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CD Review

Morton Gould

Composer and Conductor

  • American Ballads
  • Spirituals for Strings
  • American Symphonette #2
  • American Salute
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Kenneth Klein
Albany TROY202 69:11
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  • Morton Gould:
  • Symphony on Marching Tunes - Quickstep
  • Fall River Legend - Cotillion
  • Philharmonic Waltzes
  • Latin-American Symphonette
  • Festive Music *
  • Fanfare for Freedom
  • Windjammer - Main Title
  • Alberto Ginastera: Estancia Ballet Suite
* Maurice Murphy, trumpet
London Symphony Orchestra/Morton Gould
Citadel CTD88130 62:50
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Summary for the Busy Executive: The Age of Gould.

We live in odd times, children of Manfred and Faust. We pull long faces and value sorrow, and we dismiss the smiler and the joke. Life becomes to a great extent suffering and those who contend with it, heroes. Wit and elegance we deep down distrust as shallow fun. I suspect, for example, that most people think Bette Davis a better actor than Cary Grant or Mozart's Symphony #40 a greater work than his Symphony #39, perhaps because the later piece is in a minor key. We aspire to the tragic and the solemn.

Yet it's probably harder to be light than heavy – levity more difficult than gravity. It requires effort to float above the earth. There's a reason why the Church considers "levitation" a miracle and why the Buddha smiles.

The question "What is light music?" set me off on the above. One could consider almost everything on these two CDs "light" in both senses: radiant and buoyant. To some extent, Gould's career as a successful commercial musician determined much of his output. He often entertained, rather than lectured or preached. The American musician he reminds me most of is Bernstein, although each hated the other, probably because Gould was Bernstein before there was a Bernstein – a musician who could turn everyday pop into something extraordinary. Behind both, of course, is the tremendous figure of George Gershwin. The one success that eluded Gould was Broadway and pop song. Gould flourished in the days of radio symphonic orchestras, the Depression sending musicians' wages so low that it made such orchestras possible. The most famous, of course, was Toscanini's NBC Symphony, but CBS also had one (led by Bernard Herrmann), as did Mutual. Gould became a professional composer and arranger in his teens – a genuine prodigy who wrote directly on full score paper, usually to deadline, rather than first making piano sketches. Indeed, the nature of his work made full orchestra the norm, and he didn't begin to compose chamber music until very late in his long career. Most of the works on these CDs are "light," but they also contain surprises. The "light" work is never sloughed off. It's light in the same sense as Mozart's Nozze di Figaro – as good as the genre gets. Furthermore, one meets with genuine poetry – I won't say as a surprise, since Gould's artistic intentions remain admirably clear – but he rises to and often transcends each occasion.

Gould's influences include such figures as Gershwin, Copland, Thomson, 19th-century dance music, spirituals, jazz, pop music of the day, and, behind them all, the towering figure of Stravinsky. Later, Ives also affected Gould's music – particularly the Ives notion of musical simultaneity – and Gould recorded several Ives works. Yet, in spite of this mix, you recognize a Gould work within a few notes. Gould led the double musical life of commercial musician and classical musician. If he created hi-fi concept albums in the Fifties, he also wrote for Agnes de Mille and Balanchine. Perhaps for most of those who think of him at all, the Latin-American Symphonette and the American Symphonette #2 have crowded out the Spirituals for Orchestra and Fall River Legend. In this view, he may become merely a slickmeister. Furthermore, we apparently find it hard to hold in our heads more than a few Great Composers in our heads at any one time. At this point, we seem to admit Ives, Copland, Barber, Carter, and perhaps Gershwin and Bernstein to the Pantheon, as well we should. But the gates need to swing open wider. Gould is one of those American interwar and postwar musicians – along with Piston, Diamond, Schuman, Sessions, Mennin, Fine, Talma, Hanson, Foss, Blitzstein, Lees, Bergsma, Shapero, and Thomson – too good to lose. A heap of marvelous music – I'd contend even "classic" music – awaits rediscovery.

Two of the works on the Albany disc may very well stand as Gould's biggest hits – American Salute, which has become a hi-fi demo classic, and the "Pavane" from American Symphonette #2. Gould has written many times about his coinage of the term "symphonette." At the time, he thought of himself as terribly up-to-date, especially when words like "dinette" and "kitchenette" began to appear in the language during the Thirties. Later on, he realized the tackiness of it. Nothing dates quite so fast as the cutting edge. The work itself, however, is ever-new. The "Pavane" has been arranged every which way, often by Gould, and shares the status of Beloved Pops Classic with several works of Leroy Anderson (another underrated composer). It seems to pop up everywhere, and yet never wears out its welcome – a key to its considerable quality. The entire work, however, amounts to three perfect miniatures. Rhythmically vigorous – as fiddle tunes and quicksteps are – with never a wasted note, it gets your body moving or your grin going. The American Salute, written during World War II, presents variations of the Civil War march, "When Johnny Comes Marching Home." Gould not only wrote it in an evening, he wrote and revised it the same evening. It's a work comprised almost exclusively of first thoughts – in this case, first thoughts of great incisiveness.

