By Colin Kaye
Visions of America
Ferde Grofé. (Photo/United States Library of
Sometime during the
1970s – I am not quite sure exactly when – the Turnabout record label
released a pair of vinyl LPs entitled Americana. They contained, as
you might reasonably expect, recordings of music deemed to embody the spirit
of America or at least, the spirit of rural America a hundred years ago.
The works included Men and Mountains by Charles Ruggles, From the
Steeples and the Mountains by Charles Ives and Quiet City by
Aaron Copland, a piece that for many people has come to symbolize a sleepy
town somewhere in the mid-West.
composer, Ferde Grofé - famous for his sound-pictures of the American
landscape - wasn’t represented on the recording. Ferdinand Rudolf von Grofé
was born in New York into a family of well-established professional
musicians. When he was still a child, his mother spirited him off to
Germany to study piano, viola and composition in Leipzig, where he also
became proficient on a wide range of instruments, a skill which served him
well in his later years as a composer and brilliant arranger.
When Grofé was sixteen
years old, he lived in San Francisco and after a succession of dead-end jobs
found himself playing piano in a house of ill-repute, supposedly unaware of
the lusty and breathless activities going on upstairs. San Francisco was
also where the young Grofé first heard jazz. Although there are sometimes
jazz influences in the music of Copland especially in the Clarinet
Concerto, Grofé absorbed jazz totally. The jazz that excited him relied
heavily on improvisation and he became interested in finding ways writing it
all down. His arranging skills were eventually noticed by band-leader Paul
Whiteman, who in 1924 hired him as pianist and arranger. Grofé orchestrated
Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue for Whiteman’s orchestra and when the
work was adapted for symphony orchestra, again it was Ferde Grofé who took
on the job.
Ferde Grofé (1892-1972): Grand Canyon.
Walt Disney movie featuring the Graunke Symphony Orchestra cond. Frederick
Stark (Duration: 27:42, Video: 480p)
There’s an interesting
connection here because like Rhapsody in Blue, the Grand Canyon
Suite was originally also written for a small orchestra and also first
performed by the Paul Whiteman orchestra. It was only later that Grofé
expanded the work for full symphony orchestra. It consists of five
movements, each a sound-picture of a particular scene typical of the Grand
Canyon. Grofé may have got the first ideas for the work as early as 1916
when he drove across the Arizona desert to watch the sun rise over the Grand
In 1958, Walt Disney
produced a movie called Grand Canyon employing the recently-invented
Cinemascope format and using Grofé’s expansive composition as the
sound-track. There is no story and no dialogue but the movie was considered
outstanding enough for an Academy Award. Directed by James Algar, it has
some fine and original photography and despite its age, it’s a delight to
For some reason, the
name of the orchestra is not shown in the opening titles. However, it turns
out to be the Graunke Symphony Orchestra, formed in Germany in 1945 and
later becoming the Munich Symphony Orchestra. In many ways this is a
remarkable work, not least for its superb orchestration.
Aaron Copland (1900-1990): Appalachian Spring.
Detroit Symphony Orchestra cond. Leonard Slatkin (Duration:
43:45, Video: 720p HD)
Like the Grand
Canyon Suite, this well-known work was originally scored for small
orchestra. It was commissioned by the legendary ballet dancer and
choreographer Martha Graham and first performed in 1944 at the Library of
Congress in Washington D.C.
The ballet tells the
story of a spring celebration of nineteenth century American pioneers after
having built a new farmhouse in Pennsylvania. The work is full of
traditional American themes, including the Shaker song Simple Gifts,
which Copland borrowed and wove into the music. You might recognise the
tune as the popular hymn Lord of the Dance. Even during the first
few moments of the music when stillness prevails, Copland creates a
compelling impression of the wide open spaces.
In 1945, the composer
arranged the music for symphony orchestra and this is the version usually
performed today. For various complicated reasons, there are four published
versions of this work but like the Grofé suite, it’s a fine example of
orchestration at its best.
Copland wrote the music, he had no title in mind and simply referred to it
as the “Ballet for Martha” but before the first performance, she suggested
that the title could be a phrase from a poem by the American poet Harold
Hart Crane. The phrase, of course was “Appalachian Spring”. Although the
poem is about a journey to meet springtime, the word “spring” in the title
refers to a source of water, not to the season. Not many people know that.
