Music: Maestro of Americana

Albany records’ new CD of Morton Gould’s music, including his Pulitzer Prize winner from 1995, StringMusic, has sold well over 3,000 copies—bestseller status in the classical music world. This issue was preceded by a tribute album at the time of Gould’s death in 1996, featuring some of Gould’s Americana and his popular American Symphonette No. 2. In the liner notes to the tribute CD, Peter Kermani, the co-owner of Albany Records, claims that Gould was a great American composer. “Now,” he writes, “as we come to the end of this glorious age of dissonance we call 20th Century Music, it is my belief more than ever that the music of Morton Gould will endure because he knew America. He felt it in his bones—its humor and patriotism, its rhythm and pulse.” To help prove his point, Kermani has retained in the Albany catalog a two-CD set of older recordings of seven Gould compositions spanning four decades of his work, such as the Concerto for Viola and Orchestra, Soundings, and Symphony of Spirituals. Kermani’s praise may be exaggerated, but he and Albany Records have performed a singular service to American music by making so many of Gould’s works available.

Kermani is right to stress that Gould’s music is inimitably American. Gould (1913-1996) was particularly adept at drawing on and displaying the richness of American musical idioms, all of them. His ability to assimilate jazz, blues, pop, boogie-woogie, big-band, honky tonk, hymns, hoe-down, and folk styles gave his music an irresistible American tang. And by offering familiar tunes in serious concert treatments, Gould drew attention to how good the basic American materials were. His orchestral settings of hymns, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” various popular dances, and folk songs were done out of a deep respect and love for these materials. For his treatments, Gould deservedly earned the reputation as a master orchestrator.

However, Americana can be a dangerous business, often amounting to little more than banal exploitation of patriotism and the popularity of others. But Gould did not need folk tunes or hymns as a compositional crutch. In his many other works, he showed that he could just as easily write melodies that could pass for the original thing. For example, his Spirituals (1941) for string, choir, and orchestra, aimed—without quoting actual hymns—at evoking the overall mood of spirituals.

Gould also wrote a considerable body of work outside the popular or Americana vein, including a number of concertos and three symphonies. His more abstract works, however, were all clearly abstractions from something. They never lost their reference points. As Gould said, “I have always been and still am stimulated by the vernacular, by the sound of spirituals, jazz, etc…. I would imagine that although I might venture into more complicated abstractions, there is always present in one form or another, at least the residue of these influences.” Along with the vernacular, one detects in Gould’s more serious works the influences of some of the major composers of his day: Aaron Copland primarily, but also Shostakovich, Stravinsky, and Poulenc.

Gould covered the map in a career that began as a child prodigy. He sat down at the piano and began improvising at the age of four. His understandably startled father recalled, “how and when Morton learned music is a mystery.” Little Morton composed and published his first work at age six—a piano waltz called Just Six, a title that displays Gould’s typically impish humor. His formal musical education included a year at the Institute of Musical Art when he was eight, and later composition study at New York University. Gould had to drop out of high school to help support his family during the Depression. He played piano in vaudeville, movie theaters, and jazz bands. He also toured colleges and conservatories, where he exhibited his extraordinary skill at improvisation. The audience would provide him with a musical phrase that he would then immediately build into a fugue.

Gould first became famous conducting, composing, and making arrangements on weekly orchestral radio programs. By 1943, he was nationally known as the musical director of the Cresta Blanca Carnival and The Chrysler Hour on the CBS radio network. It was in his radio days that Gould composed his very popular American and Latin American Symphonettes—so entitled, Gould explained, because it was the era of the “dinette and kitchenette.” Gould went on to compose ballets (Fall River Legend and Interplay), Broadway shows (Billion Dollar Baby), and film scores (Windjammer and Holocaust).

All his music shows Gould’s extraordinary grasp of musical form, but also his gift for brilliant orchestration, a subject he was never able to study formally. Perhaps his lack of formal training left him free to develop his native feel for textures, rhythms, and sounds so idiosyncratically American. As a result, his music, though conventional in terms of tonality and structure, always sounds fresh. It is also enlivened by Gould’s love of syncopations and polyrhythms. Such was Gould’s mastery that he was basically at play in the field of American music, and his sense of enjoyment and fun unfailingly communicates itself.

The double-CD set from Albany starts with Housewarming and Flourishes and Galop, two short works from the early ’80s. They were both written for the opening of new symphony halls and convey a lively sense of occasion and spirit—clearly music for beginning something. Housewarming especially expresses a jubilant musical consecration. The 1944 Viola Concerto shows a darker side to Gould’s lyricism that sounds at times almost Hungarian. This lovely, rhapsodic piece lay neglected for four decades until Robert Glazer revived it with the Louisville Orchestra.

Columbia, another commissioned piece for an opening—this one for the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Maryland—plays upon the themes from “Hail Columbia” and “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean.” This rousing music is a brilliant example of Gould’s ingenuity at using popular American melodies without descending to the level of banal Americana. American Symphonette No. 2 is a fun, jazzy suite from 1939, the middle movement of which, “Pavane,” may be Gould’s single most popular piece of music.

