GOULD: Fall River Legend / Jekyll and Hyde Variations (James F. Neal/ Kenneth Schermerhorn/ Nashville Symphony Orchestra/ Tim Handley) (Naxos American Classics: 8.559242)
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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 costhim the commission to write one of his most famousscores. Agnes DeMille was looking for a collaborator ona ballet about America's favourite non-political murder,the story of Lizzie Borden, who "took an axe and gaveher mother forty whacks". She nearly rejected theconductor Max Goberman's suggestion that she contactGould, whose work she knew only from his popularradio broadcasts. Goberman assured DeMille of threeessential features about Gould: he could compose in anystyle, he could write tunes, and he could orchestratebeautifully.
When choreographer and composer met to flesh outthe scenario, DeMille was still unsure about the ending.
How should they deal with the question of LizzieBorden's guilt in the murder of her father andstepmother? The historical Lizzie was acquitted; mostauthorities remain convinced that she was guilty. Gouldsuggested that, in the ballet, she should be hanged,calling this justifiable poetic license. He added that hecould easily write "hanging music", whereas it would bedifficult to attempt "acquittal music". (In any case,neither the murders nor the hanging are explicitlyrepresented choreographically.)From the very beginning Fall River Legend hasbeen regarded as one of the high points of Gould'soutput. It has remained one of his most frequentlyperformedworks, though usually heard as a concertsuite containing about half the music, compared to thefull score recorded here.
The ballet opens with a brief Prologue, a brutal,assertive statement of music associated later with thegallows. A speaker reads the indictment against LizzieBorden. Most of the rest is a flashback, in which theadult Lizzie observes her own history, but is powerlessto change it. She sees her childlike self living with herfather and mother (waltz music in a period style). A hintof Chopsticks evokes the innocence of her childhood.
The happy family scene turns to mourning with theillness and death of Lizzie's mother. She is left withonly a shawl to remember her by. Another woman soonmarries the widower Borden and becomes Lizzie's coldstepmother, symbolized by her taking the shawl fromthe girl.
The father prefers the company of his new wife.
Lizzie is left in an emotionless vacuum. The stepmotherhints that she is not quite right in the head. For a time itseems as if Lizzie will form a supportive relationshipwith the understanding pastor when he stops by, but theparents order her back into the house. She goes to a reardoor and re-enters with an axe. The music turns sinister;the father and stepmother express fear at this sudden,apparently violent, apparition. Lizzie had merelyintended to chop firewood, but their obvious fear plantsa terrible idea in her mind. She caresses the handle ofthe axe, as one would a child. It represents for her theopportunity to live and be free.
The pastor arrives to invite her to the church social,still undeterred by the stepmother's rumours aboutLizzie's mental condition. They head off to the church.
The Church Social captures the mood and spirit of asmall New England town with intimations of folk-tunesand hymnody. (The tunes are all original with Gould.)Lizzie dances with the pastor during the HymnalVariations, but her stepmother arrives and again spreadsrumours about her. After the pastor takes her home, sheconceals the axe under her skirt, revealing it to the terrorof her parents. A blackout conceals the awful deed. TheDeath Dance is a kind of dream sequence. Thetownspeople discover the crime in a remarkable sceneplayed in silence, without music. Lizzie sees them,makes a silent scream, and rushes off as the orchestraexplodes in the Mob Scene. The house is dismantled andconverted to the gallows.
In the Epilogue, the crowd slowly disappears,leaving Lizzie alone with the pastor, as the orchestrarecalls the passages of her life leading up to thismoment. Finally she is left alone, confronting thegallows, and we hear once more the brutal orchestral crywith which the ballet opened. A dark final roll on thetimpani brings Lizzie to face her own death as the balletends.
Following the successful premi?¿re of Fall RiverLegend in 1948, Gould was interested in moving awayfrom his reputation as a composer of light classics.
Dimitri Mitropoulos, music director of the New YorkPhilharmonic from 1950 to 1958, requested anorchestral work of a serious nature. At mid-century, thatmeant a score employing in some way the twelve-tonesystem created by Arnold Schoenberg. Gould chose touse the technique in a score inspired by Robert LouisStevenson's famous horror story The Strange Case ofDr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, an immediate best-seller whenit came out in Great Britain in 1886, in which the readergradually learns that the humane Dr Jekyll and thebrutal Hyde are in fact two aspects of the same humanbeing.
Gould chose variation form as a way of dramatizingthe diverse characteristics of the split personality. Eventhe theme itself is cast to symbolize the split. It is lyricalin character, but with several subtle changes of tempo,and its last half reverses the first half, like a mirrorimage, or an inversion of black-to-white or good to evil.
The twelve variations that follow cover a wideexpressive range marked by numerous expressivemarkings in the score to suggest the varied moods,which change even within the confines of a singlevariation. The general progression is from the lyrical tothe dark and even demonic, as the twelfth variation callsfor music that is "intense and angry" or "headlong andfrenetic". A thirteenth variation serves as a finale,mostly contemplative in nature, drawing back from thehorror to a kind of philosophical contemplation.
Mitropoulos conducted the premi?¿re in New Yorkon 2nd February 1957. Both the composer and theconductor, a superb musician and devoted supporter ofnew works, were pleased with the results, but audiencesand critics found it impossible to get past MortonGould's reputation as an entertainer and composer ofthe American Salute or the Latin-AmericanSymphonette, Broadway shows, and film scores.
Listeners who expected a work of that type were toosurprised to listen with open ears and to accept him as acomposer 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 andgiven audiences another chance to come to appreciateits qualities, but he was subject to frequent attacks fromthe press for his effective support of contemporarymusic. He stepped down from the music directorship ofthe orchestra seven months later.
Gould himself always considered the Jekyll andHyde Variations among his best pieces, but until nowthere have been virtually no opportunities to experienceit. This recording gives us a chance to evaluate theextraordinary range of Morton Gould's creative talents.Steven Ledbetter