An Introduction to Morton Gould

As a string player, my knowledge of Morton Gould was limited to his America Salute, a rousing patriotic pastiche of the anthems of the branches of the US military, a popular selection at Independence Day orchestra pops concerts.  While researching for my dissertation pieces that Emanuel Vardi championed (among them, Gould’s Concertette for viola and band), I explored the Morton Gould Papers at the Library of Congress over the weekend.  In the process, I discovered that Gould was a brilliant and versatile composer, an accomplished performer, a leader for the largest national guild of composers: ASCAP, and a respected colleague and mentor to an astonishing number of musicians.  This post will just highlight a few details of this artist and provide links to resources for further information.

Morton Gould playing Ravel’s Bolero

Like Vardi, Morton Gould attended the precursor to Juilliard, the Institute for Musical Arts, in New York.  His formidable talent was recognized early on, and at the age of 17,  he was granted exclusive rights by Maurice Ravel to arrange, record, and perform Bolero for piano.  The attached picture shows Gould demonstrating his technique of playing with his elbows and forearms for enhanced sonority of the piece, an unusual technique which dismayed and impressed the composer and general audiences.

Gould was well respected and admired among his musical colleagues, as evidenced in his correspondence file at the Library of Congress, from Arturo Toscanini, Leonard Bernstein, and others. In a letter from Ernest Bloch to his “dear friend Piller,” Bloch inquires who this young Morton Gould is and describes him effusively (punctuation and emphasis in original):

Agate Beach, Oregon December 17, 1944

Agate Beach, Oregon
December 17, 1944

“Here, at last (!) a real composer – American? – Inspiration, sensibility, evocation, all the spiritual qualities which most of the ‘Others’ lack, and furthermore, a technic, of form, of orchestra, mastery of his thought – Modern, without being ‘charlattanesque’ or ‘Crazy’ […].  I find in him – at last, at last! — a real hope – not only because he has great talent – but, a thing even more rare, among all these ‘makers’, these ‘comers at any price’ because to me, he seems absolutely honest towards himself.  It was a breath of fresh air, among all the miasmas – artistic and otherwise.  Let us hope that he will not ‘deteriorate’, as have so many others – in this country of artistic prostitution […].”

Looking through the Morton Gould Papers finding aid, I was struck by the extensive list of his compositions and arrangements.  My band colleagues would recognize a few more titles than me as a string player, but there was so much more even than what is currently standard repertoire.  As a flexible and inventive composer who integrated American popular, jazz, and folk musical elements into his work, the long list of compositions I had never seen or heard of before looks absolutely fascinating.  For example, he wrote a series of works for tap dancer and instrumentalists: Concerto for tap dancer and orchestra (1952), the Hoofer Suite (1956), and Challenge for tap dancer and percussion (1956).  I hope that some of these brilliant compositions can be performed again someday!

Here are additional links to learn more about Morton Gould:

Holland, Bernard. “Morton Gould, Composer And Conductor, Dies at 82.” The New York Times. 22 Feb. 1996.

Morton Gould 20th Century Composer.

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