Obituary: Morton Gould

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The Independent Online
Nobody who was present at the Wigmore Hall recital by the grand old man of Russian pianism, Shura Cherkassky, on 29 October 1993, is likely to forget his stunning performance of a piece called Boogie Woogie Etude. The shock was twofold: a great classical pianist seemed completely at home in jazz piano idioms; and these had been cunningly translated into a virtuoso study. The composer was Morton Gould and Boogie Woogie Etude was written in 1943, a time when Gould, Aaron Copland and George Gershwin were probably the most frequently performed American composers. But the history books tell us plenty about Copland and Gershwin and practically nothing about Gould.

Even the title of one of Gould's most successful pieces goes some way towards explaining this. He wrote Derivations for Clarinet and Band especially for Benny Goodman in 1956, although unaccountably it was not played until 1960. Derivations became widely known when it was recorded four years later on an album (still available) called The Jazz Influence, along with works by Igor Stravinsky, Copland and Leonard Bernstein. Gould said: "Derivations as a title, implies the derivative stylistic quality I employed in composing - not literally, of course - and in putting types of familiar jazz vernacular to more classical, formalistic uses." Stravinsky, Copland and Bernstein brought their own unmistakable personalities to bear in their works, but Gould merely translated, expertly and with complete conviction. This is a characteristic of light music, so unjustifiably looked down on by historians, a genre of which Gould was a master.

Gould's parent came from Europe - his father from Austria and his mother from Russia. He was a prodigy as a pianist and a composer, with a waltz he wrote at the age of six later published as "Just Six". In New York he studied at the Institute of Musical Art, with a scholarship at the age of eight, and was soon giving piano recitals which included improvisations on themes submitted by the audience. At the age of 16 he put on a concert of his own works at New York University, where he was a student of Vincent Jones.

Gould was a versatile pianist able to respond to the needs of dance studios, bands and theatres such as Radio City Music Hall and the Roxy Theatre, and when the Depression affected his family he had to take this commercial scene more seriously. Fortunately this was exactly his metier and he revelled in the direct contact with audiences, especially in the rapidly growing and influential medium of radio. From 1934 to 1942 Gould ran the Music for Today series on WOR, the Mutual Radio Network, and in 1943 became director of "Chrysler Hour" on CBS Radio and other sponsored programmes.

In these posts he was composing, arranging and conducting with unique oppor- tunities to write to order for an enormous and responsive public. One historian, John Tasker Howard, wrote in 1941: "He has little use for the art-for-art's sake boys." To signal his less pretentious ambitions, Gould developed titles such as "symphonette" and "concertette". However, the unerring effectiveness of his writing and its sheer accessibility prompted Leopold Stokowski to conduct Chorale and Fugue in Jazz with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1934, which Gould regarded as one of the supreme moments of his life; Fritz Reiner to commission a work from Gould in 1940 based on the popular songwriter Stephen Foster, called Foster Gallery; and Gould himself to have countless opportunities to conduct the major American orchestras in his own music and that of other composers. His 1967 recording of Charles Ives's Robert Browning Overture and Second Orchestral Set won a Grammy Award. Gould also ran his own orchestra.

It is sometimes said that Gould's obsession with American patriotic subjects has limited his appeal abroad, although this has proved no obstacle to international acceptance of Ives and Copland. A British connection came in 1980 when Gould conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in a group of his own works, including Festive Music, Latin-American Symphonette and Philharmonic Waltzes.

Gould's ability to work to order, a normal requirement for composers over so many centuries, and his aptitude for illustrative music, made him a natural for ballet. Fall River Legend (1947) is about the sensational Lizzie Borden murder case of 1892 and was choreographed by Agnes de Mille in 1947. A new recording of the suite from the ballet in 1992 included an extended and informative discussion between composer and choreographer, who died the following year, and the music came up strongly as a vivid evocation of American folk and pastoral idioms. Gould composed several other ballets with famous collaborators, including American Concertette (1943), which was choreographed by Jerome Robbins as Interplay, and Clarinade (1964), which was for George Balanchine. Further applied composition included musicals, such as Billion Dollar Baby (1945), and scores for films and television. In 1995 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Stringmusic, the work commissioned for the farewell season of Mstislav Rostropovich as music director at the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington.

Works written for concert band brought Gould's music to yet another wide audience, often of grateful young people in schools and colleges. He is sure to be remembered for typical Gould tunes such as the Pavane from the Second American Symphonette, youthful, cheeky, catchy and confident. These qualities reflect the more endearing attributes of the American nation approaching the middle of the century and about to take on formidable international responsibilites. Gould was a typical and worthy representative of his country, he enjoyed what he did and he had the ability to communicate that enjoyment more widely than countless more original composers.

Peter Dickinson

Morton Gould, composer: born Richmond Hill, New York 10 December 1913; married (two sons, two daughters); died Orlando, Florida 21 February 1996.