Cinematic Inspirations

Saturday, January 31, 2015 - 7:30 p.m.
Jim Rouse Theatre

Andrew Earle Simpson

Pieces

Ferde Grofé - Grand Canyon Suite
Program Notes

FERDE GROFÉ (1892-1972)

GRAND CANYON SUITE

Composed: 1929-1931
Premiered: Chicago, 1931

Ferde Grofé originally found fame of a sort as the arranger for the Paul Whiteman orchestra, famously turning the scribbled two-piano original of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue into a workable pseudo-concerto in time for its first performance in 1924; the famous wailing clarinet at the opening of the Rhapsody was cooked up between Grofé and clarinetist Ralph Gorman, and was as big a surprise to Gershwin as it was to the audience.

But there was far more to Grofé than his work for Whiteman. Almost a template for the younger Leonard Bernstein, Grofé was as famous for his work in jazz and as a pianist and conductor - even a pioneer of electronic music - as he was as a composer. He taught composition and conducting at the Juilliard School in New York. At his death, he had completed nearly two hundred works.

Perhaps ironically for a man who was entirely overlooked for his work on the very first sound picture – Grofé conducted The Jazz Singer in 1939 – the Grand Canyon Suite indirectly earned him an Academy Award in 1958, when Disney won the Best Live Action Short Film award for their visualization of the Suite, which was made to be shown with the revived Fantasia.

The music is so successfully pictorial that Disney’s breathtaking images were almost superfluous. The movie was based directly on Grofé’s own notes, printed in the original score:

Sunrise: Early morning on the desert. The sun rises slowly, spattering the darkness with the rich colors of dawn.

The Painted Desert: The desert is silent and mysterious, yet beautiful. As the bright rays of the sun are reflected against majestic crags and spread across the sands in varying hues, the entire scene appears as a canvas thick with the pigments of nature's own blending.

On the Trail: A traveler and his burro are descending the trail. The sharp hoof beats of the animal form an unusual rhythmic background for the cowboy's song.

Sunset: Now the shades of night sweep over the golden hues of day. As evening envelops the desert in a cloak of darkness, there is a suggestion of animal calls coming from the distant rim of the canyon.

Cloudburst: We hear the approach of the storm. Lightning flashes across the sky and thunder roars from the darkness … but the storm disappears rapidly and the moon comes from behind clouds. Nature again rejoices in all its grandeur.

Modest Mussorgsky - Night on Bald Mountain
Program Notes

MODESTE MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)

A NIGHT ON BALD MOUNTAIN

Composed: 1866-1867
Premiered: London, England, 1932

Poor Mussorgsky. After years of shivering in the shadow of his teacher Balakirev while trying to forge what became his own very personal style, Mussorgsky fell under the spell of Liszt’s Totentanz (Dance of the Dead), and decided to write his own supernatural epic – as it happened, the first Russian tone poem. His working title was The Witches, which morphed over time into the unfortunate Worship of the Black Goat before finally landing on St. John’s Eve On Bald Mountain. This was to be Mussorgsky’s final breakthrough into his own music – real Russian music, free of the hated German influences that enchained his Slavic soul (Liszt presumably excepted). In a fiercely proud letter to a friend, he describes the music’s program:

At the head of my score I've put its content: 1. Assembly of the witches, their talk and gossip; 2. Satan's journey; 3. Obscene praises of Satan; and 4. Sabbath. The form and character of the composition are entirely Russian and original.

Too original for Balakirev, however. When Mussorgsky presented him with the score in late 1867, Balakirev did all but burn it in front of him. The manuscript has survived, complete with Balakirev’s helpful comments, scrawled across it in pencil – “Rubbish!” – “What in God’s name is this supposed to be??” – “This part isn’t too bad”. There were two immediate results of this humiliating confrontation; the piece would lie unperformed in its original form until 1932, and Mussorgsky began his final spiral into the chronic alcoholism that killed him at the age of 41. His confidence was shattered; he became infamous for an inability to finish anything. In work after work, his eerily precise, exquisite musical handwriting trails off into alcoholic silence, leaving the music to be finished – or, more usually, re-written – by others, usually Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who was not averse to pillaging the music for ideas while he was about it.

If Balakirev had been capable of seeing his student’s originality, Mussorgsky could have been a very different composer, and different man, in later years. He wrote Night on Bald Mountain in twelve days, straight into full score, working night and day, and finishing – he must have thought it an omen – on St. John’s Eve. Often alarmingly dissonant and jagged, the music was in an entirely new musical language, which the ultra-nationalist Mussorgsky believed to be peculiarly Russian:

I see in my sinful little joke an independent Russian product, free from German profundity and routine, grown on our native fields and nurtured on Russian bread.

Mussorgsky tried to include Night on Bald Mountain in two operas, both without success. Mlada, a collaborative work with Rimsky-Korsakov, was commandeered (surprise!) by Rimsky and performed without Mussorgsky’s music; Sorotchintsky Fair was an incomplete shambles when Mussorgsky died. Night on Bald Mountain, which should have been the cornerstone of his career, turned into his headstone. He never heard a note of it.

