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CLASSICAL  May 2006

CLASSICAL May 2006

Subject:

Morton Gould and American Volkslieder

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 8 May 2006 06:19:02 -0700

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        Morton Gould
         Americana

*  American Ballads (1976)
*  Foster Gallery (1939)
*  American Salute (1947)

National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine/Theodore Kuchar
Naxos 8.559005 Total time: 73:48

Summary for the Busy Executive: All that doo-dahs is not doo.

As a conductor and a commercial musician, Morton Gould made a lovely
dollar.  However, beyond perhaps three works, hardly anyone knows him
as a serious composer.  To some extent, this lack of recognition stems
from his feud with Leonard Bernstein, who belittled Gould's music every
chance he got and effectively denied Gould a regular New York venue.
This, according to the Peyser Bernstein bio (so I have no idea whether
it's true), culminated in a shouting match between the two where Bernstein
ticked off all the "cribs" in a Gould score, ending up with "and BERNSTEIN!"
Of course, if you're going to count steals, Bernstein has more than his
share, and it turns out that Gould had written the score in question
before Bernstein had graduated from Harvard.  Even so, Bernstein made
an elementary mistake: that cribbing necessarily means unoriginal.  One
sees this in Bernstein's own music, where Hindemith, Copland, Stravinsky,
Blitzstein, Foss, Poulenc, and God knows who else happily remix to form
an idiom called Bernstein.  Gould steals far less obviously and speaks
with just as individual an accent.  Beyond this problem, however, the
swing to the International School of the Fifties through the Seventies
didn't help Gould, just as it didn't help Bernstein himself, or Copland
and Barber for that matter.  Most of the recordings of Gould's major
works, like those of Bernstein's, came from a conductor who was also the
composer.  With the death of both men, one can get some independent
verification on the lasting power of their music.  Even before he died,
other conductors had begun to take up Bernstein's music.  The same thing
has started to happen with Gould.  This is the second Naxos CD devoted
entirely to Gould's music.

Somewhere around the age of nineteen, Gould began professional employment
as a staff composer to the large radio networks, at a time when both NBC
and CBS kept not only symphonic orchestras, but "pops" and dance orchestras
as well.  He eventually worked for NBC, CBS, and Mutual.  He had going
for him not only his ear and his talent, but also speed.  Deadlines in
the radio business were constant and almost always short.  He quickly
got into the habit of composing directly onto full score.  He also wrote
music that "art" composers seldom have to deal with: little "pops" pieces,
program "stings," and so on.  Compared to someone like Copland or Sessions,
Gould has a huge output of light music.  Nevertheless, Gould lite has
more to say than many other composers' "full." The Prokofiev of, say,
The Love for Three Oranges "March" often serves as the model here,
although Gould's music speaks in a solidly American, even jazzy, accent.
Most of the works on the program come from the lighter part of the
spectrum.  All of them mine national songs and folk hymns for thematic
material.  Gould wrote these kind of works a lot, much as Vaughan Williams
did, all throughout his career.  Despite the fact, however, that you
will find not one original basic musical idea among these three scores,
all of them show a brilliant, strongly individual composer pretty much
near the top of his game.

Foster Gallery, the earliest item on the program, as you might guess
riffs on the melodies of Stephen Foster.  I admit up front I don't care
for Foster's songs and much prefer those of his contemporary Henry Clay
Work, whom I consider the superior melodist.  At any rate, the score has
much in common with something like Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition
- a suite of, in effect, character pieces.  We find movements based on
such gems as "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair," "Nelly Bly," "Old Black
Joe," "Old Folks at Home" ("Swanee River"), and so on, but these are not
arrangements so much as re-compositions.  Gould tears down the Foster
tunes to their constituent molecules and recombines these molecules to
form structures that are instrumental fantasias, rather than songs,
pretty similar to how Vaughan Williams sets to work on his Tallis Fantasia
or Five Variants on "Dives and Lazarus." "Camptown Races" not only opens
the work (parts of it close the piece as well, alternating with bits of
"Oh Susanna"), but in variation it also functions as a "link" between
movements, again like Mussorgsky's Pictures' "Promenade." The other
movements are pretty much sui generis in their treatment of the Foster
tunes.  "Canebrake Jig" makes use of the song "Some Folks" and really
isn't a jig at all, since it dances in resolutely duple time.  "Old Dog
Tray" serves as an introduction to the finale, based on "Oh Susanna" and
"Camptown Races" trading licks with one another.  The same thing happens
much more quietly and in a much more integrated manner in the sixth
movement, based on "Old Black Joe" and "My Old Kentucky Home." As far
as the rhetoric of the movement goes, the two tunes "interpenetrate."

