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ClassicsOnline Home » GROFE: Death Valley Suite / Hudson River Suite / Hollywood Suite
By Tom Kiefner
Ferde Grofe, if familiar to you at all, will forever be remembered in classical music as the composer of the Grand Canyon Suite, first performed in November of 1931 by his then current employer Paul Whiteman to much critical acclaim. Subsequently, it has been played and recorded by hundreds of orchestras throughout the world, ranging from Arturo Toscanni and the NBC Symphony Orchestra to a great interpretation by Andre Kostelanetz and his orchestra to Eric Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops complete with digitally recorded thunderclaps to heighten the "Cloudburst" movement. This reviewer will always remember Grofe for his brilliant orchestration of Rhapsody in Blue, the composition of George Gershwin, which some will argue as the finest work of the 20th century. However, Ferde also loved to write other suites, and this Naxos release features three different genres written between 1935 and 1954. Much of his work is directly linked to his life experiences with many of the things he wrote about, resulting in program material filled with melodies and orchestrations complete with sound effects that conjure up all sorts of scenes in your mind if you allow it to. This is the kind of music to lay back in your chair with your feet up and just relax and enjoy. This is landscape music in the true meaning of the now over used phrase.
Hollywood Suite has nothing to do with any melodies, scores, or films of the time but does feature a story which Grofe briefly explains and then proceeds to write, arrange, and orchestrate a wonderful suite around. It begins simply with a janitor sweeping up from the night before beautifully reproduced with brushes on the cymbal and a cool theme first on the bassoon and then the clarinet. The extra girl appears and the theme now carried by the strings plays a waltz like melody of the girl waiting to be discovered but alas no. Bustling about, the carpenters and electricians prepare the set for the big dance number in a American In Paris style orchestration frantic with brass and percussion. The "Production number" or the dance is a big band style number with the swinging saxes and clarinets, sliding bones, slam bang drumming and even tap dance clicking. If Ginger Rogers doesn't cross your mind you don't know who she is! The finale has a touch of classical chords as the production winds down to the carpenters and electricians again (one can hear the strains of the style of Rhapsody in Blue) to finally the extra and the sweeper doing his thing once again. Written in 1935 with a ballet in mind it was eventually constructed into a suite in 1938.
The Hudson River Suite, was an idea that the conductor Andre Kostelanetz had and approached Ferde with it in 1954, something Grofe found interesting enough to come up with quite a varied suite. Yes it is similar in style and flavor to his beloved Grand Canyon Suite but upon more serious listening there truly is a distinct difference to it from other suites he composed. "The River" with its great melody depicts the flowing of the great river. "Henry Hudson" is a patriotic stoic piece of the famous navigator. "Rip van Winkle", something which Grofe began work on in 1932 as an idea, is complete with dog barking and bowling sound effects! "Albany Night Boat" is a lush romantic track except for a moment or two of dixieland. "New York" depicts the hustle and bustle of the city in a short concluding track.
Death Valley Suite was actually given its premiere performance at Desolation Canyon in California in front of 65,000 people! As was the case with Hollywood Suite Ferde wrote a little story telling the tale of the early pioneers attempting to make it across the Valley of Death. The parching sun, Indians, cracking whips, whirring arrows, and swirling wind are just some of the things depicted in the suite. Being an old trombone player I can tell you that there is some very nice work in the "'49er Emigrant Train" track. When they finally find water in "Desert Water Hole" some of the favorite Americana songs are orchestrated into a nice small medley. Grofe loved percussion and certainly put it to excellent use in this suite. The final track "Sand Storm" has a similar style to "Cloudburst" on Grand Canyon Suite but still is one of the best tracks to listen to. The swirling sand and wind come through loud and clear!
Some of the music could have very easily found its way into a cartoon as the easy going carefree style complete with sound effects really tell great stories. Eleanor Thomason did an excellent job of capturing all of the nuances of the percussion and should be commended for her fine engineering. This was a first class job by Stromberg and the Bournemouth Symphony and has my highest recommendation!
Ferde Grofé (1892-1972)
Death Valley Suite Hollywood Suite Hudson River Suite
Ferde Grofé was born Ferdinand Rudolph von Grofé, in New York City on 27th March, 1892. Shortly thereafter the family moved to Los Angeles. Ferdes father was a baritone and actor, while his mother was a cellist and music teacher of some note, numbering the famous American cellist and conductor Alfred Wallenstein among her pupils. Ferde studied the piano, violin and harmony with his mother and the viola with his grandfather. He attended Los Angeles City Schools and later St Vincents College, now known as Loyola University. When his father died in 1899, he joined his mother in Germany (she had studied at the Leipzig Conservatory for three years). Upon their return to Los Angeles, Madame Grofé opened a music studio. It was during those very early years of this century that he wrote his earliest compositions, three piano rags, entitled Harem, Rattlesnake and Persimmon.