Symphony of Spirituals is an American bicentennial commission that hearkens back to Gould’s earlier success with Spirituals from 1941. It is a substantial piece, lasting more than 20 minutes. It does not utilize any actual spirituals, but, in four abstract movements—Hallelujah, Blues, Rag, and Shout—gives Gould’s highly idiosyncratic, kaleidoscopic impression of spirituals, both black and white, employing fugues, toccatas, and dance rhythms. Soundings is in the same serious vein as the Symphony for Spirituals. The most abstract and impressionistic of any of these works (or perhaps expressionist, as Gould calls it), it explores the thematic material of its two movements, “Threnodies” and “Paeans,” in unconventional, arresting ways. Soundings of these depths belie those who would dismiss Gould merely as an entertainer.

RCA deserved a gold star in 1984 for bringing out one of the very best Gould CDs, featuring two magical works, Burchfield Gallery, from 1979, and Apple Waltzes, from 1983, both performed by the American Symphony Orchestra under Gould’s baton. Burchfield Gallery has been described by one critic as a cross between Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (very light on the Mussorgsky, I would say). It is a set of musical impressions of Charles E. Burchfield’s nature paintings, celebrating the seasons. Gould said that his “musical celebration” or “lyrical paean” evokes the “vibrant lights and shadows, constant motion, and dancing rhythms” of Burchfield’s canvases. It also captures the crepuscular murmurings and twitterings of the fantastical birds and creatures Burchfield depicts. The result is sheer delight. Apple Waltzes was written for use in a longer ballet and was Gould’s personal tribute to the late George Balanchine, who was to have choreographed the ballet. The seven short waltzes, in varying tempos, are simply delicious. Unfortunately, RCA has committed the cultural crime of deleting this CD. Might Albany obtain the rights to this recording and reissue it?

Albany’s album, A Tribute, containing American Ballads, Spirituals for Strings, and American Symphonette No. 2, will rouse the most jaded listener to toe-tapping. I first resisted listening to the settings of such familiar fare as Amber Waves and Were You There?, but became entranced at the brilliance and exuberance of Gould’s treatments, in wonderful performances by the London Philharmonic, conducted by Kenneth Klein.

Albany’s newest release is especially interesting in displaying the other side of Gould in three works without any explicit American references. Gould’s Show Piece for Orchestra (1954) was written to display the orchestra’s instruments for a Columbia Records demonstration disc. It is a highly enjoyable suite of seven short movements that are not in any obvious way demonstrating anything other than the lovely charms of the music; I particularly fell for the gorgeous “Serenade.” The Piano Concerto (1938) shows a tougher “bad boy” side to Gould, with its tone clusters, hard-driving rhythms, and anxious moodiness. But it proves that Gould could take the advanced compositional techniques of his time and turn them to good musical purpose. It is an impressive piece. The first movement contains what sounds like an obvious tribute to Stravinsky. Hilariously, during a rehearsal of the concerto by pianist Randall Hodgkinson, who so capably plays it on this recording, Gould remarked, “That guy Stravinsky’s been stealing from me ever since I was a kid.”

StringMusic is a lyrical work that finally won for Gould the coveted Pulitzer Prize in 1995. A deceptively simple piece in five movements, StringMusic begins with an affecting melody, which the strings echo back and forth to each other. As Gould said, “the effect is like a responsory service.” The relatively subdued mood of the opening movement is followed by a Tango, which lightens up the atmosphere, but also surprisingly has its sweet and delicate moments. The longest movement is a Dirge, striking in its spareness, that shows how much Gould learned from Shostakovich, who, of course, in turn learned from Mahler. You have to be a master to write in this sort of naked style. This is my kind of minimalism. The short Ballad that follows is poignant, open-hearted, and gorgeously melodic, and brings Mahler even closer to mind, especially the Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony. The closing movement crackles with energy and concludes with a loud pizzicato snap. The work is brilliantly executed by the Albany Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Alan Miller. The recording is superb.

Typically, the angst crowd did not consider Gould’s work difficult enough to take seriously, and his music was dismissed with the deadly word: derivative. In any case, Gould outlived his detractors and became an elder statesman of American music, though the perky vivacity of his last compositions belies the title. In the works from the late ’70s to the end of his life, one is stuck by the feeling that this is not the music of an old man, but of an incredibly fertile musical intelligence bursting with energy, imagination, and melody. As for his works’ popularity, Gould made no excuses. He had a reason for writing music that was accessible. “I’ve always felt,” he said in a 1953 interview, “that music should be a normal part of the experience that surrounds people.” Toward the end of his life, Gould recalled that, “I wanted to share my music with others. Communication was always terribly important to me.” If the continuing popularity of his music and the response to these new recordings is any indication, Morton Gould accomplished his mission.


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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