American Symphonette No. 2

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            While Leonard Bernstein is often seen as the multifaceted American musician who wore just about every musical hat—the garland probably most justifiable belongs to Morton Gould.  What didn’t he do—and stunningly successfully?  He was literally a household name during the nineteen forties and fifties, and was an active composer into his eighties.  A child prodigy, he composed from a remarkably early age.  By his late teenage years he was playing professionally in movie theatres and vaudeville, but got his big break as the staff pianist in 1932 for the newly opened Radio City Music Hall.   Positions as conductor and arranger on national radio shows soon followed, as well as commissions for music for Broadway shows, film, ballets, and ultimately, television.  His purview was certainly not limited to “popular” music, for he conducted many of the great symphony orchestras all over the world, often appearing as piano soloist, as well-- Rhapsody in Blue was a specialty.  Compositions flowed from his pen by the dozens with ridiculous ease, and a remarkable number of almost every ilk ensued.  Pieces for American bands, symphony orchestras, chorus, concertos—including one for “rapper” and orchestra.  The variety of styles and genres is simply astonishing.

            He could plumb the depths of American popular culture, as well the aspirations of “higher, classical” art with an almost effortless equal facility—what is perhaps most impressive was his mastery of both approaches to musical composition.  While both Bernstein and Gershwin were undeniable musical geniuses, it must be admitted that they struggled somewhat to find a facile musical voice that poured easily into the forms and structures of more formal musical composition—not so with Gould.  He spoke as easily and with equal, natural facility in a “symphony” as he did in a piece for singing fire department.

            The series of “symphonettes” for orchestra are cases in point.  Composed at various times during the nineteen thirties and early nineteen forties, they are charming short essays in the symphony genre, and are completely smooth idiomatic explorations of its “classical” norms.  The title is a bit whimsical, the composer alluding to the vogue of the time to tack on “-ette” to almost anything:  dinette, kitchenette and even Buick and Cadillac “sedanettes.”  Like so many “cross-over” compositions of the time, this little “symphonette” (composed for a 1938 radio show) is infused with jazz-like elements in each of its three movements.   The first is appropriately in a kind of sonata form, and the second is a traditional dance form, in this case a rather sedate pavan, one of Gould’s most famous tunes.  The muted trumpet and “walking” bassoon accompaniment are instantly recognizable from myriad performances.   The last movement, in the best symphonic tradition is a scampering affair that the composer admits is a “slight takeoff on the Prelude from Bach’s E-major unaccompanied Violin Partita.”  That may be, but essentially it is an adroit example of late 1930s through early 1950s happy, urban, East Coast, jazzy soundscapes so familiar from, say, West Side Story and a thousand movies.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2017 William E. Runyan