The orchestration will make your jaw drop. My favorite is one of the
"Camptown Variations," for a solo quintet of flute, trumpet, trombone,
violin, and banjo.  Eat your heart out, Richard Strauss!

The idea of tearing down and re-combining previous material carries
over into the other works on the CD, but with very different effects.
American Salute probably counts as Gould's most recorded piece (it serves
to this day as a hi-fi "demo," which gives you some idea of how yummy
the orchestration is), Although I think it respectable, I find it a good
job, rather than totally satisfying (Gould not only wrote it in a single
night, he revised it in the same night).  The orchestration dazzles
and in that lies the work's chief appeal to me.  The piece is both a
straightforward variations set on the Civil War hit "When Johnny Comes
Marching Home" as well as a quick-march.

Written for the U.S. Bicentennial, American Ballads is by far the finest
and most intricate piece here.  The work has six substantial movements
(as opposed to the equally-long Foster Gallery's thirteen): "Star-Spangled
Overture" (based on "The Star-Spangled Banner"), "Amber Waves" ("America
the Beautiful"), "Jubilo" ("The Year of Jubilo"), "Memorials" ("Taps"),
"Saratoga Quickstep" ("The Girl I Left Behind Me"), and "Hymnal" ("We
Shall Overcome").  The titles provide the clue that these aren't
"arrangements." They are original compositions, significant and complex
in their own right, with far more intervention and reshaping than in,
say, Stravinsky's "Pergolesi" Pulcinella.  Each I think a masterpiece
and the work as a whole in many ways a reinterpretation of the Folk-Populist
movement in American music of the Thirties and Forties.  Most American
composers had moved on in the Fifties, including Gould, who, like Elliott
Carter and others, became fascinated with the simultaneities of Charles
Ives.  American Ballads thus becomes a re-engagement with older, more
politically- and culturally-naive ideas.  I find a nostalgia, a sense
of loss and mourning in much of the piece, particularly in the sobering,
Ivesian "Memorials" movement, a tribute to the country's "honored dead."
Remember that this work appeared shortly after Watergate and the Viet
Nam War.  Gould, usually considered at best an entertainer rather than
an artist (you won't find him mentioned in most scholarship on Modern
American concert music), violates expectations to a great extent. And
yet American Ballads remains essentially optimistic, though not brainlessly
so.  Hope remains alive, if not exactly triumphant, in the "Hymnal"
movement on "We Shall Overcome" - surely no accident that Gould made
this the finale.  Gould supported black civil rights long before it
became fashionable.  In short, I see the entire piece as a tract for the
times.

Kuchar and his Ukrainians (and, man, doesn't *that* sound strange?)
do a wonderful job with these works.  I reviewed Kenneth Klein and the
London Philharmonic on Albany TROY202, a full-price disc which I enjoyed
more for the program than for the performances (it contains American
Salute, Spirituals for Strings, and American Symphonette #2 as well as
American Ballads).  The London Phil do a thoroughly professional job,
but the Ukrainians play with far more fire and understanding.  The notion
that only Americans can play American music makes as much sense as the
assertion that only the Viennese can play Mahler.  Our national music
does indeed travel.  Add to this superb sound and the budget price, and
the Naxos seems to me the better buy.

Steve Schwartz

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