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Musical Paintings

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National Seashore2
Three waves roll into the beach at the National Seashore.

This blog is being submitted during one of my favorite times of year…VACATION . It is summer time and I’ve already enjoyed a beach trip to our National Seashore, Assatague Island and Chincoteague. I enjoy every vacation, but this one was loaded with the sound of waves crashing on the shore, laughing children and parents, sunny and cloudy days, and much needed relaxation.

In music, we are fortunate that many composers translate landscapes into musical paintings. I believe Ferde Grofe is the best composer/arranger there is for this medium. We are currently scanning and proofing his Grand Canyon Suite for piano solo, (BRM 24334) as part of the preservation/scanning project. And I’m reasonably certain when I mention this title, Grofe’s excellent orchestration and special effects of the piece are called to mind; from the movement titled On the Trail you can hear the rhythmic clip-clops of the mules going down into the canyon and their hee-haws when they’re talking, along with the long sweeping melodic lines describing images of the vast Arizona blue sky. I’ve been to the Grand Canyon and can testify that the music he wrote matches the countryside.

On the Trail
Black and white photo of a man and a woman riding mules on the trail in the Grand Canyon.

Grofe grew up in California with a musical background; his father was a baritone singer and his mother was a cellist and music teacher. While his parents wanted him to study law (don’t all artist parents want their children to choose a sensible career?) he gigged as a violinist at convention halls and, I think most importantly, was a pianist and arranger for different dance bands. Arranging and orchestrating is not easy; knowledge of an instrument’s limitations and its best characteristics are essential.

Not only can we be thankful that Grofe brought the Grand Canyon to our concert halls, he also orchestrated Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Great music is great music in many forms, and Gershwin has the perfect blend of jazz and traditional harmonies in my opinion, but consider what we would have missed if Grofe hadn’t opened this work with that clarinet glissando stretching up to the sky? The story of this cool work is available on BARD at DBM 00891. The piano version of this work is available at BRM 07248, a melody only version at BRM 06432, and a two piano version at BRM 17977.

Grofe continued to write more works featuring the American landscape like Hollywood Suite, A Day at the Farm, Hudson River Suite and worked in cinema with film scores like Strike Up the Band, and was nominated for an Oscar in 1945 for his score of Minstrel Man.

I would like to close with a quote from Grofe speaking about the Grand Canyon Suite success. It demonstrates his generosity of spirit: “This composition was born of sight, sound and sensations common to all of us. I think I have spoken of America in this music simply because America spoke to me, just as it has spoken to you and to every one of us. If I have succeeded in capturing some part of the American musical spirit, I am grateful that I was trained to do so. But this music is your music, and mine only in the highly technical sense that a copyright has been filed away with my name on it. Always we must realize that there is much more to hear. Our land is rich in music, and if you listen you can hear it right now. This is our music you hear, surging forth, singing up to every one of us.”

Have a great summer, and take some time to enjoy some of rich treasures we have in this country.

South Rim
Color photo of the view of the Grand Canyon from the South Rim

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