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His Symphony No. 5½ has been popular for years, but he also wrote a lot more hugely enjoyable works. Music lovers are in for some very pleasant surprises ….



Conducted by DON GILLIS

SYMPHONY NO. 5½ [A Symphony For Fun]

a] Perpetual Emotion
b] Spiritual?
c] Scherzofrenia
d] Conclusion!



a] The Vision
b] The People
c] The Dedication
d] The Fulfilment


a] Chamber of Commerce
b] Where the West Begins
c] Ranch House Party
d] Prairie Sunset
e] Main Street - Saturday Night



Vocalion CDLK4163

Anyone who can compose a piece of music called "Symphony No. 5½" is almost demanding not to be taken too seriously, yet for half a century the privileged music lovers who discovered this vibrant work in the early days of the long-playing record have wondered what other treasures remain undiscovered.

Don Gillis himself conducted this work in 1950 for Decca at London’s Kingsway Hall, thereby bringing him to the attention of British admirers of bright, modern orchestral sounds. In his native USA, Gillis was already known through his work on radio, notably with Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony. The fact that his talents were subsequently largely ignored by the record industry is more an indictment of blinkered attitudes towards new works, with their uncertain sales potential, rather than an objective criticism of his composing abilities.

Don E. Gillis was born in Cameron, Missouri on 16 June 1912. As a boy he studied both trumpet and trombone, and his enthusiasm and expertise gained him acceptance into his local Rotary Club band and, naturally, his school orchestra. While still at school he formed a jazz band, playing his own arrangements as well as original works he composed himself.

When Don was 17 his basic schooling was complete, and the Gillis family moved to Forth Worth, Texas. In 1931 he enrolled in Texas Christian University as a scholarship trombone player, and studied composition with Keith Mixson. He appears to have made an immediate impact, becoming student director of the University’s popular Horned Frog Band during his junior year. Four years later he graduated with both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, before going on to advanced studies in composition and orchestration with Roy T. Wills and Wilfred Bain at North Texas State University in Denton.

For two years he worked as staff arranger and producer for a local Fort Worth radio station WBAP, then moved on to Chicago to become a member of the production team for NBC’s affiliate. Presumably his radio work allowed him some spare time, because he continued his association with Texas Christian University where he taught trombone and became the University’s band director, a post he held from 1935 until 1942. The academic life must have attracted him: in 1944 he graduated from North Texas State University with another Master’s degree, and he also studied at Louisiana State and Columbia Universities. In 1948 the degree of Doctor of Music was conferred upon him by Texas Christian University.

Don Gillis had also been bitten by the composing bug, and around 1937 the first of his numerous works (over 200 in total) began to appear and, more importantly, get published and performed. One of the first, The Crucifixion – a cantata for narrator, soloists, chorus and orchestra reflected the Christian influence of his years at university. But soon he became noticed for the wit and American humour in many of his works, early examples being The Woolyworm (for narrator and orchestra), and Thoughts Provoked on Becoming a Prospective Papa. Clearly catchy titles also appealed to him, such as his January February March – a delightful concert piece, vibrant with energy, with the theme passing several times between the brass and the woodwinds; it appears briefly in The Man Who Invented Music.

Asked about his early influences, he recalled that in his youth "the band, the square dance, the hymn tune and early jazz were very much part of my environment … I am fundamentally a melodist … I have not embraced any particular school of writing but have been influenced orchestrally by R. Strauss, Sibelius, and Debussy … My greatest enjoyment in composition is writing for the stage."

His work at NBC in Chicago had been noticed, and in 1944 they brought him to New York to serve as chief producer and writer for the prestigious NBC Symphony Orchestra concerts. He was also required to play trombone, compose, arrange and provide scripts for music and drama programmes originating from New York City. This involved working with the legendary Arturo Toscanini, with whom he developed a close personal friendship. Gillis remained in this capacity until NBC disbanded the orchestra in 1954.

But the musicians were unhappy with NBC’s actions. They wanted to keep the orchestra alive, and Don Gillis headed a musicians’ committee which re-organised the orchestra which eventually reappeared as the Symphony of the Air. Unable to attract a permanent musical director, the orchestra finally disappeared from the musical scene in 1962.

