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Morton Gould

By Ned Rorem

When we were adolescents in Chicago, my sister Rosemary and I thought it would be nice to become dancers when we grow up. To this end we choreographed a duet to a Glenn Miller record called Pavane, and performed it for anyone who’d watch. As I stand here, fifty-seven years later, I can still feel that music’s kinetic force; it had everything: contagious rhythm, piquant harmony, seductive scoring, a sense of direction, and, above all, a good tune. Its composer was—according to a minute parenthesis beneath the title on the 10-inch disc—someone named Morton Gould. MOR-TON-GOULD. Those three dark syllables rolled on the tongue like chocolate, but who was the man behind them? How could I know that someday we would become staunch colleagues? You just don’t meet idols—for when you do, they cease being idols and turn into vulnerable flesh, like you and me.

While I was jitterbugging in the Midwest, Morton Gould, ten years my senior, was already at 24, the chief composer and conductor for Manhattan’s station WOR. That was the Golden Age of Radio, and Morton arranged weekly national broadcasts of classical music, including his own. He had already been a professional for ten years as a piano prodigy whose recitals were partly devoted to improvisations on themes given by the audience. By 1943 he had composed the keyboard Concertette which would be transformed by Jerome Robbins two years later as the ballet Interplay. By the decade’s end he had written the Broadway musical Billion Dollar Baby with Comden & Green, the dance drama Fall River Legend with Agnes DeMille, three film scores including Delightfully Dangerous starring Jane Powell, and conducted an all-Ives recording with the Chicago Symphony which won a Grammy.

During the next forty years he would grow ever more prolific, composing for radio, Broadway, ballet, Hollywood movies, documentaries, and television, as well as band, chorus, and orchestra works of every stripe, concocting sounds that were unmistakably American in their use of the Jazz that was his very marrow. Witness the witty Tap Dance Concerto of 1952, and the very recent Rap Concerto. Lots of young Americans speak proprietarily of the new Crossover Music, music which more or less blends pop with classical. Wasn’t this process simply called Third Stream a generation ago? In fact, hasn’t it been around since Gottschalk 150 years ago? By the twenties, it had become serious business, with Carpenter and Copland, Grofe and Blitzstein, when the young Morton Gould emerged from their luminous wake. If Gould lacked the infectious melodiousness of Gershwin or the salubrious vulgarity of Bernstein playing the same game, he was equally immediate, and perhaps more versatile than either. For he was simultaneously active as educator, as conductor, and as official in the tough job of distribution, notably as director of ASCAP where for eight years he kept symphonic music’s head above water, while promoting pop icons in their various guises.

Like the four other artists evoked today, Morton is a leaf fallen from our family tree, and the world’s weight seems sadly lighter. Nor will the leaf ever grow back: every work of art, unlike an automobile or a violin, is unique and irreplaceable. The French movie director, Jean-Pierre Melville, when asked to state his ultimate goal, replied: “To become immortal, and then to die.” The goal has, by definition, been reached by every Academy member in this room. But for Morton the goal is particularly poignant by virtue of his age. Unlike a Sibelius or a Rossini who burned out early, Morton was still fertile as a rabbit when at 77 he joined the Academy, 80 when he received a Kennedy Center Award from Clinton, 81 when only last year he got the Pulitzer Prize for what was the strongest piece of his career, the 30-minute Stringmusic, and 82 when he passed away last March in Orlando, presumably happy, prior to a concert he was to conduct at a 3-day festival honoring his work.

No music, certainly no non-vocal music, can be proved to have literary or visual relevance, and such scores as purport to extra-musical intent usually depict nothing less vague than water or love or funerals. Still, it’s fun to ascribe metabolic natures to composers, like Strauss and Mahler, say, or Ravel and Debussy, as flip sides of the coin of of optimism and pessimism. Morton was decidedly optimist. Even such works as the 1947 ballet on Lizzie Borden, or the 1978 Holocaust Suite, though formidably theatrical, are never morbid. Likewise his personality.

I didn’t know him very well; I was never in his house, nor he in mine. Though if to “know well” deals with intensity rather than frequency, we were intimates. The very tie that now adorns my neck was bestowed by his beloved Claire. He was a good talker. If his music was always, to use his term, in the vernacular, so was the sound of his New York speech. Like many (though not all) good talkers, he was a good listener. It was hard to break off a conversation; like a child not wanting to go to bed, he would prod each ramification of even the simplest idea. For, yes, despite his informed shrewdness in dealing with the complexities of the commercial music world, he was, like all artists, a child, eager, refusing to call it a day. He died in the middle of a sentence.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on November 7, 1996.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters