Ferde Grofé: Mississippi Suite


Ferdinand Grofé was born in New York City in 1892, and was lucky enough to be born into a musical family. His father was a classical baritone singer, his mother a professional cellist. As well as this, his mother Elsa also taught Ferde the piano and violin, as her other occupation was being a music teacher. After his father’s death in 1899, he and his mother moved abroad to Leipzig in Germany to pursue Grofé’s musical education. Grofé became competent in a wide-range of different instruments, with piano and viola being his favourites. By being so competent in a range of instruments, this allowed Grofé to utilise his arranging, and then compositional skills.

By 1920, Grofé started moving away from classical music, and started playing jazz piano for the Paul Whiteman orchestra. He arranged for Paul Whiteman until 1932, and in that time he had arranged hundreds of popular songs for the ensemble. Perhaps his most famous arrangement still to date is that of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Grofé took the famous work for two pianos, and arranged and orchestrated it for the Paul Whiteman orchestra. The arrangement that we know of today (with that oh so smooth clarinet solo) was from the arrangement by Grofé.

As well as professional arranger, Grofé was also a composer. He wrote a range of orchestral suites such as the Niagara Falls Suite, Grand Canyon Suite and the Death Valley Suite, all of which were fairly popular in their time. By the 1930’s, Grofé started composing for film and he produced scores for the films King of Jazz, Minstrel Man and Redemption. After moving back to the USA after leaving Lepizing, Grofé spent most of his life living in New Jersey, and by 1945 he had moved to LA. Grofé married three times and had four children, he died in Santa Monica in 1972.


The Music

Grofé composed the Mississippi Suite  in 1925, and it was first recorded by Paul Whiteman and his Concert Orchestra in 1927. It is a four-movement orchestral suite, which depicts the scenes along a boat journey down the famous Mississippi River. The journey starts at the head of Minnesota and ends up down in New Orleans. Grofé admired Aaron Copland and his ‘American classical music’ style, and this suite is said to pay homage to Copland.


I. Father of the Waters (Depicts the start of the Mississippi River in Minnesota)

The first movement begins with a warm brass chorale, which sets the tone for the rest of the movement. The woodwinds then shadow this chorale. There is a feeling of this opening depicting the morning sunrise, due to the warmth and slow movement of the chorale. The strings play a whirling melody, which adds an air of wistfulness and magic into the developing atmosphere of this movement.

Percussion keep the music moving and the timbre ever-changing throughout. The upper winds and tuned percussion interrupt with a faster-paced motif, which is a stark change from the opening theme. The strings play their long melody once more, and the journey carries on. The woodwinds bring the tone and texture down, before the brass enter with another chorale. The movement ends with a neat tonic chord, led by the winds.


II. Huckleberry Finn (This movement is based on Mark Twain’s novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The movement depicts the characteristics of Huck)

This playful movement begins with a bouncy motif played by a solo bassoon. This is then accentuated by the strings who build up and then play a fast swirling descending scale. The strings then play this playful melody in full, with the brass playing interludes of a fanfare.

The horns lead us into a slower passage, where the tone is lowered slightly. The bassoon again is at the forefront here, as well as the lower strings. The upper winds and strings play a call and response passage which brings the tempo back up once more. The dotted rhythms are what give this movement an up-beat and playful atmosphere throughout.

The orchestra cut out and the bassoon plays a small slower, which leads into the upper brass playing a short two pulsating chords. The piece then ends with the whole orchestra playing a very short dominant-tonic chord explosion.


III. Old Creole Days (This depicts an interpretation of spirituals sung by slaves on the plantations)

The third movement is the slowest movement of the quartet, and it is also the most sorrowful. It begins with the strings playing a chorale-like melody in their lower registers. A solo violin plays a melody in a minor key, which is very nostalgic. This is then copied by the cor anglais, which gives the melody a slightly different tone.

Variations of this theme are taken around the ensemble, in particular the upper strings and flutes. The horn then plays this melody, and the orchestra stay at this quiet dynamic. This movement is also the shortest and the music stops quietly. The music in this movement is reminiscent and pays homage to the spirituals sung by slaves on the plantations.


IV. Mardi Gras (Depiction of the Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans)

The final movement begins with a brass fanfare, which sets a fast tempo for a dance-like theme to be played by the strings. The dance is reminiscent of the Cakewalk dance, with its jaunty accented motifs. The whole ensemble take a turn in playing parts of this dance theme.

The strings play both arco and pizzicato, which gives a different tone to parts of this movement. The tempo comes down slightly, and a theme, similar to that from the first movement is heard. This lyrical section is accentuated by Grofé with the use of extremities of range in instruments and the dynamic ranges of the brass.

This section leads us next into another nostalgic section, which is interrupted by another brass fanfare. The initial cakewalk dance motif is then played out again, accentuating the idea of the Mardi Gras celebrations.

A descending sequence by the tuned percussion and strings creates the foundation for the ‘breakthrough’ section. The lyrical theme returns in an almighty form, with the whole ensemble playing out fully. The horns play a wonderful counter-theme and the strings are playing this lyrical melodic cell underneath. The tempo comes up slightly once more for the final stretch of the movement. A fanfare call and response theme is heard, the timpani rolls and brings us into the final chords of the piece, which ends on its tonic chord.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy reading!

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