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Book Review

Morton Gould

Morton Gould: American Salute

American Salute

Peter W. Goodman
Portland, Or: Amadeus Press, 2000. 382pp
ISBN: 1574670557
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Although best known for popular, crossover and light classical music, Morton Gould, from his earliest to his latest years had strong classical aspirations and accomplishments. This excellent biography shows the how and why of the reputation and varied career of this musical genius.

Born in 1913, Morton Gould wrote his first composition as early as age six and performed on the piano at the Brooklyn Academy of Music at age 8. At age 13 he began study of composition and theory with the chair of the Music Education Department at New York University. At 14, his Opus 8 Suite for orchestra, piano and solo instruments included tone clusters in the spirit of Henry Cowell. He had a strong talent for improvisation, encouraged by his most important piano teacher, Abby Whiteside. In October 1929 he dropped out of high school to study privately with another NYU professor.

At 17, in the summer of 1931 Gould gave an all-Gould concert at Wanamaker's Auditorium, which was reviewed in the World Telegram, and at which he improvised on themes submitted by Walter Damrosch and Henry Hadley in the styles of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms, Debussy, Stravinsky and Gershwin, with dexterity "little short of prodigious." Shortly afterwards the Baldwin company gave him a piano and offered to subsidize his performances. Schirmer planned to publish his "Three Conservative Sketches." And Fritz Reiner recruited him to study conducting at Curtis, where Reiner was about to go. Unfortunately, Gould found it necessary to turn this opportunity down.

From the beginning of the Great Depression, Gould set out to support his family – parents and siblings – as part of a duo-piano team in Vaudeville. He also had experience playing in department stores and hotels. He did not like this kind of work, but it led to a successful career in broadcast radio at its inception, when all music was live and nothing was recorded. He went on to accept a position at the new Radio City Music Hall and then, in 1935, moved to station WOR, as conductor and arranger. Through these experiences Gould learned to know what audiences liked. He wrote and published popular songs for money. His taste was not considered "commercial" though, "because it was too complicated." (p. 91) He was successful, and his success was envied by composers in the European tradition. When Gershwin died in 1937 Gould was acclaimed his heir in Down Beat and Radio Stars. Goodman says that "no one but Gould matched Gershwin until Bernstein came along." (p. 107)

Morton Gould had much in common with Leonard Bernstein and had some significant differences from him. Both were composer-conductors with strengths both in classical music and the popular theatre; both wrote ballets; both made many recordings; both became more interested in emphasizing their classical over their popular side as they grew older. However, Bernstein was much more successful in getting his public to accept that emphasis than was Gould, who spent his life trying to shake a reputation for writing "light" classical music. Gould did end his career by winning the Pulitzer Prize for his String Music, but he spent much of his life minding the fact that in his maturity he was seldom performed by the major orchestras, especially the New York Philharmonic. Gould could be witty and funny, but rarely smiled in public, and was "boring and dull" on television. He did not have the charisma, or talent for self-promotion Bernstein did; he did not have the university and conservatory training Bernstein did; he did not have the same kind of professional network Bernstein did. Some light on the last point is cast by Nadine Hubbs' interesting but very flawed book, The Queer Composition of America's Sound: Gay Modernists, American Music and National Identity, a study of half a dozen New York based composers including Bernstein, Copland and Thomson; the only one of this group to put in good words for Gould was David Diamond, in Goodman's account; Hubbs does not even mention the very heterosexual Gould.

Goodman glosses over Gould's many sexual affairs but tells us a great deal about the two wives who left him – the first to pursue radical politics and the second for reasons less clear but probably related to the affairs, in part at least. Both were strong women. By the second he had children. Gould expected to dominate his wives, as his father had dominated his family. His father was successful for a time, until the depression and health problems did him in; he managed Gould's career longer than was perhaps a good thing, as he managed it for financial success, not artistic growth.

Early in his career, most of the important conductors in America were interested in Gould's music: Reiner, Stokowski, Szell, Toscanini, Mitropoulos, and Barbirolli; so were soloists such as Heifetz. Later, with the exception of Solti, who performed Gould's Flute Concerto, Gould's music continued to be published, performed, and recorded, but mostly less prominent musicians and orchestras were involved, to Gould's disappointment. The challenge to all tonal music by the serialists intensified the eclipse of his classical music. Indeed, the coming of rock music tended to eclipse his popular music also. For about the last eight years of his life Gould was President of ASCAP. In spite of many accomplishments and honors, he was disappointed with his career and suffered from frequent depressions.

Goodman writes musically about many of Gould's compositions, which include four symphonies, some concertos, and the ballet Fall River Legend. The book includes a selected discography. The index lists only names, unfortunately. Goodman, a critic for Newsday who once wrote a less-than-rave review of one of Gould's works, but who later acquired a strong interest in Gould and his music, has produced a very well written and balanced biography. He does not psychologize, as Joan Peyser surely would have; she had planned to write a biography of Gould but was unable to find a publisher for her project. A third writer had initially done preliminary work concerning Gould's compositions with an eye to a biography. Between 1994 and 1997 Goodman interviewed well over a hundred people, including Gould, for this book. They are listed. Some interviews with Gould took place as early as 1985. Gould died at the beginning of 1996.

Copyright © 2005 by R. James Tobin