Three Worthy Works by Morton Gould

Classical music tends to make something of anniversaries, so the near-complete absence of celebration surrounding Morton Gould’s centennial probably indicates that his reputation is in decline.

Gould cut a wide swath, writing and arranging prolifically from the cornball to the sublime. Albums of Kern and Porter pop songs outfitted for bachelor pad sit next to soundtracks for television, radio, and film; probably more important are concertos for piano, viola, clarinet, and -- yes -- tap dancer. Regardless of genre, all of his music is unquestionably American in idiom, sometimes saddled with overt references to jazz, history, or folksy stuff.

These days, the three works keeping him marginally in public consciousness are relatively insignificant potboilers:

Symphony No. 4 “West Point” is essential for all bands, especially “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band. Gould churned out many marches and patriotic drills of dubious value. “West Point” is OK; Ballad for Band is better.

“Boogie Woogie Etude” from 1943  is somehow still a bit in vogue as a raucous encore piece for concert pianists. It’s terrible.

“Pavanne,” a movement from American Symphonette No. 2, is little “jazzy” thing recorded in popular “swinging” versions by Glenn Miller and Gould himself; there was even a genuinely swinging version by Ahmad Jamal. John Coltrane isn’t usually thought of that sardonic a personality, but I’m convinced he was making fun of all the “light jazz-influenced classical” music he was perpetually surrounded by when taking the second theme of “Pavanne” for his epic and blazing “Impressions.” (“You keep on making these little impressions of jazz for pop radio? Well, I’ll give you an impression of your music that will scare you to death...”)

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He wrote for anything and everything, but there’s no doubt that Gould was a born orchestral composer. While much of earlier Gould is a dated mix of Stravinsky, Copland and Gershwin, it nonetheless always uses symphonic forces in way both professional and creative. Perhaps since was always busy yet never a star, Gould managed to keep challenging himself, searching for the music he really wanted to write. Starting in the 1950s, certain concert compositions began taking on a more lucid and serious tone.

I hardly know all of Morton Gould. But three pieces have struck me as solid keepers, and for my own private birthday celebration, I’ve kept them looping for the last few days. It’s been an inspiring listen.

Soundings (1969) In two movements. “Threnodies” is an extended mediation on solemn orchestral effects. Gould’s gift for melody comes into even greater focus with “Paeans,” which at one point sounds like a marvelous cross between Richard Rodgers and Charles Ives (the composer conducting the Louisville Orchestra, from The Louisville Orchestra First Edition Series: Morton Gould, recorded 1971):

Gould Soundings excerpt. Paeans

If any American orchestras do encores, they should really consider the 6-minute “Paeans.” It's brilliant, modern, and accessible.

Symphony of Spirituals (1976) Always the safe choice for the establishment, Gould got three bicentennial commissions. Gould’s own program note about Symphony of Spirituals:

The idea of a large scale symphonic work, rooted in and derived from the spiritual idiom, both black and white, was with me for some time...I thought it appropriate that a work commissioned for the American Bicentennial should reflect in some measure the sounds of America’s musical heritage.

Here Gould managed to confuse his biographer, Peter W. Goodman, who wrote:

...No listener would guess that the highly charged, melodic music of black church-goers had anything to do with this score...He might have been better off giving the music and abstract title. Without an identifying blaze, the listener would have a better chance to hear it plain.

Ah, but this is wrong, Gould knew exactly what he was doing. He’d already tried to do literal versions of black music for the concert stage and failed. Now, in his sixties, he’d finally realized that the source material needed to be radically transformed for it to have sufficient weight. The titles of the movements relate to the black sources only distantly, and the music is much stronger for it.

In four movements. “Hallelujah” is a strong and stirring abstract opener. Play this for someone who knows 20th century music as see if they can guess the composer! Even better is the following “Blues.” While it’s not a blues -- how could it be, if it is being played by a symphony orchestra? -- it’s not inappropriately titled, either (Lawrence Leighton Smith conducting the Louisville Orchestra, from The Louisville Orchestra First Edition Series: Morton Gould, recorded 1985):

Gould Blues first two minutes

The final two movements, “Rag” and “Stomp” are a little less charismatic, but still enjoyable, especially in their more chaotic moments. The recording is OK but one with more rhythmic authority (especially from the percussion section) is needed.

StringMusic (1994) won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1995. Despite that seal of approval, StringMusic hasn’t really entered the repertory. I’m rather surprised that there seem to be no performances scheduled this season for Gould’s 100th. It’s too bad, as it is a genuine valedictory, offering the best from a major composer in his final years before dying in 1996. The lone recording is excellent, but I’d love to hear another version, or even better, experience it live.

In five movements. “Prelude” begins mysteriously before finding yet a new way to enjoy the canonical cycle of fifths beloved by Bach, Schumann, Kern and so many others (David Alan Miller conducting the Albany Symphony Orchestra, from Morton Gould: Orchestra Music, recorded 1997):

Gould Prelude excerpt

“Tango” sounds like it will be another pretentious symphonic dance but this one has honest swagger and bite. Next, the central “Dirge” is long bel canto over walking bass:

Gould Dirge excerpt

 Perhaps realizing that his true strength is with melodic slow movements, Gould follows “Dirge” with a short lovely “Ballad” that suggests one of his long-ago pop arrangements in more opulent finery. Finally, the old professional gives us a stomping “Strum.” It’s not my favorite style of Gould but he knows much better than me that he’d better give a lay audience reason to applaud enthusiastically at the end of an unfamiliar work.

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Gould was a virtuoso pianist who should have recorded as a soloist more often, but his imagination wasn't always in top gear when writing for his own instrument. I've seen the scores to almost all his piano music; the most intriging are a late set of perpetual motion studies, Patterns, and a 50's concerto, Dialogues, that has curious-looking dodecaphonic laments and dances. 

It's surprising that Patterns hasn't been recorded by now; really someone should try the suite out, it looks really nice. Probably Dialogues hasn't been heard since the premiere in November 1958 with the composer at the keyboard, but I wonder if there might be a tape somewhere of that performance?

Anyway, best wishes, Morton Gould, on the occasion of your 100th birthday. My own wish is that I get to hear these two piano works sometime, even if I have to learn them myself.

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12/10/2013