Possibly due to his academic background, during his later years Don Gillis became involved in various administrative positions in the music world, thus allowing him to pursue his strong interest in music education in mixed media. From 1958 to 1961 he served as vice-president of the Interlochen Music Camp in Michigan, which at that time was still being managed by its founder Joseph Maddy. He became chairman of the music department at Southern Methodist University in 1967/68, then he accepted a similar post heading the fine arts department at Dallas Baptist College from 1968 to 1972.

In 1973 he was appointed Director of the Center for Media Arts Studies and composer-in-residence at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, remaining in this post until his sudden death from a heart attack on 10 January 1978, at the age of 65.

Don Gillis once wrote: "I think it is unimportant for a composer to wonder about what posterity thinks of him. It is more important that he be faithful to his own beliefs in music. He must be the final critic, and he must write what is his own, regardless of current trends or popularity. If his music reflects folk quality, it must be because it is a natural thing, not a contrived use of folk material merely to be ‘American’. Honesty, above all things, is the important ingredient a composer needs."

Undoubtedly the music of Don Gillis exhibits the vitality so often associated with the growth of the great nation into which he was born. Stuart Triff described him accurately as a person who "wrote ‘feel good’ music to make people happy. For this uniquely American composer, every night was a Saturday night hoedown!"

Following his death, Don Gillis’s widow Barbara made a major donation of his archives and memorabilia to the North Texas Music Library. Researchers can now study his manuscripts and copies of his works, an unpublished autobiography, pictures and scrapbooks. The archive also includes a complete set of tapes from the radio series Toscanini: The Man Behind the Legend, a sincere tribute to the ‘Maestro’ which Gillis compiled in 1967.

Apart from the works included on this CD, the compositions of Don Gillis represent a major contribution to the musical culture of his country. It is to be hoped that, one day, some more of his symphonies (he wrote twelve, although two were unnumbered) will attract new performers, who may also be drawn to other orchestral works such as The Panhandle Suite (1937), Intermission – 10 minutes (1940), Prairie Poem (1943), Short Overture to an Unwritten Opera (1944), To an Unknown Soldier (1945), Rhapsody for Harp and Orchestra (1946), Tulsa – a Symphonic Portrait in Oil (1950), Dude Ranch (1967) and maybe his two piano concertos. There are also several operas, pieces for bands, chamber music and a vast body of choral works.

Symphony No. 5½ [A Symphony For Fun]

When asked why this work had such an unusual title, Gillis simply replied that he wrote it between his Symphony No. 5 and Symphony No. 6! This folksy humour is certainly borne out in this entertaining work, which must have surprised many listeners on first hearing, who normally associate the word ’symphony’ with something much more serious, and usually far less accessible. You only need to hear the first movement Perpetual Emotion once, to be convinced that music can, indeed, be fun! Gillis composed this, his best-known work in 1946, and it received its premiere performance by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops the following May. It reached a much wider audience through its first radio broadcast on 21 September 1947 by the NBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Arturo Toscanini. It is reported that the great conductor could be heard chuckling or saying "Bravo" during the performance, and even the audience could not resist from tiny bursts of applause between the movements. That performance was recorded on a V-Disc for the Armed Forces Radio Service, but never released commercially. Three years later the composer himself was brought to London to conduct this work (and others on this CD) at the acoustically excellent Kingsway Hall, with the New Symphony Orchestra of London, an ensemble used regularly by Decca at that time, comprising many of the top players drawn from the capital’s leading symphony orchestras. When asked to describe this work, the composer explained that it was "… based on idiomatic devices found in jazz and other folk sources indigenous to the American musical scene." The result is music in rare good humour which, through its brilliant orchestration and subtle rhythms, has danced its way into amazing popularity.

The Alamo

This evocative tone poem was composed in 1947, and is part of a trilogy on symbols of American freedom. The serene opening soon suggests the dramatic events that were to follow at this fort in Texas, with the melodious pastoral sounds lapsing into darker passages hinting that all is not well. The tension gradually builds, eventually erupting into the full scale conflict between the whites and the Native Americans that has become a part of American history. The composer has cleverly interwoven ‘traditional cowboy music’ with tender passages sometimes reflecting the European composers he admits have influenced him. But such images are quickly dispelled by folksy themes among the turmoil of the battle, with impressive writing for both strings and brass. The tragic aftermath of the battle is finally tempered by a brief return to a ‘western’ theme from the opening, suggesting that good will eventually triumph over evil, but in this instance at a terrible price. Apparently Gillis himself did not intend this to be a descriptive work in the sense of gunfire and battlefield. He said: "It is rather an attempt to portray musically the deep feelings of emotion that arise in the contemplation of the heroism and courage expressed by the defenders of the Alamo as they gave their lives in the defence of freedom." It received its first performance in Texas by the San Antonio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Dr. Max Reiter.