The Twilight Zone
The slightly androgynous 12-year-old
Mention the words
“night music” and I suppose the first classical piece that springs to mind
is Mozart’s Serenade No. 13 in G Major, better known as Eine Kleine
Nachtmusik. Contrary to popular belief, it has nothing to do with night.
The literal translation is misleading because the German title means “a
little serenade”. Despite its popularity today, the work is surrounded by
mysteries. No one knows why Mozart wrote it. He nearly always wrote for
commissions, but it’s not known who asked him to write the work or the
purpose for which it was intended. Oddly enough, no one seems to know where
or when it was first performed. It lay forgotten for many years and wasn’t
published until 1827 - thirty six years after Mozart had breathed his last.
These days, we tend to hear the work played by string orchestra but it was
actually written for a string quartet with optional double bass. There’s a
fine video of this original version on YouTube, given by the Gewandhaus
Quartet of Leipzig, which incidentally is the oldest string quartet in the
world. It was established in 1808 and has been going ever since, though not
of course with the same members..
I can’t think of many classical works that attempt to describe night-time.
There’s Mussorgsky’s Night on the Bare Mountain and Manual de Falla’s
Nights in the Gardens of Spain. Oh yes, then there’s the lovely
Summer Night on the River, by Frederick Delius. Beethoven’s Moonlight
Sonata doesn’t count, because the music has nothing to do with the moon
or even night. The sonata acquired its romantic nick-name five years after
Beethoven’s death thanks to an imaginative German music critic and poet
named Ludwig Rellstab.
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847):
A Midsummer Night’s Dreamm
Overture, Op.21. Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, cond. Kurt Masur (Duration:
12:46, Video 720p HD)
Mendelssohn was a
brilliant child prodigy. The delightful string symphonies were written when
he was twelve years old, and he was seventeen when he wrote this overture
after reading a translation of Shakespeare’s play. The English music writer
and critic George Grove (he of dictionary fame) called the overture “the
greatest marvel of early maturity that the world has ever seen in music”. It
was intended as a stand-alone concert overture and not until many years
later did Mendelssohn write the incidental music for the same play. The
famous Wedding March comes from this later work. There are some
interesting connections here because the translator of the play was August
Wilhelm Schlegel; the overture was completed in August 1826 and Schlegel’s
brother married Mendelssohn’s Aunt Dorothea, who died in August 1839.
This is a charming,
evocative work and remarkable for its striking orchestral effects, such as
the imitation of scampering fairy feet near the beginning. It was reported
that Mendelssohn sketched out the opening chords after hearing an evening
breeze rustle the leaves in the garden of the family home..
(1874-1951): Verklärte Nacht, op. 4. Radio France
Philharmonic Orchestra, cond. by Daniel Harding (Duration: 34:45, Video:
After he moved to
the United States in 1934, Arnold Schönberg altered the spelling of his
surname to the less Germanic-looking Schoenberg. In photographs he always
looks serious and intense, surprisingly perhaps for a man who evidently
enjoyed watching Hopalong Cassidy movies. Although Schoenberg was born on
13th September he had a morbid fear of the number thirteen. It’s a condition
known as triskaidekaphobia and one that he apparently shared with Napoleon
and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Schoenberg is perhaps best-known for his invention of twelve-tone serialism,
a composing technique based on a tone row, which is a particular arrangement
of the twelve notes of the chromatic scale. Verklärte Nacht (“Transfigured
Night”) was written before Schoenberg had developed serialism, but was
controversial because of the advanced and richly chromatic harmonic
language. At its first performance in Vienna in 1902, it must have left many
people somewhat perplexed. Like Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, the work
was originally written for a chamber ensemble but the composer later
re-scored the work for string orchestra, which is the version most often
heard today. Written in just three weeks, the work was based on a poem of
the same name by Richard Dehmel, which centred on a somewhat bizarre
conversation between two people walking through a moonlight forest.
Schoenberg was an important music theorist and writer as well as an
influential teacher of composition. He was also a competent painter whose
pictures were thought good enough to exhibit alongside those of Franz Marc
and Wassily Kandinsky.
