Mozart biographers insist that the thing goes beyond legend, that such an unusual feat was factual. That may well be the case, because musical genius, similar to that of any other field of endeavor is a spontaneous thing that cannot be rationalized. It is also quite infrequent. There have been very few Mozarts that history could account for. Amazingly, one of them was born in the USA, New York, December 10th, 1913, the son of James Harry Gould (real name Isidor Godfeld, of Bulgaria), who migrated to the USA on May 1910, and who, among other chores oriented to economic survival, used to play fiddle in a Yiddish Theater.
James’ economic survival was seriously marred by great business ideas and horrible execution. He once came up with an idea for an engraved wooden compact to be used as a cigarette or lipstick holder. It would be manufactured in Austria, and upon sample showing it attracted immediate attention, reflecting a huge first order. The problem was that the items were handmade, and to fill the order would have taken years! The deal of course fell through and economic misery continued to hound James, despite which, and with the additional burden of bad health, he managed to marry Frances Arkin, a pretty young woman from a German-Jewish family he had met on the boat from Europe and which he had reconnected with during a visit to recover his health at the N.Y. Catskill Mountains.
James and his wife settled in Queens County, then a scarcely populated New York area of rapid urban development, and it was there that their first three children were born: Morton, December 10th, 1913, Alfred, June 23rd, 1915, and Walter, April 12th, 1917.
Music was not the life of the family then, but it was important to them. James would play the violin and at the household there was a player piano complete with rolls of popular classics such as Light Cavalry Overture, Poet and Peasant Overture, Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C, Chopin’s Polonaises, and other famous classical pieces. It is quite likely that the frequent listening to such music awoke the prodigy in young Morton at the tender age of 4, for in an interview with Roy Hemming in 1985 he said that one day his mother Frances heard the piano being played at the living room (probably somewhat hesitatingly). Puzzled, she went there to investigate and found little Morton playing away with his chubby little fingers, imitating what he had heard from the rolls.
His father James had, however, a different version as to the discovery of his son’s talent. He stated that one day upon return from work he heard a flawed rendition of "Stars and Stripes Forever" being played at the home piano. To his surprise he saw young Morton at the keyboard. The sound was not coming from the roll.
Frances recalls that the family finally seized on the boy’s talent only after an occasion in which James was away on business. Morton, then barely five and depressed by his father’s absence, went over to the piano and played a sad melody of his own. "It was at that moment", she said, "that I realized we had someone quite unusual in the family".
But financial woes seem to besiege the family endlessly, fueled essentially by James’ flawed attempts at doing profitable business. He would gain employment for a while, but then he would quit enthused by some business prospect at hand which eventually wouldn’t work. As a result of some unpaid debts someone came over and removed the piano from the household. Frances was devastated (and probably so was Morton despite his young age). But James was a salesman, and he managed to hustle a piano back into his home, thus avoiding unnecessary interruption in his son’s musical development.
Morton took his first piano lessons in 1919 from Ferdinand Greenwald, a local piano teacher who, apparently, didn’t attach much importance to musical theory. He did not teach his pupils how to read music. But there was no stopping to Morton’s rapidly unfolding talent. Eventually he took classes with a Vienna-trained musical teacher at the Institute of Musical Art, a few years later.
But it was Greenwald who was the one involved in that famous and factual story about Morton’s beginnings as a composer that parallels that of Mozart’s. The boy was scarcely six years old when he came up with what was appropriately titled "Just Six, Waltz Viennese by Morton Gould" transcribed by Greenwald into a score, and the illustrious career of one of the most talent and prolific American classical music composers was launched then and there. Morton refused to feel proud about that accomplishment, calling it "pretty awful, nothing but a sweet little waltz with some schmaltz in it…" Schmaltzy it may have been, but try to imagine a six year old composing a waltz, however menial. It isn’t easy. As a matter of fact it becomes nearly impossible.