Saga of a Prairie School (Symphony No. 7)

This work was first performed in May 1948 with the composer conducting the Symphony Orchestra of the School of Fine Arts, Texas Christian University. It had been written to celebrate the University’s diamond jubilee anniversary, and is dedicated to the spirit that originally created it. The four movements are played without pause, and follow a spiritual rather than historical approach. The music of The Vision opens with a pastoral theme, reflecting the land … the prayerful willingness of the founding fathers to devote their lives to a cause … their determination and zeal is evidenced in the militant spirit in which they work and play. From the spiritual theme, the entire symphony is built. In the second movement, The People, the music portrays the open heartedness and friendly hospitality of southwestern folk. The Dedication offers a prayer for guidance and strength … of the reason for being … and of the steadfastness of the ideals of the men who make the school. Finally The Fulfilment provides a prayerful tribute to the present glory and future power of the university, incorporating its Alma Mater Hymn. It is not uncommon for parents or friends of pupils to compose special works in recognition of academic institutions. Sometimes the results can be self-indulgent, downright boring or simply painful to endure. But it would be hard to imagine that the Texas Christian University could have been other than delighted with this truly magnificent paean of praise in its honour.

Portrait of a Frontier Town

The ‘town’ in this musical portrait is Fort Worth, Texas. The first movement, Chamber of Commerce, offers a tour of the town (known by its affectionate nickname ‘Cowtown’). But by the mid-20th Century cattle no longer provide the town’s main wealth, with modern industries, skyscrapers, colleges and universities alongside the stockyards and sites of its military history. It is also the home of WBAP, the radio station known throughout the southwest through its familiar cowbell. The people have also changed, with the latest fashions rubbing shoulders with oilmen and ranchers. The second movement is called Where the West begins – the slogan of the city indicating the point where the Eastern USA leaves off and the West commences. Gillis portrays the feel of the wide open spaces, and the prairie lands peacefully existing in a mood of nostalgic contentment. Ranch House Partyreveals the locals in party mood, enjoying traditional square dancing. Don Gillis occasionally interrupts the fiddles with snatches of what he regarded as ‘rhythms of today’, but don’t forget that he composed this work before the nation’s youth adopted rock’n’roll! The fourth movement Prairie Sunset captures that magical time of day when the sky assumes rapidly changing colours of pink, gold and purple, before darkness finally descends. Gillis completes his musical portrait of Fort Worth with Main Street – Saturday Night, but the revels in Cowtown are really no different from any other place on earth where locals like to let their hair down at the end of a long working week.

The Man Who Invented Music

This work for narrator and orchestra was scripted by Claris Ross and Don Gillis, especially for the U.S. Steel NBC Summer Symphony series on radio, and it received its first performance on 22 August 1949 conducted by Antal Dorati. It is based on an original idea by the composer, in which a Grandfather tells a very ‘tall story’ about how he invented music, in order to persuade his young grandchild Wendy to go to sleep. On this recording the narrator is Jack Kilty who, at the time, was a young American musical comedy star who was making a name for himself in the USA in Broadway shows such as "Oklahoma" and "Make Mine Manhattan".

It is perhaps surprising that it was a British record company, Decca (known as London in North America), that offered the American composer Don Gillis the opportunity to conduct definitive recordings of some of his major works. He came to London in mid-career, when his considerable talents had already been recognised, although we now know that he still had a lot of wonderful music to offer the world. These rare recordings are of great historical interest, but more importantly they also provide the listener with some hugely enjoyable music.

Readers who would like to explore more of the music of Don Gillis, are advised of the following CD released in the USA:

DON GILLIS – Music inspired by the American Southwest: Symphony X [The Big D]; Shindig; Encore Concerto; Symphony No. 5½. – Albany Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Alan Miller. Albany TROY391.

David Ades

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