Although not as famous as Copland or Bernstein, Morton Gould is among
the eminent American composers of the 20th century.
He was immensely popular during his lifetime, at least for his
appearances on radio shows and his light music. Ironically,
his great popularity nearly cost him his chance at writing his
greatest work. He wasn’t widely considered to be a composer
of serious literature, when Agnes DeMille was looking for a
composer for her ballet based on the story of Lizzie Borden.
She was eventually convinced to give Gould a chance to write
Fall River Legend by the conductor Max Goberman, who
knew of Gould’s more serious work. The resulting piece was a
nearly-one hour long ballet that forms the core of this disc.
This is a somewhat different experience from the one normally encountered
when one finds Fall River Legend, assuming that one can
find a recording of Fall River Legend at all. Normally
the work is reduced in length to a concert suite containing
about half of the material composed for the ballet. Here the
entire story of Lizzie Borden, the (in)famous alleged murderess
who “took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks” is told,
largely in flash-back. Historically Lizzie Borden was acquitted,
though that didn’t seem to deter either Gould or DeMille from
pronouncing their own judgement.
Straying from the story of the historical Lizzie, the work opens with
a narrator convicting Lizzie to be hung for her crimes. The
ballet then consists of Lizzie’s life flashing before her eyes
as she is hanged. Neither the murders nor the hanging are explicitly
shown in the ballet, so this could be considered a justifiable
poetic license, an alternate history or a nightmare Lizzie would
have had before the sentencing. Regardless, the reason that
Gould himself used was that it was much easier to write “hanging
music” than “acquittal music”, and that she was probably guilty
After the sentencing Lizzie is taken to the gallows, where she sees
in flashback her happy childhood. This is interrupted by her
mother’s death and her father’s subsequent remarriage. She becomes
forlorn as her father prefers the company of his new wife to
his daughter. The stepmother, in true evil-stepmother fashion,
starts spreading rumors that Lizzie has a mental condition.
Then Lizzie tries to supplant her father with a supportive relationship
with the local pastor. At that point, the parents order her
back into the house, where she finds the axe…
She is then invited to a church social by the pastor where she decides
to murder her parents after her return home. They are then shown
cringing in terror as she approaches with her axe, and the stage
falls black. This is followed by a mob sequence where the townspeople
rip apart the home and erect a gallows among the ruins, returning
us to the point at which the ballet began. Finally she is left
alone on the gallows, and we have the recapitulation of the
brutal orchestral theme that began the work. A final ominous
timpani roll ends the work as Lizzie faces death.
All of this is orchestrated with something akin to a dark version of
Aaron Copland’s Rodeo ballet suite or Appalachian
Spring. The music is certainly written with themes that
resemble American folk music, though the melodies and hymns
that are “quoted” are all original, directly from Gould’s mind
and pen. The use of brass and strings sounds distinctly American,
cut from the same cloth as Copland and Bernstein. Indeed, anyone
that considers themselves a fan of these composers would surely
enjoy Fall River Legend.
The other work here is Jekyll and Hyde Variations written in
1957 for the New York Philharmonic. It was conceived as a serious
work in the mid-1950s, which meant that it was practically required
to be based on a tone-row. This is not a strictly serial work
however, and does a nice job of bridging the gap between the
works of the strict serialists and the neo-classicists. Gould
considered it among his better works, though it is rarely heard
The opening movement is a simple statement of the theme with traditional
harmonization. What follows is a collection of twelve variations
of varying character, growing darker with each succession. Finally
the thirteenth serves as a finale, coming close to the contemplative
nature of the initial theme. The majority of the piece is derived
from a musical sensibility much closer to Debussy than Schoenberg.
The orchestration and general feel of the work owes much to
L'après-midi d'un faune,
though beginning with the 6th variation, one begins
to hear the influence of Stravinsky as well.
The recording is quite well done. The Nashville Symphony does a fine
job of recording undervalued work by a perhaps undervalued composer.
The result is an opportunity to explore a truly fine recording
that would not normally be exposed. Both pieces are rendered
lovingly, and in their entirety. As the Nashville Symphony is
still in the “up and coming” category, this is certainly a good
way to gain notice and notoriety. After all, the world probably
doesn’t need another recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony
or Stravinsky’s Firebird by a symphony of mostly-regional
celebrity. Alternatively, bringing to light truly lovely works
by lesser known composers does much for both the music and the
orchestra. There is a chance here for this CD to become the
definitive recording of these works. There certainly is no reason
that this would cause any consternation. The music is well recorded
and the performances well done.
This is in its totality a very good album of works that are not “old
chestnuts”. In this reviewer’s opinion, that is a plus. It certainly
is worth your listening time.