It may come as a surprise to readers who have been Morton Gould’s fans as a composer, arranger and purveyor of what is termed Light Orchestral Music, to know that he composed several symphonic concertos, for piano, for violin, for viola, for tuba, etc., plus several symphonettes. He arranged, composed and conducted numerous Tin Pan Alley songs, and had several LP albums masterfully arranged that sold well. But this was not something he was proud of. He saw it as a necessary commercial thing oriented to give him financial income and security, especially considering that he had been appointed the sole provider for his family. James took upon himself to conduct Morton’s career along such lines, and the young man went along with it staying with popular music in radio shows and records despite his strong inclinations to compose and play classical music that could be termed "serious".
The extent to which his father’s guidance interfered with an appropriate perception on the part of American and European music circles about Morton Gould’s talent as a serious classical musician and composer cannot be overestimated. The impression gathered was that because he arranged and played Jerome Kern, Cole Porter and Gershwin songs on the radio he could not possibly be a "serious" musician.
Inevitably, he eventually fell into that well known mistake musicians and critics who call themselves "serious" invariably fall. Light Orchestral Music, arranged and played by a symphonic outfit cannot be considered "serious" music. Oh, no. Only traditional classical music deserves such consideration. I submit that this perception comes from a wrong way of focusing the different styles in music. There is of course what is termed "pop" music. But the term represents a dangerous generalization. What is "pop" (a contraction of "popular") in music? Is it country music, with its simplicity, repetitive sound and musical limitations? Yes, it would fit that description. But then, what about jazz? Is that "serious’ music, in its multiplicity of forms? To some, no, it is not. Too raucous, too syncopated. Well, what about Tin Pan Alley or Broadway songs? No, not exactly. Too simple, most of it is sentimental mush, and too brief. What about when they are arranged for large symphonic orchestra. Well, no. They are too melodic, you see. And those lyrics! Too sentimental. No. That’s only for simple minded people with not enough musical sensitiveness to appreciate Bach, Beethoven, Charles Ives or John Cage. Schönberg and his 12 tone scale? Oh, yes! Stravinsky and his violent atonality? By all means! That is indeed "seriousness" in music.
It is an undisputed fact that in music, perhaps more than in any other field of the arts, with the probable exception of painting, there is a wide variety of tastes. What is it that determines taste in music is difficult to tell. Individual sensitivity, a good ear, good taste, a natural ability to recognize beauty in sound (whatever the source), cultural upbringing, you name it. It is also unquestionably true that there is music that can scarcely qualify as such. A good example of this is a composition by John Cage called "Four Minutes" that constitutes total silence. Mr. Cage comes in while the orchestra sits there waiting for him. He bows, then he stands in front of the symphonic outfit (oh, yes, it has to be symphonic, you see) and doesn’t move a muscle. After four minutes - hence the title - he bows again and leaves. The attendees applaud politely, looking grave and knowledgeable. This, to them is the epitome of "serious" music, it would seem.
And then we have Charles Ives, touted by many critics as a true genius of "serious" music, who got furious at his publisher when the man changed in one of Ives’ scores a note that seemed totally wrong and out of place. "You are trying to make things nice…", he said. "Please don’t… I want it like that: as unmusical as possible…"
Let’s take another example. This time from one of the greater exponents of Rock-and-Roll: Ozzie Osborne, whose presentation included eating live chicken and bats on stage under fiercely loud noise from drums and the distorted wailing of amplified guitars being smashed against the stage floor, with blood spilling generously over the interpreters while a crazed audience of mostly teenagers howls thunderously with pleasure.
Personal tastes aside, I would venture to say that the aforementioned examples have nothing to do with music. They have to do, in the first instance, with the gigantic ego of the late Mr. Cage, and his insatiable appetite to be considered different, therefore special, superior to everyone else. In the second case, two elements concur: a) Mr. Osborne’s appetite for money, and b) a desire to be and get others worked up into a frenzy (hence the prevalence of drugs among rock-and-rollers). But music is nowhere to be heard.
