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ClassicsOnline Home » GOULD, M.: Concerto Grosso / Formations / Cinerama Holiday Suite (Seattle Symphony, Schwarz)
Spanning the traditional boundaries separating “serious” and “popular” music, Morton Gould wrote prodigiously across a wide range of forms, from concert works to musicals and film scores. The Concerto Grosso was described by the composer as “a transformation of hoedown tunes…[the soloists] play, in the first and last movements, like a bat out of hell.” Gould’s work for film and television ranged from the movie travelogue Cinerama Holiday to the poignant Holocaust, via the ironic dances of World War I. The jazzy Pavanne contrasts with the atmospheric Interlude, while the Formation Suite is an original take on marching bands.
By Glyn Pursglove
Morton Gould (1913–1996)
Concerto Grosso • Cinerama Holiday – Suite World War I • Pavanne • Holocaust • Interlude • Formations Suite
For more than half a century, beginning in the 1930s, Morton Gould was a vital presence in American music. That fact is especially remarkable in view of its chronology. Much of Gould’s career spanned the years that saw the zenith of high-modernism in composition, with its penchant for dissonance and atonality, formulaic stratagems based on numerical series and other abstract conceits, the use of electronic sounds, and “chance” music and other experimental procedures. Gould had little or no interest in such trappings of the musical vanguard. He retained fairly traditional notions of melody, harmony and other aspects of the composer’s craft and saw no artistic compromise in writing accessible music for a broad audience.
Although accomplished as a conductor and pianist, Gould devoted his energies chiefly to composition, producing music in a wide range of forms and genres. His output spanned—or, more accurately, effaced—the traditional boundaries separating “serious” and “popular” music. Gould wrote symphonic and choral works, concertos, ballet scores and piano pieces, as well as Broadway shows, film scores and television soundtracks. Much of his concert music evokes the sound of the American musical vernacular: jazz, folk music, spirituals and even, in his late years, rap and other contemporary pop styles.
Like George Gershwin and Aaron Copland, Gould was raised in a family of Jewish immigrants in New York. Born in 1913, he showed exceptional musical ability while still a child, composing and improvising on the family piano from the age of six. At eight he was admitted to the Institute of Musical Art, forerunner of the prestigious Juilliard School. The economic collapse of the Great Depression forced him to curtail his formal education and take employment as theater and radio pianist, but this proved the start of a fruitful career. Gould soon graduated to composing and conducting music for radio programs. With the advent of television, he worked in that medium also.
At the same time Gould wrote concert music prolifically; collaborated with lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green on the musical Billion Dollar Baby, and with Dorothy Fields on another Broadway show, Arms and the Girl; and composed numerous film scores. He was a devoted advocate on behalf of American music and won critical admiration for conducting a series of recordings of works by Charles Ives. The many honors accorded Gould include a Kennedy Center Award, bestowed by President Clinton in 1994, and the Pulitzer Prize, which he won in 1995, the year before his death.
In 1952 Gould was engaged to compose music for a new ballet, to be choreographed by George Balanchine. This proved an ill-fated collaboration. Balanchine initially thought to create a two-and-a-half-hour frontier ballet on the subject of Johnny Appleseed. Eventually he changed his mind and decided on a portrayal of John James Audubon, but with a fictional story proposing that the great artist ornithologist was actually the son of King Louis XVI and had fled France to seek a new life on the American frontier. Yet none of the scenarios devised by various writers met with his approval. Gould produced voluminous sketches of music for the work, but to no avail. Years passed, and Audubon remained unfinished at Balanchine’s death, in 1983.
Deeply disappointed that Audubon never reached the stage, Gould excerpted ten different sections of his ballet score as concert pieces. The most striking and unusual is a Concerto Grosso, scored for four violins and orchestra. Gould described it as “a transformation of hoedown tunes,” and noted that the soloists “play, in the first and last movements, like a bat out of hell.” The most significant part of that characterization is “transformation.” Rhythmic asymmetries, rapid and surprising shifts of harmony and a judicious use of dissonance transcend the folkloric and make the music something modern and unique. That is true even in the lyrical second movement, a gentle song over a constant pizzicato accompaniment, and the quiet scherzo that follows.
In the mid-1950s, a new technical development aimed to bring greater depth and scale to movie projection. Cinerama employed a large curved screen and three synchronized projectors and was ideal for showing vast outdoor scenes. In order to demonstrate the potential of this device, Warner Cinerama Corporation commissioned a film to showcase its potential. Released in 1955, Cinerama Holiday was essentially a movie travelogue shot in scenic locations in the United States, Switzerland and France, with a score by Morton Gould.
Gould subsequently extracted fifteen short excerpts from his film music as a concert suite. Two of the movements are recorded here. Souvenirs of Paris features trumpet in a lyrical role, rather than the heroic one it so often plays. On the Boulevard imagines a street scene in the French capital with the sound of car horns, much as George Gershwin had done in his tone poem An American in Paris. But whereas Gershwin had used real French taxi horns, Gould manages to imitate them convincingly with instruments alone. Once again Gould makes conspicuous use of the trumpet, this time in a more energetic vein.
Trumpet plays a featured role again in each of the remaining compositions on this disc, beginning with excerpts from a score Gould wrote in 1964 for the CBS television documentary World War I. The composer exploits the instrument’s martial connotations in Prologue and Drum Waltz, where the juxtaposition of trumpet and snare drum with waltz rhythms convey, in almost surreal terms, the notion of an Old World society dancing toward destruction. An ironic quality is also evident in the ensuing Sad Song, which suggests a melancholy cabaret number. The brief Royal Hunt treats the trumpet in an athletic manner.
Over the course of his career, Gould wrote four compositions with the title American Symphonette. The second of those works dates from 1938. It has long been one of Gould’s most popular works, largely because of its second movement, Pavanne. That title and its reference to a stately old dance notwithstanding, this is no exercise in nostalgia, à la Ravel. Rather, muted trumpet and a tune in “swinging” triplet rhythms give the piece a jazzy insouciance.
In 1977 Gould was asked to contribute music for what became a landmark television drama. NBC’s Holocaust told the fictional story of a German Jewish family and its destruction during the years just prior to and during the Second World War. The nine-and-a-half-hour mini-series was one of the most widely viewed programs of its era and garnered an Emmy Award and widespread critical acclaim. The first of the two excerpts from Gould’s music for Holocaust recorded here presents music that served as the main theme for the drama. The second, Elegy, demonstrates how effectively the trumpet can serve as a poignant voice.
Gould fulfilled many commissions from American orchestras. For the fiftieth anniversary of the Tri-Cities Orchestra of Davenport, Iowa, he composed Festive Music in 1964. This piece uses an offstage trumpet to poetic effect in its central Interlude. Here the brass instrument’s wide-stepping melody combines with spacious, slow-moving harmonies played by a string orchestra to create an impression much like that conveyed in certain works of Aaron Copland: an archetypal American atmosphere of solitude, in which tranquility mingles with melancholy.
Unlike many composers anxious about securing reputations as creators of serious concert music, Gould felt no qualms about writing for wind bands, and he did so frequently. (His catalog includes more than 45 works for band.) Gould composed Formations Suite in 1964 for the University of Florida Marching Band. The piece consists of eight short movements, each written to be played with the band in a different marching formation. The freshness and originality Gould brings to the conventions of marching band music are as admirable as they are surprising.
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