Schoenberg was sure that he would die during a year which was a multiple of
thirteen so he must have felt relieved to get through 1950 – which is such a
year. As fate would have it, he died a year later. On Friday 13th July.
joke among musicians is that harps are like old people; they’re unforgiving
and difficult to get in and out of cars. Harps have been the target for
musicians’ jokes ever since the instrument appeared in the symphony
orchestra during the middle of the nineteenth century. For example, how can
you tell when harpists are playing out of tune? Answer: Their fingers are
There’s an element of truth in this, or at least there was twenty years ago
before the advent of digital harp tuners. The harp is difficult to tune
accurately and unlike the piano which requires a specialist tuner, harpists
are expected to do it themselves. The instrument can get out of tune
quickly, especially if there are temperature variations at the concert
venue. The problem is summed up in another musicians’ joke which asks, “How
long does it take to tune a harp?” Answer: Nobody knows yet.
Although simple harps were in use as early as 3500 BC the standard harp you
see in orchestras today dates from the eighteenth century. It’s technically
known as the pedal harp and has forty-seven strings covering a range
of six-and-a-half octaves and weighs about eighty pounds. As the name
implies, it has seven pedals which are connected to an internal mechanical
system that changes the pitch of the strings.
Harps don’t come cheap. You can buy a student model for about $15,000 but a
professional instrument could set you back over $100,000. You also need to
buy a big van to carry it around.
Surprisingly the harp is popular in Mexico, the Andes, Venezuela and
Paraguay and although these instruments have slightly different designs,
they have a common ancestor - the Baroque harps brought from Spain during
the colonial period.
Reinhold Glière (1875-1956): Concerto for Harp and Orchestra.
Elizaveta Bushueva (hp), Moscow City Symphony cond. Sergey Tararin
(Duration: 29:45, Video: 1080p HD)
Despite his German first name and his French-sounding second name, Glière
was actually Russian. His surname was originally Glier but when he was
fifteen, he changed the spelling and pronunciation of his surname to Glière,
giving rise to confusion ever since.
The son of an instrument-maker, he was born in Kiev and became an
accomplished violinist while still a boy. He took an early interest in
composing and during his life wrote four string quartets, eleven operas and
ballets, five concertos and three symphonies along with many other
instrumental works. His orchestral style, which combined lyricism with
traditional harmonies, was much admired by the Soviet authorities who took a
dim view of anything that sounded “modern”. Although he was honoured with
many awards during his lifetime, today much of his music has fallen into
This concerto dates from 1938 though you’d never guess. Harmonically and
stylistically it’s entrenched in Russian nationalist music of the nineteenth
century. But never mind. It’s warm and lyrical with charming melodies and
sometimes hints of early Hollywood. If you enjoy the post-Romantic style of
Rachmaninoff, you’ll almost certainly take to this approachable work.
There’s a delightful slow movement with a delicate melody followed by a
lively third movement that culminates in a brief and sunny conclusion.
For a composer, the harp can be a tricky instrument to handle and Glière
sought the technical advice of the Russian harpist Ksenia Alexandrovna
Erdely. She made so many suggestions that Glière evidently offered to credit
her as co-composer, but she graciously declined.
Allan Gilliland (b. 1965): “Gaol’s Rhuah Ròs” A
Celtic Concerto for Harp and Orchestra. Patricia Masri-Fletcher
(hp), Detroit Symphony Orchestra cond. Leonard Slatkin. (Duration: 11:50,
Video: 720p HD)
Allan Gilliland was born in Scotland but moved to Canada in 1972 and settled
in Edmonton, Alberta. He’s a prolific writer who’s been described as “one of
Canada’s busiest composers” and he holds degrees in performance and
composition from the University of Alberta and the University of Edinburgh.
He has composed music for solo instruments, orchestra, chorus, brass
quintet, wind ensemble, big band, film, television and theatre. This harp
concerto was written between 2002 and 2003 when he was Composer in Residence
with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra.