Thus we can now safely, I think, discard the aforementioned examples as "serious" music. The problem is that, at least in the case of rock, they are immensely profitable despite its almost complete lack of musical value, if we are to consider the opinion of reputable musicologists who have carefully analyzed the genre.
What has all of this to do with Morton Gould, you may be asking? It has everything to do with him. By age 20 Gould had developed into an extraordinary musician, with a remarkable ability to compose at classical level as well as lighter pieces when he wished or when commissioned for it. By then his father James as well as the rest of the family got used to the idea that their financial woes could be solved by Morton’s musical career and the financial rewards it was supposed to bring. This turned out to be a misconception. Under James’ direction, Morton’s musical career never really took off.
Commissions were plenty, for festivals, for radio shows, for symphonic works played by famous orchestras, for introduction of his own classical compositions, for ballets, for movies. Most of this output was lauded by his peers and by reputed critics. But the general perception among the public, producers and the musical industry in general of Morton being only a Cole Porter light music man, just a "pop" music arranger, remained with him as a stigma he could never quite remove from his career.
Morton was able to appreciate tunes from Tin Pan Alley and Broadway, composers such as Cole Porter, Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, and other writers of that wonderful period covered by the 20s, the 30s and 40s, where songs were composed which are still being recorded and playednearly 90 years later! But these were not considered "serious" music by the pundits of the time. It is a fact that Chopin, Rachmaninov, Tchaikowsky, Liszt, and even Beethoven, used folk themes in their symphonic works. The "nationalists" that followed, such as Khachaturian, Enescu, Falla, Albeniz, Rodrigo, Grieg, Rimsky-Korsakov, Smetana, Vaughn Williams and others did so too. Should we be inclined to consider their work "not serious" because of it?
It seems to me that this type of snobbery should be recognized for what it is: something valueless, destructive and unfair. Unfortunately, Morton Gould himself was not immune to that stereotype, to the extent that he used to deprecate his own work. He once stated that he did not feel "patronizing" towards popular music when referring to the aforementioned popular songs. The type of music heard on the radio and records during the decades of the 20s, 30s, and 40s were something he enjoyed to some extent, but that he worked with mainly because of its commercial value. His inner conflict developed because of the need to record and play what his father told him to in order to make money versus and his longing to compose and play "progressive" classical music, atonal and otherwise. At age 30 his compositions included shades of jazz elements such as the blues, folk and a tendency to go along with Bernstein, Hanson, Barber, Ives and other American contemporary composers he admired but perceived as competition. And, for some mysterious reason, Gould had serious doubts about his own musical talent, even suffering bouts of depression as a result. He was under contact with Columbia for quite a while, but in 1954 he moved to RCA.
At RCA they had an eye on Kostelanetz and his enormous sales input with Light Orchestral Music, reaching over 53 million by the early 50s for Columbia, and they wanted something similar. Gould had radio contracts where he had been presenting popular tunes arranged for orchestras including large string sections, hence RCA felt Morton was their chance to attain similar success. But they encountered a problem. Gould’s musical concept was entirely different from that of Kostelanetz. He once stated: "I cannot just play the melody straight. I state the theme, and then go somewhere else". That may have been musically interesting and correct, but it was not popular. Percy Faith and Jackie Gleason had undoubtedly the greatest measure of popularity then and in the years that followed, plus the greatest sales numbers with Light Music essentially because they played the melodies absolutely straight, something quite uninteresting for the better educated ears. But an educated ear is not to be found at popular levels. Hence the continual battle between producers and musicians. Musicians like Gould wanted to record interesting music. But that didn’t sell. Uninteresting music played by large orchestras did sell by the millions, and Morton had to comply. Still he managed to always inject interesting concepts in his arrangements of popular tunes, special sonorities and colours, sounds that made it possible to quickly identify The Morton Gould Orchestra, as it was labeled.
