|About this Recording
6.110002 - GROFE: Grand Canyon Suite / Mississippi Suite / Niagara Falls
Ferde Grofé (1892-1972)
Mississippi Suite (1926) • Grand Canyon Suite (1931) • Niagara Falls Suite (1961)
Ferde Grofé was born Ferdinand Rudolph von Grofé, to Emil and Elsa von Grofé, in New York City on 27th March 1892. Shortly thereafter the family moved to Los Angeles. Both of Ferde’s parents were of French Huguenot extraction and his grandfather, Dr. Rudolph von Grofé, was professor of chemistry at Heidelberg University. Ferde Grofé came by his instinct for music quite naturally. His father was a baritone and actor, while his mother was a cellist and music teacher of some note.
There were other musicians in the family: Bernhardt Bierlich, Grofé’s maternal grandfather, was an associate of Victor Herbert at the New York Metropolitan and for 25 years first cellist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic; Grofé’s uncle, Julius Bierlich, was for many years concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Grofé himself studied the piano, violin and harmony with his mother and the viola with his grandfather. He attended Los Angeles City Schools and later St. Vincent’s College, the present Loyola University. When his father died in 1899, he joined his mother in Germany, where she studied at the Leipzig Conservatory for three years. Upon their return to Los Angeles, Madame Grofé opened a music studio. It was at this time that Grofé wrote his earliest compositions, three piano rags, Harem, Rattlesnake and Persimmon.
In 1906 Grofé left home to work variously as a bookbinder, truck-driver, usher, newsboy, elevator-operator, lithographer, typesetter and steelworker, studying the violin and piano in his spare time. By 1908 he began to take casual musical engagements at lodge dances, parades and picnics and in 1909 met Albert Jerome, a dancing teacher, with whom he toured Californian mining-camps. By day the pair operated a cleaning and pressing establishment, at night Grofé played for Jerome’s pupils. It was also in 1909 that Grofé wrote his first commissioned work, The Grand Reunion March, for an Elks Clubs convention in Los Angeles. He joined the American Federation of Musicians that year and began a ten-year association with the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra, playing the viola.
In 1915 Grofé was playing at the Portola Louvre in San Francisco where musicians would drop in after hours to hear his original arrangements and jazz improvisations. One of the musicians in the audience was Paul Whiteman, whose orchestra Grofé joined in 1917 as pianist, permanently employed from 1920 for the next twelve years as pianist, assistant conductor, orchestrator and librarian. He toured Europe with the orchestra in 1923 and in 1924 had his first real break when he orchestrated Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, a collaboration that brought immediate notice.
Grofé now undertook the composition of original works and among his earliest hits was the tone-poem, Broadway at Night. His subsequent Metropolis, Blue Fantasy in E Flat, Mississippi Suite and Three Shades of Blue, reveal an astonishing development in his handling of the symphonic jazz idiom. Challenged by a friend’s suggestion that he could even write music about a bicycle pump, he wrote two unusual works: Theme and Variations on Noises from a Garage (1926) and Free Air (1929). All the varied experiences of his life became inspiration for his music, as he himself observed, grateful for the background that made possible such compositions as Symphony in Steel, Tabloid Suite, Broadway at Night, Mississippi Suite, Metropolis, Henry Ford, Knute Rockne and Death Valley Suite.
Grofé’s popular Grand Canyon Suite, derived from his early period roaming the desert and mountain country as an itinerant pianist, is in five sections, each inspired by the imposing beauty of America’s mighty natural wonder. It was first performed by Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra in Chicago’s Studebaker Theater on 22nd November 1931, to considerable critical acclaim.