The title Gaol’s Ruadh Ròs is Gaelic for “Love’s Red Rose” referring
to the well-known song by Robert Burns. This Scottish melody, which we first
hear at 05:14 is beautifully harmonized each time it appears and it
dominates the concerto. It’s a joyous and approachable work with a
brilliantly effervescent opening and you don’t have to wait long for the
Scottish influence to appear. The work is intensely rhythmic and makes much
use of the Scottish “snap” which is not, as you might imagine, some kind of
crispbread from Aberdeen, but a rhythmic device found in much Scottish
traditional music and easier to recognise than to describe.
From song-plugger to star
Modest start: George Gershwin.
Gershwin had a modest start to his musical career. After leaving school at
the age of fifteen his first job was a song-plugger whose task it was to
promote new sheet music to customers in music shops or department stores.
He worked for the New York music publisher Jerome H. Remick and Company and
earned the princely sum of fifteen dollars a week.
Song-pluggers or “song demonstrators” as they were sometimes called, played
whatever sheet music was handed to them by customers who presumably couldn’t
manage to read it themselves. Gershwin wanted to write songs of his own and
his first publication was the crisply entitled, When you want ’em, you
can’t get ‘em, When you’ve got ’em, you don’t want ’em. It was
published when Gershwin was seventeen and evidently earned him fifty cents.
His first big hit was the song Swanee, composed in ten minutes on a
bus. Al Jolson, the famous Broadway singer of the day, heard Gershwin
perform the song at a party and decided to include it in one of his shows.
The song eventually sold a million sheet music copies and an estimated two
million records. The year was 1919 and Swanee was the
biggest-selling song of Gershwin’s career.
following decade Gershwin with his brother Ira churned out a basketful of
enduring popular songs such as Fascinating Rhythm, Oh Lady be Good
and Embraceable You. Gershwin also turned his interest to the
orchestra and became fascinated with the orchestral music of the French
composers of the day. In later years, Gershwin also became quite skilled at
painting and his last portrait was of his good friend, the composer Arnold
Schoenberg with whom he used to play tennis once a week.
George Gershwin: An American in Paris.
Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Gustavo Dudamel (Duration: 20:45, Video: 360p)
got the idea for this popular jazz-flavoured symphonic poem after arriving
in Paris in March 1928. It was a commission from Walter Damrosch who was
the conductor of the New York Philharmonic. Gershwin scored the piece for
standard orchestra plus celesta, saxophones and four taxi horns which he had
managed to acquire in Paris for the New York premiere. But despite his
efforts, the work received mixed reviews at the first performance.
you are wondering, nowadays most orchestras hire a set of taxi horns when
this work is performed. They cost about $100 for a week and they’re
normally played - perhaps “honked” - would be a better word - by one of the
George Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue. Herbie Hancock
(pno), Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Gustavo Dudamel (Duration:
21:11, Video: 480p)
dates from four years earlier, before Gershwin had started learning the
skills of orchestration. It was commissioned by bandleader Paul Whiteman
and the original version was much shorter and scored by Ferde Grof้
for Whiteman’s jazz orchestra. An interesting, if somewhat bizarre movie of
this early version is on YouTube, billed as Rhapsody in Blue - King of
Jazz. It features Gershwin at the piano and it’s introduced by Paul
Whiteman who bears an unsettling resemblance to Oliver Hardy.
later symphonic version has become a staple for classical concert pianists
but multi-talented Herbie Hancock brings a fascinating jazzman’s perspective
to the score. Hancock made his name in 1963 after he joined the Miles Davis
Quintet but then moved on to carve out his own unique niche in music.
Gustavo Dudamel is entertaining to watch and clearly someone who loves his
job. He has the entire orchestra literally at his finger-tips. And notice
that he doesn’t use any music. Like the best conductors, he has the score
in his head, not his head in the score.
George Gershwin: Cuban Overture.
Youth Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, cond. Joshua Dos Santos (Duration:
10:23, Video: 480p)
Cuban Overture was a result of a two-week holiday which Gershwin took in
Havana in February 1932 and the piece is dominated by Caribbean rhythms and
Latin-American percussion. Originally entitled Rumba, it’s a joyous
yet rhythmically complex work that uses instrumental colour to the full.
Several of the catchy melodies were influenced by popular traditional folk
songs of the day. Listen closely and at 04:50 onwards, you’ll hear those
evocative lush tropical harmonies that Gershwin used in the song
Summertime, composed two years later for his opera “Porgy and Bess”.