By the mid 60s and on, some of the surviving arrangers from the 40s and 50s with famous orchestras were being asked to play rock! That was an enormous absurdity, but the music business is crammed with people who don’t care about music but care very much about money! Gleason was a businessman who had violent disputes with his arrangers when they wrote some interesting phrase in a score. He forced them to write what people liked. "Stick with the melody!...", was the order, and he sold millions of LPs world wide. But for true musicians, interested in good music and new, interesting musical ideas, the situation was sheer torment, and the era of Light Orchestral Music came to an end by the mid sixties as a result.
Morton was a complex man. The dichotomies present in his character could be puzzling. He was essentially a shy man, quiet and unassuming, who could go into a fit of rage that sometimes terrified his immediate family. The possessor of a strong libido, he was what someone would euphemistically term "a ladies man". Physically he wouldn’t have conformed anything resembling masculine beauty, far from it. He had an unusual, long, pear shaped face, a receding chin and too ample a forehead. But he could whisper into the ear of a woman such poetic, sweet words, he became quite successful at the art of seduction. He was extremely eloquent, both orally and in writing. But, as he himself insisted, he had only two true loves in his life, and both were named Shirley.
The first one was Shirley Uzin whom he fell in love with at Richmond Hill High School "physically, intellectually and in every conceivable way", he stated. He felt she was his twin soul, a part of him that had been missing all his life. She was an intelligent, well read and cultured young woman who appreciated good music, "with none of those ridiculous feminine inanities most girls have concerning sexuality, therefore she is regarded as abnormal, immoral and God knows what", he wrote to Abby Whiteside, one of his first teachers and a dear friend. The marriage took place in 1936, but it was doomed to disaster. Shirley was an intensely independent woman, not in the least interested in being a housewife or taking care of a husband. She was politically inclined, and she is said to have been a member of the American Communist Party, which eventually caused Morton to be investigated by the infamous U.S. Congressional Committee for the Investigation Un-American Activities during the 50s, with no consequences.
Morton was not much of a householder either. One morning Shirley prepared some rice for Morton’s lunch in a square Pyrex container, telling him: "Just take the rice the way it is, put it in a pan, and light the stove. Once warm, put it in a plate. Don’t do anything else". When Morton got hungry, he went into the kitchen and followed directions placing the dish into the pan, lit the stove and ambled back to work. "Suddenly there was this horrible explosion", he says, "and I didn’t know what had happened. The kitchen looked like a World War I battlefield…" To this day, those sitting in that kitchen and looking at the ceiling will be baffled by those poke marks in it. Little would they suspect they were caused by rice!
On another occasion he decided to warm up a frozen food item and placed it in a pot with hot water without removing it from the box. The reader may now gather an idea of Morton’s culinary abilities.
Interested more in her politics and in her independent ways, Shirley did nothing to save the marriage, and Morton, still quite young, had no way of dealing effectively with the situation. To his dismay, divorce became inevitable.
After a few years and a number of affairs he said to be meaningless, around his 30th birthday Morton started to date vivacious and pretty Shirley Bank, youngest child of an affluent Jewish family from Minneapolis. Somehow now free from his fixation with Shirley Uzin, Morton fell in love head over heels with his new Shirley, who held a degree in English and Spanish from the University of Minnesota and lived part of the year in New York. They met on a blind date in 1943, and embarked in a peculiarly intense love relationship. She was sweet and innocent, and seemingly only interested in him. They were married on June 3rd. 1944 and had four children.
Shirley Bank was not interested in music at first, but she eventually came to like and admire her husband’s work and offer him every support. She was seven years younger than him. Still, as years went by, a feature in his character increasingly started to annoy her and ended driving a deep wedge between them that ended in divorce as well: he became tighter and tighter with money concerning her and the household, and she intensely resented that. Independent and determined, she came to regard him as a nuisance, and the final rupture was inevitable after a good number of years.