Gioachino Rossini - William Tell Overture
Program Notes

GOACHINO ROSSINI (1792-1868)

OVERTURE, GUILLEAUME TELL (WILLIAM TELL)

Composed: 1829
Premiered: Paris, France, 1829

Billy Connolly has said that his definition of an intellectual is someone who could hear the William Tell overture and not think of the Lone Ranger – a challenge that is unlikely to be met this evening. But there is a great deal more to this overture to Rossini’s last and most troublesome opera than its famous closing Galop, which is quite possibly the most frequently parodied piece of music of all time. Its form is almost preposterously odd; Berlioz called it a “tiny symphony in four movements,” and he is not far wrong. The piece opens with a stretch of chamber music for five (!) cellos that was salvaged from the wreckage of a string nonet (!!) that Rossini had started and abandoned six months earlier; occasional grunts and grumbles from the double basses and timpani steer this very surprising opening into a storm scene for the full orchestra - probably good news for the first solo cellist, who is left at the end of the opening section hanging on for dear life to an insanely high note as the clouds gather. The cello is swept away in the Beethovenian deluge that follows.

So far, so serious. Alas, there can be few who hear the cor anglais’ subsequent Ranz des vaches (Call to the cows) without thinking of Bugs Bunny or worse; this entirely un-Swiss yodeling melody (Rossini made it up) has been taken up by everyone from real Swiss yodelers to William Walton (Façade) and a small army of ethnic, comedy and jazz (seriously) yodelers whenever true Swiss atmosphere is required. Rossini’s extraordinarily expert contrapuntal development of this tune – so easily ignored in such a well-known piece – is rudely swept aside by the arrival of the Swiss Army in what the composer calls the March of the Swiss Guards. Rossini, not for the first time, is joking; soldiers who attempted to march at that speed would be dead in five minutes. It’s not a march, but a galop – a frenetic, pseudo-military dance that came into fashion in late-1820s Paris.

Andrew Earle Simpson - Buster Keaton's One Week
Program Notes

Andrew Earle Simpson

ONE WEEK
Music to accompany the 1920 silent film

Program note by the composer:

Dear Nephew:

As a wedding present I am giving you a house and lot no. 99 Apple Street.

Wish you joy.

     Uncle Mike

This short note, thrust into Buster Keaton’s hands immediately following his wedding at the start of the 1920 comedy ONE WEEK, sets up all of the action which follows. Buster needs seven days to build his new house, aided only by the tools he has on hand and the help of an unsympathetic handyman (who was, incidentally, turned down by the woman who is now Keaton’s wife). This potential powder keg of problems blows up – gradually – in surprising and wonderful ways.

Part of what makes ONE WEEK, or any Keaton film, so entertaining is Keaton’s comedic style: it’s full-blown slapstick stunt comedy, and Keaton does all the stunts himself. You’ll see him really fall from a second-story perch, really stand still while the side of a house falls down around him: no computer animation, no stunt doubles. The real thing. And, no matter what happens, Keaton neither weeps, laughs or smiles. He reacts to all which comes his way, good or ill, with the same stoic face: no wonder he was nicknamed “the great stoneface” in the 1920’s.

My purpose in composing this full orchestral film score is to help ONE WEEK tell its story by blending the music as seamlessly as possible with the film. Mine is an entirely original score, carefully designed to track the action of each scene. Sometimes, as you will hear, events on screen are exactly matched by the orchestra; sometimes, the music flows in support of the general mood of the scene. The style of the music is mostly bright and light, in keeping with the film’s mostly happy (though sometimes slightly sour!) nature.

ONE WEEK is a comedy, and a good one. If you find it funny, please laugh! Don’t worry about covering the sound of the music. Laughter is, after all, the most important addition to a comic score.

Maestro Love, in conducting this premiere, also takes on a special challenge by working without a click track. He must coordinate the orchestra’s tempi to match the speed of the film exactly. Since live musicians always play with some tempo variation, and since film does not vary, you can imagine how tricky this can be!

Finally, I would like to thank the Columbia Orchestra for commissioning the score and making this premiere possible, and hope that you will enjoy this 22-minute ride.

--Andrew Earle Simpson

About the Concert

If you like music with a cinematic flair, this is the concert for you! Catholic University Composer Andrew Earle Simpson will be on hand as we give the world premiere of the work we commissioned from him: a score for the 1920 silent film, One Week, starring Buster Keaton. Rossini and Mussorgsky offer two vivid musical stories, while Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite takes us on a journey through America’s most picturesque landscape.

Join us for the pre-concert lecture with Bill Scanlan Murphy and Andrew Earle Simpson at 6:30pm!

SOLD OUT! Online ticket sales are now closed for Cinematic Inspirations on January 31, 2015. A few limited tickets (mostly single seats, back of the balcony, or front row) will be available on a first-come, first-served basis at the Jim Rouse Theatre box office on Saturday night starting at 6:00pm.