Incidentally, in the 1920s Gershwin wanted to study with Igor Stravinsky,
considered the most influential and successful classical composer of the
time. When he approached The Great Man at a party in Paris, Stravinsky
surprised him with the question, “How much money do you make a year?” Upon
hearing the answer Stravinsky replied, “Perhaps, Mr. Gershwin, I should
study with you.”
Alexander Borodin – chemist and composer.
One of the most satisfying things about playing in an orchestra is that you
experience the music from a different perspective. It’s difficult to describe,
but you feel that you’re actually inside the music, even though for much
of the time you’re merely reading notes from a printed part.
When I was an innocent twelve-year old, the headmaster of
our school told me one day that I should learn to play the cello. Being the
kind of child who didn’t usually argue with the headmaster, cello lessons
duly began. I was first taught by a lady who owned the local pub and who
played the cello in her spare time. She was a large and kindly person who
swept down the school corridors in a halo of beery aroma. After a couple of
years, I was playing in our rustic county orchestra and much later, I found
myself as principal cellist of our national youth orchestra.
When I rolled up, they were rehearsing Borodin’s
Second Symphony, which fortunately isn’t a particularly difficult work
to play, at least as far as the cellos are concerned. On another occasion we
tackled the more challenging Sibelius Second Symphony which is a very
different kettle of kippers. Both these works are probably the two most
popular second symphonies ever written, but musically they couldn’t be more
Alexander Borodin (1833-1887): Symphony No 2 in B minor.
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra cond. Karel
Mark Chichon (Duration: 30:14, Video: 720p HD)
Although today we associate Borodin with music, in his
time he was one of Russia’s most famous research chemists and for several
years before that, a medical practitioner. The second symphony took several
years to complete, because of his extensive research and teaching duties as
Professor of Chemistry at the Medico-Surgical Academy at St. Petersburg. It
was finally finished in 1876 but before the first performance, Borodin
somehow managed to lose the scores of the first and last movements and had
to write them again. He described himself as “a Sunday composer” but hearing
this compelling work you’d never guess.
The memorable and powerful opening theme of just eight
notes (or possibly nine, depending on how you hear it) dominates the
symphony and appears in many different forms along with other attractive
melodies, colourful orchestration and idiosyncratic use of harmony. The
second movement is a fast scherzo written mostly in the unusual time
signature of 1/1 and as far as I know, this is the only example in the
orchestral repertoire. The lyrical third movement is the emotional heart of
the work, full of lovely melodies and delicate scoring. In the last movement
it’s back to the action again with lively Slavic dances and catchy melodies.
Some contemporary critics complained that there were too
many tunes and others baulked at the outlandish changes of key, which must
have sounded very modern at the time. The music sometimes has a kind of
Eastern feeling to it and if you know Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances
there will be some familiar moments.
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957): Symphony No. 2 in D major.
Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra cond.
Eivind Gullberg Jensen (Duration: 45:37, Video: 720p HD)
Perhaps the weather had something to do with it, but
Sibelius (sib-AY-lee-us) spent long periods of time away from his
native Finland. He began work on the Second Symphony in the Italian seaside
town of Rapallo in the winter of 1901 completing it a year later when he was
back in Finland. At the time, Russian sanctions on Finnish language and
culture were being imposed and some writers have suggested that the work
might have been influenced by the ensuing struggle for Finnish independence.
No one seems to know whether Sibelius intended it as some
kind of patriotic message a hundred years on, but perhaps what is more
interesting to the listener is his highly individual method of composing.
The symphony – like many other works by Sibelius - seems to grow
Just as Borodin’s opening theme dominates his symphony,
the first melodies of the Sibelius provide the seeds for organic growth,
though unlike Borodin’s work this one is all about growth and development.
The opening bars of repeated chords use a three note motif, followed by a
clarinet melody which is actually a variation on the motif. Themes seem to
appear out of nowhere and gradually become drawn in to become integral parts
of the work.
The third movement leads into the last without a break
and opens with a heart-warming theme. You’d never guess, but it’s simply the
first three notes of the original clarinet motif played backwards. This
movement is an absolute joy, with soaring melodies, moments of high tension
and drama, and a long closing section (42:20) that is surely one of the
finest moments in symphonic music.