photo by Stephen M. Goodman
Amadeus Press has announced the release of Peter W. Goodmans new book, Morton Gould: American Salute. This is the first complete biography of the multi-talented composer. In an interview, Goodman confessed that at the time he started working on this biography, he wasnt all that fond of Goulds music. He had even written a negative review of Burchfield Gallery, which he had heard performed at Goulds seventieth birthday concert.
Upon some urging from his wife, however, Goodman approached the composer about the idea of a biography at the 1993 Van Cliburn Competition, for which Gould had written the required contemporary piece. He started actually interviewing Gould around the time the composer received the Kennedy Center Honors in 1994. Throughout the book, Goodman also draws on interviews he did with a long list of fellow musicians, family, and friends, as well as letters, programs, and other documents. However, Goodman claims that Goulds audio diary, which he started at the age of seventy, was what gave him a “real psychological picture” of the composer.
Goulds long career is interesting partly because it mirrors many of the changes that took place in the American musical community in the twentieth century. Unlike many of his colleagues, Gould never relied on a university position for income, instead functioning as a major player in the commercial arena. He wore many hats: as a young man in the 1920s, he was part of a piano duet that played the vaudeville circuit, by that time in a period of sad decline.
He worked as a pianist at Radio City Music Hall and was employed as composer, pianist, and conductor during the early days of radio. He started out as a “fill-in” pianist at NBC, playing anytime the station needed music to fill dead air time. He was then hired by WOR to conduct their orchestra in a sustaining program once a week. “Some of his most famous music was written for the confines of radio,” Goodman notes, pieces like the American Symphonettes 1 and 2, and the American Concertette for Piano, which Jerome Robbins later turned into Interplay. In the 1940s, Gould finally got a commercial sponsor, Cresta Blanca Winery, and the Cresta Blanca Hour was aired first by WOR and then by CBS. Many of the guests on the show sang or played Goulds own arrangements. The show ended in 1946 when Gould “walked out” of CBS, afraid that the network was going to “dump him” for Kostelanetz, recently returned from the Army.
Gould worked for the movies, appearing as himself in the B-film Delightfully Dangerous; and he wrote the music for many Broadway shows, such as Billion Dollar Baby and Arms and the Girl. He also wrote for dance, collaborating with the great choreographer Agnes De Mille on Fall River Legend. Late in his career, Gould became a spokesperson for composers of both commercial and non-commercial music, functioning as President of ASCAP from 1986 until 1994.
Of course, Gould composed concert music throughout his career. Many of his compositions have entered the standard symphonic repertoire, and more than one hundred of his recordings were bestsellers in their day. Goulds reputation among “serious” classical musicians has fluctuated, however, a fact that plagued the composer for much of his life. To begin with, there was his “unconventional training.” “Morton was proud of the fact that he didnt have a European education, and he was also very insecure about it,” Goodman relates. He also made money writing music for a popular audience, an activity that Goodman claims he tried to “not do too well” so as not to jeopardize his career as a classical composer.
Particularly painful for Gould, Goodman recounts, was his “banishment” from the New York Philharmonic in the late 1950s. “In the 1940s,” Goodman explained, “orchestras were looking for American composers. Gould was a ‘pure American composer, and he also had a fairly well-known name.” When Dimitri Mitropoulous took over at the Philharmonic in 1949, he commissioned a “string of pieces” from Gould, programming at least a piece a season. “The pieces were not well-received, in general,” explains Goodman; he thinks this was because Gould made public his disdain for the “highbrow scene” populated by many composers and critics. Later, Mitropoulos habit of programming Goulds music was used “as a club” by the musical press to clear the way for Bernstein. When Mitropoulos finally left, “Morton disappeared.” Why? According to Goodman, because Bernstein couldnt “brook a rival.” “They hoed the same row, and Bernstein was a much better fighter.” This “exile” extended even into the Mehta years: Goulds name was conspicuously missing from the 1982 essay “Contemporary Music and the New York Philharmonic” included in the program booklet for the Philharmonics ten thousandth concert.
Later in life, however, Gould received some proper recognition from the classical music community; in 1994, he was named Musical America‘s Composer of the Year, and received the Kennedy Center honors; and in 1995 he finally won the Pulitzer Prize, for his Stringmusic. Goodman worries, however, that unless Goulds music undergoes a major revival in the near future, he will be all but lost to subsequent generations of musicians. He tells the story of a young composer whose work Goodman heard at a concert at SUNY New Paltz a few years ago. The composers piece, which had just won an award, shared the program with Goulds Foster Gallery. This was the first piece of Goulds that the young man had ever heard, and he admitted to Goodman that he was “knocked out by the orchestration.” Goodman hopes that recordings, such as those about to be released on the Albany label, will allow not only composers, but also conductors, to hear Goulds work. This music, Goodman stresses, is in need of a “powerful champion.”
Goodman has written a book that reads like a novel; his journalistic style is a tremendously helpful in bringing to life not only an important figure from the American musical past, but also an entire era. It is unfortunate that Goulds two failed marriages contribute to the pull of the drama; but many of Goulds letters to his wives are steamy enough to merit inclusion in an entirely different genre of literature. In addition, through his substantial research, Goodman has provided the reader with a wonderful opportunity for “virtual people-watching:” the book abounds with anecdotes concerning everyone from George Gershwin to George Balanchine. This is not to say that Goodman neglects the purely musical side of Goulds life. Goodman provides detailed descriptions of many of Goulds compositions, mostly in “program-notes” style, but not so general as to bore the trained musician.