MORTON GOULD TALKS TO THE MHS REVIEW
The MHS Review 385, Vol. 11 No. 7, 1987
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Morton Gould through MHS staff
"When I look back on my career, I get very tired in retrospect. It's a good thing I wasn't aware of all the things I was doing when I was doing them."
We all have dreams of glory, and when I was very young I wanted to be, oddly enough, a railroad engineer. Though I fantasized about driving steam locomotives, in reality I was a musical prodigy. My family lived in Richmond Hill, Long Island, just outside of New York City. They were middle-class poor. My parents liked music, but there's no musical ancestry in my family. I had my first composition, a waltz, published when I was just six. It was titled "Just Six." In the early '20s, growing up a prodigy was hazardous to your heaIth. If you were a boy, you were not supposed to play the piano--this was looked upon with great suspicion. And I was getting publicity at that time-articles and pictures in the paper about the prodigy--and the teachers saying he's oh so smart in school; well, that's all I needed. The only way I survived was to develop a posture that made me sound tougher than anybody else. To this day, if I get hassled in a certain way (such as not starting fast enough when the light changes when I'm driving) I have to be careful or all this juvenile macho pours out of me and I can really sound like what I'm not.
I had a scholarship to the pre-Juilliard Institute of Musical Art in New York at age eight, but I only lasted there a year or two. I was desperate to be taught composition but they wouldn't do it, saying I was too young. It was a very Germanic kind of set-up. I'd travel from Richmond Hill to the Institute in upper Manhattan, changing from train to elevated to subway, back and forth, by myself. Can you imagine letting an eight year-old do that today? I also studied piano privately with Abby Whiteside and composition with Dr. Vincent Jones. I was 12 or 13 when I started with Abby Whiteside. She was quite a very unique teacher, there was a mystique attached to her, and she was very important to my development. I continued to coach with her for many years.
Although my training was classical, I began to do commercial work in my adolescence because of tremendous economic pressure. I was the oldest son and somebody had to support my family, and I was it, so I had to go up on the barricades, as I put it, at a relatiavely early age. Among other things I was part of a two-piano team that broadcast and played at the tail end of vaudeville. When I was 16 or 17 somebody got me to Fritz Reiner--I was interested in conducting too--and he tried to arrange to get me into the Curtis Institute of Music. I had to reply, "Thank you very much but I can't comply because I have to go out and earn a living." (Not too long ago I was shown that actual letter and I must confess I felt like l was reading a corny script.)
So, at a time when ordinarily the route would have been to go to college and from there to Europe, I guess, to study with Boulanger, l was off and running--I had to be. I got into radio, and spent many years with a large orchestra making arrangements for radio programs. Along the same time I was guest conducting and composing not only lighter works--many of which I did for my radio programs--but my symphonic works started to get performed by conductors such as Stokowski, Reiner, Mitropoulos, etc. I also began to get commissions.
But I always felt a sense of imbalance-if Stokowski and the Philadelphia did a work of mine in the Academy of Music there was an audience of-what? 1,800 people or so-but when I broadcast my arrangement of "Dark Eyes," that went out to millions of people. I think in that sense my career has certainly been different because I had all these areas in which I was functioning, in many cases simultaneously--as a conductor, pianist, arranger, recording artist, and composer. I have conducted and recorded a wide variety of music, from popular to symphonic. I have composed ballets with and for Jerome Robbins, Agnes deMille, Balanchine, Eliot Feld, movie and TV scores, and symphonic works. I have been on the board of ASCAP for well over 25 years, and have served also on other boards and panels, such as the American Symphony Orchestra League and the National Endowment for the Arts. Now, as President of ASCAP, I have a tremendously responsible job that doesn't leave too much time for composing; but I do have several projects in the works, and I carry a sketchbook with me. I have in mind a piano concerto and a violin concerto, and many other projects.
When I look back on my career, I get very tired in retrospect. It's a good thing I wasn't aware of all the things I was doing when I was doing them. But all these activities don't prove anything because one can do a million things and do them badly. Nicolas Slonimsky has described me as ''an ambidextrous composer of serious and popular music'' - -a funny designation--but I would rather have written the B minor Mass.
