American Classics

Ferde Grofé (1892-1972

Born into a musical family, it was not surprising that Ferde Grofé left college (his parents had wanted him to study law) to focus on music. By 1908 (age 16,) he was performing as a violinist, violist, and pianist. Working with drummer Art Hickman’s orchestra in 1914, Grofé conceived arrangements that were an important early step in the development of big band jazz and dance music. In 1917 Grofé joined the orchestra of Paul Whiteman, serving briefly as band pianist, and as one of his main arrangers, he orchestrated George Gershwin’s Rhapody in Blue for its debut performance with the Whiteman orchestra in 1924. Grofé helped Whiteman realize the goal of combining the rhythms of jazz and dance music with elements of classical music. Grofé wrote several original works during his tenure with Witheman including his best-knowm compostion, Grand Canyon Suite (1931) from which the movemnt “On the Trail” became a jazz standard.

Grand Canyon Suite

SUNRISE: It is early morning on the desert. The sun rises slowly spattering the darkness with rich colors of dawn. The sun comes from beyond the horizon and a brilliant spray of colors announces the full break of day.

The movement begins with a soft roll on the kettledrums, and a series of chords played by the woodwind follows. The main theme is played by the English horn. The development of the movement is taken up by other instruments reaching a triumphant climax that depicts the dawn of a new day.

THE PAINTED DESERT: The desert is silent and mysterious yet beautiful. As the bright rays of the sun are reflected against majestic crags and spread across the sands in varying hues, the entire scene appears as a canvas thick with the pigments of nature’s own blending.

The movement starts with a mysterious theme played by bass clarinet and viola accompanied by weird chords in the lower registers of the orchestra It is interrupted by strange harmonies from the woodwind and the upper register of the piano. A contrasting melody of lyric quality follows. This is succeeded by the mysterious music which opened the movement.

ON THE TRAIL: A traveler and his burro are descending the trail. The sharp hoof beats of the animal form an unusual rhythmic background for the cowboy’s song. The sounds of a waterfall tells them of a nearby oasis. A lone cabin is soon sighted and, as they near it, a music box is heard. The travelers stop at the cabin for refreshment. Now fully rested, the travelers journey forth at a livelier pace. The movement ends as man and burro disappear in the distance.

This is the most popular movement of the suite. It starts as the orchestra simulates the loud bray of a burro. After a violin cadenza, the first theme -- a graceful melody in a rhythmic pattern -- is established. It has the feeling of the burro walking. The second theme of the movement -- a melody in Western style -- is played contrapuntally to the first. This is followed by a suggestion of an old music box, which is played by the celeste. The opening theme is heard again in a faster tempo. The movement is concluded with the bray of the burro and the musical ending, itself, is short and incisive.

SUNSET: Now the shades of night sweep over the golden hues of day. As evening envelopes the desert in a cloak of darkness, there is a suggestion of animal calls coming from the distant rim of the canyon.

A wild, animal-like call, played by the horns, opens this movement. This is followed by the main theme, which is introduced by bells and violins. In the development, the theme is repeated by oboes and violins, then by woodwind and violins, again by cellos and horns, horns and flutes. Finally the horns again play the calls heard in the opening bars and the movement ends as the tones fade into the distance.

CLOUDBURST: This is the most pictorial movement of the suite. We hear the approach of the storm. Lightning flashes across the sky and thunder roars from the darkness. The torrent of rain reaches its height in a cloudburst, but the storm disappears rapidly and the moon comes from behind clouds. Nature again rejoices in all its grandeur.

Glissando effects in the violin section describe the approach of the storm. It is interesting to note how in the development of the movement Grofé uses all the resources of the orchestra to portray the battle of the elements. The agitated movement subsides, and then follows a gradual crescendo that reaches its climax at the very end.

Edward Kennedy Ellington - “The Duke” (1899 - 1974)

Ellington was given the moniker “Duke” by a childhood friend who admired his good manners and grace. Soon, the name became famous.

Composer, pianist, conductor, and big band leader, Ellington composed over 1,000 compositions. He performed at the famous Cotton Club in Harlem, 1927-1937. He toured throughout the world. Harvard Biographical Dictionary of Music asserts his “unrivaled gift for jazz orchestration,” and compositions for the finest big band recordings in jazz. He was a frequent performer at Carnegie Hall. He wrote “classical” suites, sacred music, tone poems as well as numerous jazz favorites. He was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1999.

Some of the Duke’s more famous works include: Mood Indigo, It Don’t Mean a Thing (If it Ain’t Got That Swing), Sophisticated Lady, Take the A Train, and Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.

Aaron Copland (1900 – 1990)

Born in Brooklyn, New York, Copeland used folk tunes to portray American themed music for the ballet, Rodeo, Billie the Kid, and Appalachian Spring. He was awarded the Pulitzer prize for Appalachian Spring.

His melodies and rhythms used square dancing, reels and other foot-stomping music from the folk cultures of the West and mountain cultures. In later life, he turned to the folk music and hymns of New England.

He was an accomplished pianist, as well as composer and college professor at Harvard.

George Jacob Gershwin (1898 –1937)

The son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, George Gershwin began his foray into music at age 11 when his family bought a secondhand piano for George’s older sibling, Ira. A natural talent, it was George who took it up and eventually sought out mentors who could enhance his abilities including noted piano teacher Charles Hambitzer who wrote of him: “I have a new pupil who will make his mark if anybody will. The boy is a genius.” After dropping out of school at age 15, Gershwin played in several New York nightclubs, worked as a rehearsal pianist for Broadway singers, and composed for an annual production put on by George White. After a show entitled, “Blue Monday,” the bandleader in the pit, Paul Whiteman, asked Gershwin to create a jazz number that would heighten the genre’s respectability. Legend has it that Gershwin forgot about the request until he read a newspaper article announcing the fact that Whiteman’s latest concert would feature a new Gershwin composition. Writing at a manic pace in order to meet the deadline, Gershwin composed what is perhaps his best-known work, Rhapsody in Blue. He also wrote numerous songs for stage and screen that quickly became standards, the jazz-influenced orchestral composition An American in Paris, and his most ambitious composition, Porgy and Bess.

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