Sunrise depicts the mysterious moment of dawn in the canyon with a distant roll in the kettledrums. Over a mounting series of chords softly intoned by the woodwind, the principal theme is sung by the muted trumpet before passing to other instruments. Gradually the sun rises, until, with a triumphant fanfare, the full orchestra announces the break of day over the Grand Canyon of Arizona. The Painted Desert is a water-colour of impressive delicacy and subtlety. Mysterious chords in the lower reaches of the orchestra are interrupted by strange figures from muted trumpets and the brilliant upper registers of the piano. Here Grofé suggests the presence of some ageless, unchanging life still present in the arid and apparently lifeless desert and in the brilliant, colours of the rock formations. The popular On the Trail begins with a thunderous hee-haw and a humorous violin cadenza suggests the reluctant mule being roused for the ride down the canyon walls, before the journey begins. Through cactus-covered trails over the jogging burro rhythm, and in perfect counterpoint, we hear a cowboy tune. There is an intermezzo as the party stops at a cabin and waterfall for refreshment. We hear the suggestion of an old-fashioned music-box, before we are back in the saddle, jogging forward once more. The movement ends suddenly, much in the same manner as it began. Sunset opens with distant animal cries from the rim of the Canyon. The day is over, the sky still alive with vibrant colours above the deepening shadows in the great gorge. Toscanini described Cloudburst as one of the most vivid and terrifying of musical pictures. In its opening it recalls the On the Trail theme, before a panoramic view of the vast landscape. Dark, scudding clouds suddenly appear and a rising wind. The evening air is filled with fine sand and strands of tumbleweed. The storm breaks, with lightning, thunder and pelting rain. Then, even more quickly, it is gone, with a last roll of thunder. The moon emerges from behind the clouds and the earth rejoices, refreshed. In the score each of the divisions of the final movement is indicated, Approach of the Storm, Lightning, Thunder in the Distance, Rain, Cloudburst at its Height, Storm Disappears Very Rapidly, Moon Comes from Behind the Clouds and Nature Rejoices Again in all its Grandeur.
The evocative four-movement Mississippi (A Tone Journey) — A Descriptive Suite of 1926 is generally now known as the Mississippi Suite. The great American river, celebrated in history, legend and art, recalls in its very name memories of great explorers, the feats of Paul Bunyan and the adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. Grofé’s suite starts with Father of Waters, an impression in music of the upper reaches of the river itself, majestic and smooth-flowing. Here there are references to the earliest inhabitants of the Mississippi’s banks, the American Indians who gave the river its name. The second movement, Huckleberry Finn, depicts the young rogue of Mark Twain’s story. Old Creole Days creates a romantic mood suggesting moonlit Louisiana gardens. The portrait of the mighty river is completed by Mardi Gras, reflecting the bustle, jollity and excitement of carnival in New Orleans.
Productive years followed. In 1932 Grofé joined NBC as staff conductor. A year later he composed his Tabloid Suite, based on the newspaper business. He began working on a tone-poem entitled Rip Van Winkle, which 22 years later became part of his Hudson River Suite. There followed Hollywood Suite, Killarney – Irish Fantasy, Rudy Vallee Suite, Kentucky Derby Suite and the ballet Café Society. In 1937 he conducted two concerts of the New York Philharmonic. In 1939 he joined the faculty of the Juilliard School, teaching orchestration and composition, while conducting engagements and commissions continued to pour in. Over the next thirty years Grofé produced dozens of new compositions including film scores, jazz band arrangements and, of course, further “nature suites”, much of his work evoking the rich musical spirit of America as he perceived it. On 3rd April 1972 Ferde Grofé died in Santa Monica, California, after a series of heart attacks.
Among Grofe's last major works was a commission from the New York State Power Authority, to commemorate the opening of the largest power plant at Niagara Falls, the Robert Moses Power Plant. On 10th February 1961, Ferde Grofé was there to conduct the Buffalo Philharmonic in the first performance of his Niagara Falls Suite.
The four-movement suite begins with The Thunder of the Waters, a tone-painting tinged with Indian motifs, depicting the majesty of the cascading water. Devil’s Hole Massacre recalls the ambush by Indians on 14th September 1763 of a British train of 25 wagons. Only eight out of around 360 British escaped. The romantic third movement of the suite is The Honeymooners, a waltz-like section that includes the faint sound of wedding bells, a reminder of the popularity of Niagara Falls as a place for honeymooners or Hollywood lovers. The finale, Power of Niagara – 1961, in Grofé’s finest Hollywood style, shows a bustling hydro-electric plant. With a triumphantly patriotic middle section, the music suggests a factory whistle and a crowd of workers busily producing electricity to bring comfort and prosperity to a new generation. The suite, crafted by a master orchestrator, offers a vivid depiction of one of America’s most magnificent sights.
Victor and Marina A. Ledin
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