I've already said more about my music than I believe in saying--music is its own language. It really doesn't make a difference what I say, but it does make a difference what I sound. That's where it's at--once it leaves my insides and goes through the transference to calligraphy of notes on paper, then really I'm done with it--it's out of my hands. It's very nice to get applause, to get recognition, we all want that, but to me the great joy, the pleasure is the act of creating, of writing, whether it's good or bad. It is a kind of sensuous pleasure, at two or three in the morning, if you're really rolling, and maybe it's garbage, but you don't think it is at that point--that strange euphoria, where you feel that you've got it, that this is what you want to say, this is what you want to be sounding--that's what it's all about. Everything else after that is nice, the premiere, the receptions, and, hopefully, people liking it, but it's the creative act that is what people like me are about.
Truthfully, I really spend no time (or haven't so far) thinking about my place now or in history. I do what I have to do. If I have a commission or a deadline, I do it. No matter what we think of ourselves, we either ''are,'' or we aren't. I think you just go on doing what you're supposed to do. In my case it's making music. The bottom line on everything is, "What do you produce?" That's probably a very mundane way of putting it, but I believe in saying simple things in simple words. "What is the product?" It either is, or it "ain't"; there's nothing you can do about it.
As far as the mechanics are concerned, what I do comes easily. I have no problems with orchestration. I don't work at the piano, so I can compose anywhere. (Whether you compose at a piano or not doesn't prove anything, but for me it's a help because it's convenient and doesn't disturb the neighbors.) The orchestra and large instrumental forces have been my home, my habitat, throughout my career. I've spent all my life looking at 30-or 40-stave score paper and have always thought orchestrally--the music I hear in my head is already orchestrated. I've done relatively little chamber music.
This new Musical Heritage album has certain aspects of my creative thoughts that have not been too exposed. As I get older I am more intrigued with the texture of chamber music of all kinds. One purely practical asset is that just a few staves on the score paper makes me feel almost as if I am not working. Of course thats just a glib remark, because the creative ideas in chamber music are very exposed. You can't escape, you can't run for cover behind a bararage of percussion or big thick orchcstral textures-what you hear is what there is.
The Concerto Concertante is really a septet. I had great pleasure in writing this, in trying to do a work that would have a balance between the solo violin and the woodwinds and piano, which all play important roles. 'Cellos is also in a way a chamber piece, too, because it was written for only eight cellos, although it can be played also by massed cellos divided into eight parts or two quartets. In the slow movement I set myself the objective of composing a movement that would have really very little external motion, but hopefully a very condensed concentration of intensity from the opening bars to the last.
The Pavanne serves as a sort of dessert It was originally written as the second movement of a symphonette, but became a popular standard and has been done in every shape and form, in every possible combination of instruments and arrangements. Here we hear it for woodwind quintet. It's obviously a "lighter" kind of piece. As we know, the French pavane is spelled with only one n, while my movement is spelled with two ns. The reason is that when l wrote it in the '30s, pavane was not a well-known name such as minuet or gavotte. Everybody kept calling it an assortment of names (including my publishers, who called it "Pavoon" ). So I told them, "You better put another n in it, so people won't go around calling it 'Puhvain."' (That was already a relatively sophisticated pronunciation.) It's been published that way since then. I've been waiting these years for some purist to say, ''He doesn't even know how to spell pavane, what's he doing writing one?"
I've traversed a wide musical area and enjoyed all the different parts of this musical estate I've been fortunate enough to walk around in and plant my own kinds of musical vegetation. Some of it is smaller, some of it bigger, but I really have never been hung up about thinking, "Will this be part of history?" I don't mean this in any sense to denigrate creative people who do think about their destiny and immortality. It's just not my style. I've been occupied all my life in doing things, always working under pressures of deadlines, of commitments. I really don't have much time to philosophize. I think all creative people share a certain number of common traits-in a sense, we all within the confines of our talents and natural gifts explore the unknown. A composer hopefully creates sounds that communicate living experience. Music is the greatest fantasy there is. It's its own thing, it's its own language. It's unlike anything else.