Ferde Grofe (1892-1972)
Mississippi Suite (1926) /Grand Canyon Suite (1931) / Niagara Falls Suite
Ferde Grofe was born Ferdinand Rudolph von Grofe, to Emiland Elsa von Grofe, in New York City on 27th March 1892. Shortlythereafter the family moved to Los Angeles. Both of Ferde's parents were ofFrench Hugnenot extraction and his grandfather, Dr. Rudolph von Grofe, wasprofessor of chemislIy at Heidelberg University. Ferde Grofe came by hisinstinct for music quite naturally. His father was a baritone and actor, while hismother was a cellist and music teacher of some note.
There were other musicians in the family: Bernhardt Bierlich,Grofe's maternal grandfather, was an associate of Victor Herbert at the NewYork Metropolitan and for 25 years first cellist with the Los AngelesPhilharmonic; Grofe's uncle, Julius Bierlich, was for many years concertmasterof the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Grofe himself studied the piano, violin andharmony with his mother and the viola with his grandfather. He attended Los Angeles City Schools and later St. Vincent's College, the present Lnyo1a University.
When his father died in 1899, he joined his mother in Germany, where shestudied at the Leipzig Conservatory for three years. Upon their return to Los Angeles,Madame Grofe opened a music studio. It was at this time that Grofe wrote hisearliest compositions, three piano rags, Harem, Rattlesnake and Persimmon.
In 1906 Grofe left home to work variously as a bookbinder,truck-driver, usher, newsboy, elevator-operator, lithographer, typesetter andsteelworker, studying the violin and piano in his spare time. By 1908 he beganto take casual musical engagements at lodge dances, parades and picnics and in1909 met Albert Jerome, a dancing teacher, with whom he toured Californianmining-camps. By day the pair operated a cleaning and pressing establishment,at night Grofe played for Jerome's pupils. It was also in 1909 that Grofe wrotehis first commissioned work, The Grand Reunion March, for an Elks Clubsconvention in Los Angeles. He joined the American Federation of Musicians thatyear and began a ten-year association with the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra,playing the viola.
In 1915 Grofe was playing at the Portola Louvre in San Francisco where musicians would drop in after hours to hear his originalarrangements and jazz improvisations. One of the musicians in the audience wasPaul Whiteman, whose orchestra Grofe joined in 1917 as pianist, permanentlyemployed from 1920 for the next twelve years as pianist, assistant conductor, orchestratorand librarian. He toured Europe with the orchestra in 1923 and in 1924 had hisfirst real break when he orchestrated Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, a collaborationthat brought immediate notice.
Grofe now undertook the composition of original works andamong his earliest hits was the tone-poem, Broadway at Night. Hissubsequent Metropolis, Blue Fantary in E Flat, Mississippi
Suite and Three Shades of Blue, reveal an astonishing development inhis handling of the symphonic jazz idiom. Challenged by a friend's suggestionthat he could even write music about a bicycle pump, he wrote two unusualworks: Theme and Variations on Noises from a Garage (1926) and FreeAir (1929). All the varied experiences of his life became inspiration forhis music, as he himself observed, grateful for the background that made possiblesuch compositions as Symphony in Steel, Tabloid Suite, Broadway at Night,Mississippi Suite, Metropolis, Henry Ford Knute Rockne and Death ValleySuite.
Grofe's popular Grand Canyon Suite, derived from hisearly period roaming the desert and mountain country as an itinerant pianist,is in five sections, each inspired by the imposing beauty of America's mightynatural wonder. It was first performed by Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra in Chicago'sStudebaker Theater on 22nd November 1931, to considerable criticalacclaim.
Sunrise depicts the mysterious moment of dawn in thecanyon with a distant roll in the kettledrums, Over a mounting series of chordssoftly intoned by the woodwind, the principal theme is sung by the muted trumpetbefore passing to other instruments, Gradually the sun rises, until, with atriumphant fanfare, the full orchestra announces the break of day over theGrand Canyon of Arizona, The Painted Desert is a water-colour ofimpressive delicacy and subtlety, Mysterious chords in the lower reaches of theorchestra are interrupted by strange figures from muted trumpets and thebrilliant upper registers of the piano, Here Grofe suggests the presence ofsome ageless, unchanging life still present in the arid and apparently lifelessdesert and in the brilliant, colours of the rock formations. The popular Onthe Trail begins with a thunderous hee-haw and a humorous violin cadenzasuggests the reluctant mule being roused for the ride down the canyon walls, beforethe journey begins. Through cactus-covered trails over the jogging burrorhythm, and in perfect counterpoint, we hear a cowboy tune. There is an intermezzoas the party stops at a cabin and waterfall for refreshment. We hear thesuggestion of an old-fashioned music-box, before we are back in the saddle, joggingforward once more. The movement ends suddenly, much in the same manner as itbegan. 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 deepeningshadows in the great gorge. Toscanini described Cloudburst as one of themost vivid and terrifying of musical pictures. In its opening it recalls the Onthe Trail theme, before a panoramic view of the vast landscape. Dark,scudding clouds suddenly appear and a rising wind. The evening air is filledwith 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 rollof thunder. The moon emerges from behind the clouds and the earth rejoices,refreshed. In the score each of the divisions of the final movement isindicated, Approach of the Stonn, Lighming, Thunder in the Distance, Rain, Cloudburstat its Height, Stonn Disappears Very Rapidly, Moon Comes from Behind the Cloudsand Nature Rejoices Again in all its Grandeur.
The evocative four-movement Mississippi (A ToneJourney) - A Descriptive Suite of 1926 is generally now known as the MississippiSuite. The great American river, celebrated in history, legend and art,recalls in its very name memories of great explorers, the feats of Paul Bunyanand the adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. Grofe's suite startswith Father of Waters, an impression in music of the upper reaches of the riveritself, majestic and smooth-flowing. Here there are references to the earliestinhabitants of the Mississippi's banks, the American Indians who gave the riverits name. The second movement, Huckleberry Finn, depicts the young rogueof Mark Twain's story. Old Creole Days creates a romantic mo