Ferde Grofé left home in 1906 to work at odd jobs, as a bookbinder, truck driver, usher, newsboy, elevator operator, lithographer, typesetter and steelworker, studying the violin and piano in his spare time. In 1909 he wrote his first commissioned work, The Grand Reunion March, for an Elks Clubs convention in Los Angeles. He joined the American Federation of Musicians that year and began a ten-year association with the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra playing the viola.
In 1917 Grofé joined Paul Whitemans Orchestra as a pianist, and permanently in 1920 as pianist, assistant conductor, orchestrator and librarian. He remained with the Whiteman orchestra for twelve years. His first arrangements of Whispering, Avalon, and Japanese Sandman sold millions of records. He toured Europe with the orchestra in 1923, and in 1924 had his first real break when he orchestrated George Gershwins Rhapsody in Blue, a collaboration that brought a measure of fame. He turned his attention to original composition, with works that included the tone-poem Broadway at Night. His subsequent works, Metropolis, Blue Fantasy in E Flat, Mississippi Suite, and Three Shades of Blue, reveal an astonishing mastery of symphonic jazz idiom.
The 1930s proved to be productive years for Grofé. He composed his popular Grand Canyon Suite in 1931, and in 1932 joined NBC as staff conductor. A year later he composed his Tabloid Suite, a musical portrait of the newspaper business, while his tone-poem Rip Van Winkle, 22 years later became part of his Hudson River Suite. During the next several years he composed Hollywood Suite, Killarney - Irish Fantasy, Rudy Valley Suite, Kentucky Derby Suite, and the ballet Café Society. In 1937, he conducted two concerts of the New York Philharmonic, and in 1939 joined the faculty of the Juilliard School, teaching orchestration and composition. Conducting engagements and commissions continued to pour in. Over the next thirty years, Grofé produced dozens of new compositions, including film scores, jazz band arrangements, and, of course, more of his evocative "nature suites". Reminiscing in the 1960s, he declared the fundamental inspiration he had drawn from America: "Many of my compositions, I believe, were born of sight, sound, and sensations common to all of us. I think I have spoken of America in this music simply because America spoke to me, just as it has spoken to you and to every one of us". He died on 3rd April, 1972, in Santa Monica, California, after a series of heart attacks.
Throughout his career, Grofé always provided detailed annotations for each of his orchestral works. Because these notes clearly reflect the composers musical intentions, they are here reproduced, in their entirety, for each of the three suites here recorded.
The Hollywood Suite was initially created and conceived as a ballet for the production team of Fanchon and Marco. The première took place at the Hollywood Bowl on 15th August, 1935. For that performance the following scenario was provided: "The ballet "Hollywood" is a synthesis of what this famed name symbolizes for the whole world, the glamorous but artificial atmosphere of motion pictures. As the action starts the scene is actually nothing but the empty space; but a sign says this is "Stage No.4." A laborer sweeps the floor with motions as fatally unconcerned as the swinging of a clock pendulum, when a girl appears, typically representative of that place called Hollywood. Extra, stand-in, or double, in turn or all in one (let us call her the Double) she is the one whom glamour attracted, hunger tamed, and hope still sustains. Carpenters come and build a set in which electricians bring lights and to which set-dressers and property-men put the finishing touches. Each crew in turn casually calls the double, either to check the plan of a column, or the proper hanging of a prop, or the correct adjustment of the lighting. Everybody evidently needs her, but she nevertheless seems to be soon ignored by all. Cameramen, assistant-directors, the whole army takes its position. The extras enter. Here is the Director. And now comes the Star with her retinue of maids. The Double rehearses the scene laboriously, and when, thanks to her, everything has been properly settled, she is kicked out of the set to make way for the Star who "shoots" the scene in her place. Now the Star is supposed to dance but the little girl is called again, this time to "double" for the Star who cannot dance; after which the Star of course steps in for the close-up. And when finally the big dancing number of the precision girls has been photographed, when the day is over and when everybody has in a rush taken out set, lights, props, cameras, and themselves one lonely forgotten figure remains, the unknown Stand-in, whom the sweeper, with motions as fatally unconcerned as the swinging of a clock pendulum, sweeps out with the days debris
This is: Stage No.4, Hollywood." In 1938, Grofé recast the ballet into the six-part suite recorded here.
