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ClassicsOnline Home » GOULD, M.: Fall River Legend / Jekyll and Hyde Variations (Neal, Nashville Symphony, Schermerhorn)
By James Manishen
Winnipeg Free Press
Here is ample evidence that Morton Gould went far beyond being merely a supplier of expertly crafted light American-themed pastiches he's often been typecast for.
Fall River Legend is the 1948 Agnes DeMille ballet about famous accused murderess Lizzie Borden, with a complete score rather than the usual suite containing half the music. The 1957 recording is a resourceful 21-minute journey of cross-personalities from its 12-tone theme featuring strong performances from the late Kenneth Schermerhorn and his long associated Nashville players.
Morton Gould’s profile as a composer of “popular”
music and light classics in the 1940s music nearly cost
him the commission to write one of his most famous
scores. Agnes DeMille was looking for a collaborator on
a ballet about America’s favourite non-political murder,
the story of Lizzie Borden, who “took an axe and gave
her mother forty whacks”. She nearly rejected the
conductor Max Goberman’s suggestion that she contact
Gould, whose work she knew only from his popular
radio broadcasts. Goberman assured DeMille of three
essential features about Gould: he could compose in any
style, he could write tunes, and he could orchestrate
When choreographer and composer met to flesh out
the scenario, DeMille was still unsure about the ending.
How should they deal with the question of Lizzie
Borden’s guilt in the murder of her father and
stepmother? The historical Lizzie was acquitted; most
authorities remain convinced that she was guilty. Gould
suggested that, in the ballet, she should be hanged,
calling this justifiable poetic license. He added that he
could easily write “hanging music”, whereas it would be
difficult to attempt “acquittal music”. (In any case,
neither the murders nor the hanging are explicitly
From the very beginning Fall River Legend has
been regarded as one of the high points of Gould’s
output. It has remained one of his most frequentlyperformed
works, though usually heard as a concert
suite containing about half the music, compared to the
full score recorded here.
The ballet opens with a brief Prologue, a brutal,
assertive statement of music associated later with the
gallows. A speaker reads the indictment against Lizzie
Borden. Most of the rest is a flashback, in which the
adult Lizzie observes her own history, but is powerless
to change it. She sees her childlike self living with her
father and mother (waltz music in a period style). A hint
of Chopsticks evokes the innocence of her childhood.
The happy family scene turns to mourning with the
illness and death of Lizzie’s mother. She is left with
only a shawl to remember her by. Another woman soon
marries the widower Borden and becomes Lizzie’s cold
stepmother, symbolized by her taking the shawl from
The father prefers the company of his new wife.
Lizzie is left in an emotionless vacuum. The stepmother
hints that she is not quite right in the head. For a time it
seems as if Lizzie will form a supportive relationship
with the understanding pastor when he stops by, but the
parents order her back into the house. She goes to a rear
door and re-enters with an axe. The music turns sinister;
the father and stepmother express fear at this sudden,
apparently violent, apparition. Lizzie had merely
intended to chop firewood, but their obvious fear plants
a terrible idea in her mind. She caresses the handle of
the axe, as one would a child. It represents for her the
opportunity to live and be free.
The pastor arrives to invite her to the church social,
still undeterred by the stepmother’s rumours about
Lizzie’s mental condition. They head off to the church.
The Church Social captures the mood and spirit of a
small New England town with intimations of folk-tunes
and hymnody. (The tunes are all original with Gould.)
Lizzie dances with the pastor during the Hymnal
Variations, but her stepmother arrives and again spreads
rumours about her. After the pastor takes her home, she
conceals the axe under her skirt, revealing it to the terror
of her parents. A blackout conceals the awful deed. The
Death Dance is a kind of dream sequence. The
townspeople discover the crime in a remarkable scene
played in silence, without music. Lizzie sees them,
makes a silent scream, and rushes off as the orchestra
explodes in the Mob Scene. The house is dismantled and
converted to the gallows.
In the Epilogue, the crowd slowly disappears,
leaving Lizzie alone with the pastor, as the orchestra
recalls the passages of her life leading up to this
moment. Finally she is left alone, confronting the
gallows, and we hear once more the brutal orchestral cry
with which the ballet opened. A dark final roll on the
timpani brings Lizzie to face her own death as the ballet
Following the successful première of Fall River
Legend in 1948, Gould was interested in moving away
from his reputation as a composer of light classics.
Dimitri Mitropoulos, music director of the New York
Philharmonic from 1950 to 1958, requested an
orchestral work of a serious nature. At mid-century, that
meant a score employing in some way the twelve-tone
system created by Arnold Schoenberg. Gould chose to
use the technique in a score inspired by Robert Louis
Stevenson’s famous horror story The Strange Case of
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, an immediate best-seller when
it came out in Great Britain in 1886, in which the reader
gradually learns that the humane Dr Jekyll and the
brutal Hyde are in fact two aspects of the same human
Gould chose variation form as a way of dramatizing
the diverse characteristics of the split personality. Even
the theme itself is cast to symbolize the split. It is lyrical
in character, but with several subtle changes of tempo,
and its last half reverses the first half, like a mirror
image, or an inversion of black-to-white or good to evil.
The twelve variations that follow cover a wide
expressive range marked by numerous expressive
markings in the score to suggest the varied moods,
which change even within the confines of a single
variation. The general progression is from the lyrical to
the dark and even demonic, as the twelfth variation calls
for music that is “intense and angry” or “headlong and
frenetic”. A thirteenth variation serves as a finale,
mostly contemplative in nature, drawing back from the
horror to a kind of philosophical contemplation.
Mitropoulos conducted the première in New York
on 2nd February 1957. Both the composer and the
conductor, a superb musician and devoted supporter of
new works, were pleased with the results, but audiences
and critics found it impossible to get past Morton
Gould’s reputation as an entertainer and composer of
the American Salute or the Latin-American
Symphonette, Broadway shows, and film scores.
Listeners who expected a work of that type were too
surprised to listen with open ears and to accept him as a
composer of a serious work in the most modern idiom.
If Mitropoulos had remained longer at the Philharmonic,
he would surely have performed the work again and
given audiences another chance to come to appreciate
its qualities, but he was subject to frequent attacks from
the press for his effective support of contemporary
music. He stepped down from the music directorship of
the orchestra seven months later.
Gould himself always considered the Jekyll and
Hyde Variations among his best pieces, but until now
there have been virtually no opportunities to experience
it. This recording gives us a chance to evaluate the
extraordinary range of Morton Gould’s creative talents.
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