The American Ballads and the Spirituals for Strings belong roughly to the same type of piece – not variations, exactly, so much as variants in the sense of Vaughan Williams' Five Variants on "Dives and Lazarus". That is, in both works, the composers take apart their base melodies, cutting them into their essential pieces and shapes, and then recombine the parts into new profiles. The American Ballads go further than the Spirituals in this regard, probably for several reasons. First, Gould has always revered spirituals, and they've called forth some of his best work: Spirituals for Orchestra and Symphony of Spirituals among them. One hesitates to tamper with perfection. His most radical work on this material, Spirituals for Orchestra, uses totally original themes. The traditional melodies he treats with great restraint. Second, Gould I believe created these arrangements for one of his commercial concept albums. If you advertise "spirituals," you'd better give the audience what it expects to find. And yet even here Gould does not merely orchestrate hymns. He builds substantial symphonic movements – often combining two different spirituals of similar lyric content and playing one off against the other. On the other hand, Gould dares a lot more with the Ballads, variants on "The Star-Spangled Banner," "America the Beautiful," "The Year of Jubilo," "Taps," "The Girl I Left Behind Me," and "We Shall Overcome." Throughout each movement, one hears fragments of the base tunes raised to the surface and then submerging again.

The Citadel CD drives me a little crazy because it provides excerpts from larger pieces. It's like being tantalized with "Beethoven's Fifth Symphony" and offered just the first movement – frustrating and annoying, one step up from "The Hundred Greatest Moments in Music," which gives you only a Famous Theme and thoughtfully eliminates the boring development. On the Citadel CD, instead of the Fall River Legend, we get the "Cotillion" movement only. On the other hand, Gould does give us the entire Latin-American Symphonette, Festive Music, and Philharmonic Waltzes, as well as the brief Fanfare for Freedom. All of these composer-led performances are not only authoritative, but quite fine.

Fanfare for Freedom was part of the same series of World War II fanfares (commissioned by the remarkable Eugene Goossens) that produced Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man. Most of the fanfares were dedicated to specific fighting units – the medical corps, the signal corps, the airmen, the free French, and so on. Copland and Gould were the only two composers of the bunch to take notice of the ideas people were dying for. Both works build from simple, even austere, ideas, but Gould's work more closely adheres to the conventional idea of a fanfare. Copland, on the other hand, produces something sui generis, and I think it significant that Copland's is the only fanfare of the series to lead a significant concert life beyond its première. Nevertheless, the series as a whole contained no real miss, and Gould's contribution brilliantly riffs on the major triad (do-mi-sol, C-E-G) for a thrilling one-and-a-half minutes.

The New York Philharmonic commissioned Gould's Philharmonic Waltzes in 1947 as an accompaniment to a fashion show, believe it or not – a fund-raising benefit for the orchestra. This is a quintessentially American idea, I think: pleasure + pleasure = more pleasure. Great music plus good-looking women in pretty clothes gives you more than merely great music. Gould came up with music that transcends its silly occasion. It celebrates movement and would make a terrific ballet. You can practically see a Balanchine corps de ballet as the music plays. I also find it an interesting example of what I call the "Broadway waltz," of the kind written by Richard Rogers and Leonard Bernstein.

Festive Music was commissioned by the Tri-City Symphony Orchestra in 1964 – the three cities in question being Rock Island, Illinois, Moline, Illinois, and Davenport, Iowa. Gerard Schwarz recorded the middle movement only on Delos DE3166. This recording supersedes the Delos. It's definitely minor Gould, but nevertheless interesting. The first movement – "Fanfare" – again plays with the major triad. The second – "Interlude" – pays homage to Leon "Bix" Beiderbecke, since (as viewers of the Ken Burns documentary Jazz know), the jazzman was born in Davenport. The movement is not particularly jazzy, reminding me instead of Beiderbecke's Impressionist piano compositions, like "Candlelight." a solo trumpet soars over an ensemble of mainly strings, evoking the Iowa prairie, much like Copland's Suite from The Red Pony or even Quiet City. Though there's more Copland here than Gould, it's Copland very well done indeed. The finale – "Dance" – is a rip-roaring 9/8, full of ingenious, physically exciting cross-rhythms. I've never heard scherzo rhythm broken up in so many surprising ways as here.

The major work on the CD, the Latin-American Symphonette, has for some reason received very few complete recordings. The only other (off the top of my head) was Howard Hanson's on Mercury. Gould wrote his fourth "little symphony" in 1940, during a major craze for Latin rhythms in American pOp. Think of Gershwin's Cuban Overture, Copland's El Salón México and Danzón Cubano, and even Cole Porter's beguines. This piece isn't an entirely-straight evocation of the Real Thing, but of its pop manifestations. There's as much boogie-woogie in its movements as conga and tango. At certain points, one can almost hear the Andrews Sisters. The most "legit" movements are the "Tango" and "Guaracha," and I don't believe it a coincidence these movements are also the most performed. Nevertheless, the piece is a lot of fun – an American classic of sorts. Each movement is recognizably the dance it purports to be, as much a matter of Gould's seizing upon the characteristic rhythm, and yet the course of each movement surprises. Gould also handles the percussion section superbly, as well indeed as the Cuban, Argentinean, and Brazilian musicians the dances belong to. It must be a joy to play.

However, for the real thing, turn to Ginastera's 1941 Estancia. This suite is probably his best-known work, sort of Bartók on the Pampas, taking folk rhythms and melos and constructing a highly sophisticated "primitive" idiom. You have many performances to choose from – including at least one of the complete ballet. Gould's holds up very well indeed in a crowded field. Indeed, Gould and his London band do brilliantly throughout the CD. This is one very attractive disc, beautifully recorded.

Copyright © 2001, Steve Schwartz