Ever since the first emigrants saw Death Valley, fantastic tales have been told of its blasting temperatures and stupendous riches. Death Valley, part of the Great American Desert, is largely in south-eastern California. Indians, emigrants, prospectors, miners all have left traces in this Valley that has changed little in a million years. In 1949 Californias State Centennial Celebration took place and a non-profit organization, The Death Valley 49ers was formed. The organization, realising that Grofé was a composer who most vividly grasped the broad scope of the American scene, commissioned him to compose a suite commemorating the centenary of the discovery of this bleak and beautiful wilderness. An extraordinary pageant glorifying the spirit of the California pioneers was held on 3rd December, 1949, at Desolation Canyon. The pageant re-enacted the events of 1849 with an extraordinary procession of covered wagons and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra conducted by Ferde Grofé. Over 65,000 spectators who attended this pageant heard that day the first performance of Grofés Death Valley Suite. The composer provided the following detailed programme notes to the four movements: "I. "Funeral Mountains." The music here paints this desolate area in tones that reflect the grandeur and desolation; tracing the first glow of sunrise, then the merciless rays of high noon, and finally the purple shades of night. II. "49er Emigrant Train." Lost in the desert wilderness, dying of thirst, the emigrants face the blazing Death Valley Sun. The music vividly portrays the creaking of dried axles, the scraping of wagon wheels, the shouts of the drivers and the cracks of their whips. Lurking Indians await a chance to attack; we hear the whir of arrows, the bawling of wounded oxen and the confusion among the emigrants. Yet, in spite of almost insurmountable obstacles, the pioneers indomitable spirit rises to give them new strength and courage. III. "Desert Water Hole." The exhausted and parched emigrant train, lost in the Valley of Death, stumbles on through the blinding glare of the salt beds. The oxen suddenly lift their heads and bawl through cracked dry throats. They have scented water! Animals, men and women dash to the open spring of clear, gurgling water and plunge their heads into its life-saving flow. Released from the grip of death, the emigrants raise their voices in thanks and praise to their merciful God. Then a fiddle cuts loose and in a jiffy the whole company is dancing in celebration. IV. "Sand Storm." Far across the Valley of Death, a spiraling dervish of sand spins top-like across the desert. It whirls closer and the sand cascades down the slope in a whispering sibilance. The dizzy cyclone reels drunkenly and brushes the great hill of sand, sweeping off a singing cloud. Delicate zephyrs hurry from the canyons, breezes from the hillsides, gusts from the ridges and gales from the mountain tops, boisterously uniting their voices over the desert floor. The wind blasts its way through mesquite and greasewood then reaches a tempestuous climax, as the surviving settlers emerge, stronger for their ordeal, to build a new civilization in the wilderness."
The conductor Andre Kostelanetz had had the idea of a suite based on the legends of the Hudson River for some time. In the fall of 1954 he met Grofé. When the subject of a work based on the Hudson River was discussed, Grofé seized upon it immediately. As early as 1932, Grofé had conceived a tone-poem called Rip Van Winkle. Now he had an opportunity of creating an expanded suite. Grofé worked for about five months and finished the suite in Santa Monica on 21st May 1955, just in time to begin rehearsals for the 25th June première by the National Symphony orchestra conducted by Kostelanetz at Washington D.C.s Carter Barron Amphitheater. The composer provided the following synopsis: "I. "The River" starts with the lower reaches of the Hudson, its broad, sweeping, majestic flow before it reaches the Atlantic. It also describes the colorful cliffs and woodlands of the Palisades along its shores. This is the mood of the music heard in the broad melodic line with its varied embellishments reflecting the sweep of the mighty Hudson. II. "Henry Hudson" is a musical portrait of the famous explorer. The melody is heroic and depicts the temperament and courage of the immortal navigator. III. "Rip Van Winkle" is the tale of Washington Irving in a musical setting. It begins with Rip whistling for his dog, answered by his barks. Then follows the happy stroll up the mountainside in the Catskills. Eventually Rip meets up with the dwarfish little men with their beards, playing nine-pins in the ravine. The rolling of the balls sounds like thunder in the distance. Rip joins them in their festivities. The twenty years sleep follows. Finally his awakening. He whistles for his dog, but there is no answer. His disheveled appearance, the rusty barrel and rotted stock of his gun are all that is left. Eventually he is reunited with his daughter, and finds solace with her and his grandchildren, telling them tales of Henry Hudson and his motley crew. IV. "Albany Night Boat." The music reflects the moonlit night aboard the boat, as expressed in a romantic theme. While the boat glides smoothly over the water, a small jazz band begins to play on deck. There is general gaiety, laughter and dancing, while romance highlights the scene. V. "New York," with its skyline, the myriads of lights, the commotion and excitement of the Big City. The turbulent and unending flow of life brings the Suite to a climactic end."
Victor and Marina A. Ledin
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GROFE: Death Valley Suite / Hudson River Suite / H...