Meanwhile, Morton’s musical career flourished inevitably. He composed the now famous American Symphonettes and Concertettes, short symphonic works where he tried to state an American classical musical language with jazz and folk music overtones masterfully blended into his symphonic structures. Fritz Reiner, of the Chicago Symphony, admired his classical works and so did Dimitri Mitropoulos, renowned classical conductors at the time, who continually played his music. He gave piano recitals, was with the New York Philharmonic as guest conductor on several occasions, and conducted the Chicago Symphony and several other Symphonic Orchestras all over the world featuring his own works together with other classic repertoire. Among his works we should mentionAmerican Salute, American Ballads, Classic Variations on Colonial Themes, Spirituals for Orchestra, Cowboy Rhapsody, Latin American Symphonette, Minute Rag Waltz, Stringmusic, and countless other symphonic works. He wrote the music for the ballets Fall River Legend, Arms and a Girl (a Musical) and Clarinade. His was the music for Holocaust, the well known TV Miniseries. He collected 7 Grammies as a result of his enormous talent and output. In 1994 he was awarded the Kennedy Center Honors, and in 1995 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his composition Stringmusic.
Of his Light Music LPs, three stand out as extraordinary examples of light music turned into real symphonic pieces, all recorded in the 50s: "Memories", featuring songs from the 20s, wherein he manages to get the whole orchestra to swing, not an easy feat. "Kern and Porter Favorites" and "Beyond the Blue Horizon" came later in arrangements with a lovely rhapsodic style. Upon careful listening to his arrangements of these songs for orchestra, one concludes that it is impossible to arrange them better. It’s not only the technical virtuosity, the imagination to improvise with lovely variations on the themes, the colours he injected or the good taste in sound he displayed. It is also the emotion he conveyed without any sort of cheap sentimentality or mush. My friend Frank Bristow once told me he had tears in his eyes listening to Gould’s arrangement of Time on my Hands. Those songs, great as they are, never reach your heart as deeply as they do when arranged and played by Morton Gould.
The 70s were a painful period for Gould. Light Music had practically disappeared from radio and recordings, commissions started to falter as well, and the financial arrangements concerning his divorce from Shirley Bank left him in a precarious financial position. But then something happened that saved the situation. He was appointed president of ASCAP the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, with a six figure salary. At the time ASCAP was said to be a veritable snake pit besieged by internal conflicts, with two prominent Board members vying for power who apparently felt that they needed a president with no guts to continue their maneuverings unabated. Morton, then aged 72 and of gentle demeanor, appeared as someone they could easily override. Theirs was an unfortunate miscalculation. Behind the gentle façade there was a steely determination, a penetrating intelligence and a huge deal of experience in the music business now displayed by the new president. After a while the executive troublemakers were removed from the organization, now out of danger when facing the competition from BMI that was threatening its extinction. Gould presided 8 years over ASCAP, the best presidency it ever had, while in the meantime composing and conducting symphonic orchestras all over. He never stopped. "Composing is my life", he once stated, "If I stop, I’ll have no life".
Morton Gould died on February 21st, 1996, aged 82. He had been invited to play his music at a concert hall in Disney World, in Orlando, Florida. Those who knew him well observed he seemed weaker than usual that day, and he complained of not feeling very well. Yet, he went through rehearsals with the orchestra, looking frail and somewhat stiff, but he signed autographs and chatted with those present. The following morning, his daughter Deborah noticed he was late in rising, heArd a noise and looked into his room. He was on the floor, leaning against one side of the bed. An artery had ruptured near his heart, and he was gone.
He was a prodigy, indeed, an unquestionable but never quite appreciated American musical genius, one that only time will reveal in his true stature, as is often the case with great artists.
During his final years Morton Gould was a member of The Robert Farnon Society.
This article originally appeared in the December 2009 issue of ‘Journal Into Melody’.