history. It is answered by the horns with the principal counter-theme. Nearly three quarters of the way through the piece, the tempo slows and the Rhapsody's next "big theme" is introduced.
Grand Canyon Suite
Composer, pianist and arranger Ferde Grofé began his musical career at 14 by running away from home to work as pianist in the mining camps of Northern California. Later he served for 10 years as a violist with the Los Angeles Symphony. He then switched gears completely with his own jazz combo in the dives and vaudeville houses in San Francisco. In 1920 big band leader Paul Whiteman hired Grofé as a pianist and arranger, helping establish Whiteman as the leading figure in symphonic jazz. Grofé’s own reputation was firmly established in 1924 with his orchestration of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, a work that inspired him to compose large-scale works himself.
In most of his compositions, Grofé tried to present a picture of the American landscape and its people, which he knew intimately from his extensive travels. His works are tone paintings in the truest sense of the word, and he considered the music of these colorfully orchestrated suites as the natural outgrowth of scenery that would be obvious to any listener.
The Grand Canyon Suite, composed in 1931, is by far the most popular of Grofé’s works. The inspiration for the work, however, had occurred quite a bit earlier, in 1922, while he was working in the Grand Canyon area. The opening movement, “Sunrise,” uses a background of gently rising scales ending with a grand orchestral fanfare to portray the mysterious dawn in the Canyon, where the arising glow awakens crickets and birds. The sun first shines on the highest rocky peaks, finally bursting forth over the whole canyon. Grofé was not the first composer to use this device; Joseph Haydn composed a symphonic sunrise in his Symphony No. 6, the first of a trilogy depicting morning, noon and night.
“The Painted Desert” is a delicate, static musical portrayal of the ageless, moon-like landscape, delicately pulsing with heat and punctuated by sudden moments of drama. Note how the melody itself conjures the “lifelessness” of the desert. In the Suite’s most popular movement, “On the Trail,” glissandos on solo violin portray the braying of a recalcitrant mule. The fiddle morphs into an oboe playing a jerky melody in triple time against the duple time of the mule’s hoofbeats. In the original score, the composer scored coconut shells muted with leather for the clip-clop of the mule’s hooves on the rocky trail. The middle of the movement portrays a rest stop cabin, with the suggestion of a music box. The movement ends with another mule bray and its echo.
“Sunset” reverses the mood of the opening movement. Just as Grofé portrays the sunrise with an ascending melody, he paints the sunset as a gradually descending one. The lush orchestration gradually fades as the sun dips below the horizon. The evening calm, however, is interrupted by a “Cloudburst,” as Grofé adds his take to the substantial repertory of musical storms. The wailing wind and flashes of lightning are sound effects as music. Conductor Arturo Toscanini, who recorded the Suite, considered this movement one of the most vivid and terrifying pictures in music. The movement ends with a spectacular coda, to which Grofé added a heading: “Nature Rejoicing in its Grandeur.”
|Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2019|