Three Worthy Works by Morton Gould

Morton Gould would have turned 100 today, December 10, 2013. The classical music world tends to celebrate anniversaries, so the near-complete absence of attention to the Gould centennial suggests 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. More important are concertos for piano, viola, clarinet, and even tap dancer. Regardless of genre, all of Gould’s music is unquestionably American in idiom, sometimes saddled with overt references to jazz, history, or folksy stuff.

These days, three works keep Gould in the public consciousness, all 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. (I prefer the boogie section of the more dissonant Prelude and Toccata, which appears on my list of Fully Notated 20th Century American Piano Music.)

“Pavanne,” a movement from American Symphonette No. 2, is a little “jazzy” thing recorded in popular “swinging” versions by Glenn Miller and Gould himself; there was even a genuinely swinging version by Ahmad Jamal. When John Coltrane took the second theme of “Pavanne” for his epic and blazing “Impressions,” was he was making fun of all the “light jazz-influenced classical” music that perpetually surrounded him?

Gould wrote for anything and everything, but there’s no doubt that he was a born orchestral composer. While much of Gould’s earlier work can be an impersonal mix of Stravinsky, Copland and Gershwin, it nonetheless always uses symphonic forces in ways both professional and creative. Gould was always busy yet never a superstar, so he managed to keep challenging himself, searching for the music he really wanted to write. At some point, his concert compositions began taking on a more lucid and serious tone.

For my own private centennial celebration I’ve been listening to three later Gould words that show him at his best.

Soundings (1969) In two movements. “Threnodies” is an extended meditation 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:

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 only that much stronger with a commitment to abstraction.

In four movements. “Hallelujah” is a strong and stirring opener. Play this for someone who knows 20th century music and 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’s 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:

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 we need one with more rhythmic authority, especially from the percussion section.

StringMusic (1994) won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1995. Despite that seal of approval, StringMusic hasn’t really entered the repertory. There seem to be no performances scheduled this season for Gould’s 100th, which is too bad, as it is a genuine valedictory, offering the best from a major composer in the final years before his death 1996.

In five movements. “Prelude” begins mysteriously before finding 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:

“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 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.” This kind of hoe-down is not my favorite style of Gould, but undoubtedly he’s learned to give a lay audience reason to applaud enthusiastically at the end of an unfamiliar work.

[Update, 2021.]

The earliest Gould piece that has struck me as of uncommonly high quality is Dialogues for Piano and Orchestra from 1956. It is a light appropriation of twelve-tone technique, and perhaps confronting atonality head on unlocked something in Gould’s psyche.. Dialogues is a truly obscure work, there is no professional recording, but the bootleg recently uploaded to YouTube demonstrates the composer’s truly epic pianism.

1. Recitative and Chorale. Moderately moving, The Recitative is filled with sparse literal twelve tone lines, but that is a feint, for much of the work is tonal, albeit with an overlay of heavy dissonance. The Chorale is a simply a plaintive thing in 5/4; the web Gould weaves around it is gorgeous and inspired, foreshadowing Thomas Adès.

2. Embellishment and Rondo. Brisk. A Prokofiev-style toccata, virtuoso, with dissonance hidden inside euphonious thirds, sixths, and much literal bitonality.

3. Dirge and Meditation. Slowly – with measured tread. The same kind of bitonal harmonic atmosphere continues at much slower pace. The Dirge contains march elements, while the 6/8 Meditation is at even keel. Gould’s string writing is distinctive, he’s an easy blindfold test. It all “sounds good” no matter the idiom at hand, which must be one reason he was commissioned so frequently.

4. Variations and Coda. Brisk and spirited. The conductor starts too fast, so Gould gently centers the beat where it should be. Gould was a hell of a pianist, and this is the longest and most complex piece I’ve heard him play. Fast music was generally harder for 20th century composers to pull off than slow music, but Gould learned his Stravinsky well and the finale drives in inexorable fashion.

The audience coughs loudly throughout and responds with indifferent applause, obviously uninterested in the miracle unfolding before them.

Another quick 2021 DTM comment: Morton Gould in 1968 (Venice and Vivaldi Gallery).