Thursday, March 27, 8892
Ferde Grofe (1892-1972) - Grand Canyon Suite
Ferde Grofe (1892-1972)
Grand Canyon Suite (1931)
III. On the Trail
Ferde Grofé, (March 27, 1892 – April 3, 1972) was an American pianist, arranger and composer.
Born Ferdinand Rudolph von Grofé, in New York City, Grofe came by his myriad musical interests naturally. Of French Huguenot extraction, his family had four generations of classical musicians. His father, Emil von Grofé, was a baritone who sang mainly light opera and his mother, Elsa Johanna von Grofé, was a professional cellist. She was also a versatile music teacher who taught Ferde to play the violin and piano. Elsa's father, Bernardt Bierlich, was a cellist in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in New York and Elsa's brother, Julius Bierlich, was first violinist and concertmaster of the Los Angeles Symphony.
Ferde's father died in 1899 and Elsa took Ferde abroad to study piano, viola and composition in Leipzig, Germany. Given such a musical background, it is perhaps understandable that Ferde became proficient over a remarkable range of instruments including piano (his favored instrument), violin, viola (he became a violist in the LA Symphony), baritone horn, alto horn and cornet.
This command of musical instruments and composition gave Ferde the foundation to later become first an arranger of other composers' music and then an orchestrator of his own compositions.
Grofé left home at the age of 14 and variously worked as a milkman, truck driver, usher, newsboy, elevator operator, helper in a book bindery, iron factory worker, and as a piano player in a bar for two dollars a night and as an accompanist. He continued studying piano and violin. When he was 15 he was performing with dance bands. He also played the alto horn in brass bands. He was 17 when he wrote his first commissioned work.
Beginning about 1920, he played the jazz piano with the Paul Whiteman orchestra. He served as Whiteman's chief arranger from 1920-1932. He made hundreds of arrangements of popular songs, Broadway show music, and tunes of all types for Whiteman.
Grofé's most memorable orchestration is that of George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, which established Grofé's reputation among jazz musicians. Grofé took what Gershwin had written for two pianos and orchestrated it for Whiteman's jazz orchestra. He transformed Gershwin's musical canvas with the colors and many of the creative touches for which it is so well known.
He went on to create two more arrangements of the piece in later years. Grofé's 1942 orchestration for full orchestra of Rhapsody in Blue is the one most frequently heard today.
Due to Grofé's ubiquity in arranging large-scale musical works and a perceived paucity of American achievements in serious music, the German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler complained that "America has no composers, only arrangers."
During the 1930s, he was the orchestra leader on several radio programs, including Fred Allen's show and his own The Ferde Grofé Show. In 1944 he was a panelist on A Song Is Born, judging the works of unknown composers.
Grofé was later employed as a conductor and faculty member at the Juilliard School of Music where he taught orchestration.
In addition to being an arranger, Grofé was also a serious composer in his own right. While still with Whiteman, in 1925, he wrote Mississippi Suite, which Whiteman recorded in shortened format in 1927. He wrote a number of other pieces, including a theme for the New York World's Fair of 1939 and suites for Niagra Falls and the Hudson River.
Today, Grofé remains most famous for his Grand Canyon Suite (1931) a work regarded highly enough to be recorded for RCA Victor with mastery by Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony (in Carnegie Hall in 1945, with the composer present). The earlier Mississippi Suite is also occasionally performed and recorded. Grofé conducted the Grand Canyon Suite and his piano concerto (with pianist Jesús Maria Sanromá) for Everest Records in 1960.
Ferde Grofé died in Santa Monica, California at the age of 80. He was buried in the Mausoleum of the Golden West at the Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California.