About this Recording
8.559242 - GOULD, M.: Fall River Legend / Jekyll and Hyde Variations (Neal, Nashville Symphony, Schermerhorn)
English  German 

Morton Gould (1913-1996)
Fall River Legend • Jekyll and Hyde Variations

Morton Gould’s profile as a composer of “popular” music and light classics in the 1940s music nearly cost him the commission to write one of his most famous scores. Agnes DeMille was looking for a collaborator on a ballet about America’s favourite non-political murder, the story of Lizzie Borden, who “took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks”. She nearly rejected the conductor Max Goberman’s suggestion that she contact Gould, whose work she knew only from his popular radio broadcasts. Goberman assured DeMille of three essential features about Gould: he could compose in any style, he could write tunes, and he could orchestrate beautifully.

When choreographer and composer met to flesh out the scenario, DeMille was still unsure about the ending. How should they deal with the question of Lizzie Borden’s guilt in the murder of her father and stepmother? The historical Lizzie was acquitted; most authorities remain convinced that she was guilty. Gould suggested that, in the ballet, she should be hanged, calling this justifiable poetic license. He added that he could easily write “hanging music”, whereas it would be difficult to attempt “acquittal music”. (In any case, neither the murders nor the hanging are explicitly represented choreographically.)

From the very beginning Fall River Legend has been regarded as one of the high points of Gould’s output. It has remained one of his most frequentlyperformed works, though usually heard as a concert suite containing about half the music, compared to the full score recorded here.

The ballet opens with a brief Prologue, a brutal, assertive statement of music associated later with the gallows. A speaker reads the indictment against Lizzie Borden. Most of the rest is a flashback, in which the adult Lizzie observes her own history, but is powerless to change it. She sees her childlike self living with her father and mother (waltz music in a period style). A hint of Chopsticks evokes the innocence of her childhood. The happy family scene turns to mourning with the illness and death of Lizzie’s mother. She is left with only a shawl to remember her by. Another woman soon marries the widower Borden and becomes Lizzie’s cold stepmother, symbolized by her taking the shawl from the girl.

The father prefers the company of his new wife. Lizzie is left in an emotionless vacuum. The stepmother hints that she is not quite right in the head. For a time it seems as if Lizzie will form a supportive relationship with the understanding pastor when he stops by, but the parents order her back into the house. She goes to a rear door and re-enters with an axe. The music turns sinister; the father and stepmother express fear at this sudden, apparently violent, apparition. Lizzie had merely intended to chop firewood, but their obvious fear plants a terrible idea in her mind. She caresses the handle of the axe, as one would a child. It represents for her the opportunity to live and be free.

The pastor arrives to invite her to the church social, still undeterred by the stepmother’s rumours about Lizzie’s mental condition. They head off to the church. The Church Social captures the mood and spirit of a small New England town with intimations of folk-tunes and hymnody. (The tunes are all original with Gould.) Lizzie dances with the pastor during the Hymnal Variations, but her stepmother arrives and again spreads rumours about her. After the pastor takes her home, she conceals the axe under her skirt, revealing it to the terror of her parents. A blackout conceals the awful deed. The Death Dance is a kind of dream sequence. The townspeople discover the crime in a remarkable scene played in silence, without music. Lizzie sees them, makes a silent scream, and rushes off as the orchestra explodes in the Mob Scene. The house is dismantled and converted to the gallows.

In the Epilogue, the crowd slowly disappears, leaving Lizzie alone with the pastor, as the orchestra recalls the passages of her life leading up to this moment. Finally she is left alone, confronting the gallows, and we hear once more the brutal orchestral cry with which the ballet opened. A dark final roll on the timpani brings Lizzie to face her own death as the ballet ends.

Following the successful première of Fall River Legend in 1948, Gould was interested in moving away from his reputation as a composer of light classics. Dimitri Mitropoulos, music director of the New York Philharmonic from 1950 to 1958, requested an orchestral work of a serious nature. At mid-century, that meant a score employing in some way the twelve-tone system created by Arnold Schoenberg. Gould chose to use the technique in a score inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous horror story The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, an immediate best-seller when it came out in Great Britain in 1886, in which the reader gradually learns that the humane Dr Jekyll and the brutal Hyde are in fact two aspects of the same human being.

Gould chose variation form as a way of dramatizing the diverse characteristics of the split personality. Even the theme itself is cast to symbolize the split. It is lyrical in character, but with several subtle changes of tempo, and its last half reverses the first half, like a mirror image, or an inversion of black-to-white or good to evil. The twelve variations that follow cover a wide expressive range marked by numerous expressive markings in the score to suggest the varied moods, which change even within the confines of a single variation. The general progression is from the lyrical to the dark and even demonic, as the twelfth variation calls for music that is “intense and angry” or “headlong and frenetic”. A thirteenth variation serves as a finale, mostly contemplative in nature, drawing back from the horror to a kind of philosophical contemplation.

Mitropoulos conducted the première in New York on 2nd February 1957. Both the composer and the conductor, a superb musician and devoted supporter of new works, were pleased with the results, but audiences and critics found it impossible to get past Morton Gould’s reputation as an entertainer and composer of the American Salute or the Latin-American Symphonette, Broadway shows, and film scores. Listeners who expected a work of that type were too surprised to listen with open ears and to accept him as a composer of a serious work in the most modern idiom. If Mitropoulos had remained longer at the Philharmonic, he would surely have performed the work again and given audiences another chance to come to appreciate its qualities, but he was subject to frequent attacks from the press for his effective support of contemporary music. He stepped down from the music directorship of the orchestra seven months later.

Gould himself always considered the Jekyll and Hyde Variations among his best pieces, but until now there have been virtually no opportunities to experience it. This recording gives us a chance to evaluate the extraordinary range of Morton Gould’s creative talents.

Steven Ledbetter

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