Ferde Grofé: Grand Canyon Suite
Ferdinand Grofé was born in New York City in 1892, and was 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 him 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 is the arrangement by Grofé.
As well as a 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 Leipzig, 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.
Grand Canyon Suite was composed in 1931, and indirectly won him an Academy Award in 1958 when Disney won the Best Live Action Short Film award for their visualisation of Grofé’s music. This suite by Disney was made to be used in the revived version of Fantasia. The movie was based on Grofé’s own score notes. So, as the title suggests, the music depicts the many different scenes across this vast landmark.
Movement I – Sunrise
As the sun slowly rises in the early morning over this vast piece of land, the treasures within the Grand Canyon come into the light. Grofé’s atmospheric music is principally built on sonorities and textures which fluctuate to create different effects. Grofé utilises the upper woodwind to provide melodic structure to the opening. The slow-moving development of the sonorities follows the slow rise of the sun, with each new kernel of melody adding to the overall effect. As the music grows into the glorious climax, the full views across the Grand Canyon can be seen. Bold and powerful, the music aptly represents the subject matter.
Movement II – The Painted Desert
Music to represent the mysterious desert landscape. Through the blistering sun rays to the varying hues of sand, this descriptive movement is slow moving, but highly effective in its portrayal of the desert lands. The different pigments of the rocks and sand are highlighted through the use of muted trumpets, distant woodwinds and luscious strings. As the intensity builds, the full view of colours within the desert are revealed, with Grofé using the natural fluctuation of the orchestra burst with colour before quickly dying away.
Movement III – On the Trail
This cowboy song accompanies the story of a traveller and his friend as they descend down a trail in the canyon. After a violin cadenza that stops the rushing opening dead in its tracks, the music falls into a comical horse hoof beat. A solo oboe provides the melody here, with the percussion adding a real twist to the texture of the music. Perhaps the most comical of the movements so far, the third relies on witty woodwind techniques such as slides and decorative grace notes.
Movement IV – Sunset
As the sun slowly begins to fade, the golden hour hits the walls of the canyon. A solo horn leads the call of the sunset, with each call becoming further away. A warm theme ensues with the tunes percussion and upper strings playing a shimmering line to represent the tingle of the setting sun. As the canyon is engulfed in the cloak of night time, there is a suggestion that animals are calling from within the canyon. Big orchestral swells fill this movement with smooth ebbs and flows that add to the overall effect of the sunset. The texture begins to thin near the end of the movement, with solo voices emerging that represent the animals. This movement ends quietly, with the last shred of light surrounded by the dark of the night.
Movement V – Cloudburst
Opening with a sweet theme from the upper strings and woodwind, Cloudburst adapts into a rich and lyrical theme. Cinematic in its set up, the rumblings from the basses and timpani provide us with an insight into this oncoming storm. A very different central section depicts the destruction and unpredictability of thunderstorms. Big scalic runs, loud brass and rumbling timpani all come together to create a cacophonous texture that shows the roaring storm from the skies. As the storm begins to clear, the moon appears from behind the clouds. The orchestra comes together for the most almighty resolution that the storm has passed and the Grand Canyon lives on with all its wildlife in tow. The thrilling end to the suite leaves the listener with the lasting thoughts of what the Grand Canyon symbolises for them.
Ⓒ Alex Burns