Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite remains one of the most popular of American orchestral pieces. He first wrote it for Paul Whiteman’s jazz band and devoted his entire career to popular music.
Classical music critics long scorned popular music. Throughout the 20th century, most standard classical music reference works ignored popular music figures as much as possible.
The 1980 edition of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, for example, has no article on Grofé, although it devotes ample space to some of his contemporaries who never composed anything as successful as the Grand Canyon Suite.
The few available online biographies have conflicting information. Fortunately, the second edition of Grove has an authoritative article. It points out their mistakes.
Early life of Ferde Grofé
Ferdinand Rudolf Grofé was born in New York in 1892. His father Emil von Grofé was an actor and singer of light opera.
His mother, Elsa Bierlich Grofé, was a professional cellist. Her father Bernard Bierlich played cello in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Her brother Julius was concert master of the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra.
Shortly after Ferde’s birth, the family moved to Los Angeles, where the elder Bierlich joined his son as principal cellist in the orchestra.
Emil died in 1899. Elsa took young Ferde to Leipzig so she could study music there for three years. Ferde also studied music, with Otto Leonhardt.
Back in Los Angeles, Ferde learned music quickly and enjoyed learning to play various band instruments, but had little interest in studies. He dropped out of school and left home when he was 14 and took a succession of unskilled jobs.
Grofé began playing music professionally the following year, mostly piano and violin, but also alto horn in brass bands. He also began to write songs and received a commission from the Elks to write a song for their convention in 1909.
Also in 1909, he joined his uncle and grandfather in the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra, where he remained for ten years. He also played on film sets and in vaudeville houses, cabarets, etc. all over the American Southwest.
During that time, Grofé became pianist and arranger first for Art Guerin, leader of one of the earliest jazz bands in Los Angeles, and then for Art Hickman. He first met Paul Whiteman in 1917. Whiteman hired him as arranger and pianist in 1920.
His first arrangement for the band, “Whispering,” became one of the first jazz hits. The record sold a million copies and reached number one on the charts.
George Gershwin sent Rhapsody in Blue to Whiteman as a piano score in 1924. Whitman asked Grofé to arrange it. It made both composer and arranger nationally famous.
Later Grofé prepared the version for full orchestra that’s best known today.
The success of Rhapsody in Blue gave Whiteman a hunger for more works of symphonic jazz.
It also gave Grofé the urge to try his hand at larger forms. He composed the Mississippi Suite (1925), Metropolis (1928), and the Grand Canyon Suite (1931).
Grofé was the first jazz arranger to use European orchestral techniques. Before his arrangements became well known, many Americans looked down on jazz as vulgar entertainment. Grofé’s skill and imagination as arranger helped make Whiteman’s band the most successful and respected jazz band in the country.
After he broke with Whiteman in 1932, Grofé became conductor of the Capitol Theater Orchestra and chief arranger for Radio City Music Hall. Over the next decade, he toured extensively, guest conducted various bands and orchestras.
Throughout the 1940s and into the 1950s he composed many film scores. One of them, Minstrel Man, was nominated for an Oscar in 1944. He influenced radio arranging and film scoring as profoundly as he had influenced jazz bands. He joined the American Bandmasters’ Association in 1935 and wrote prolifically for concert band.
In 1955, he started conducting again and composed three more major symphonic suites. His last work, the World’s Fair Suite, became the official suite of the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. He died in 1972.
None of Grofé’s later music came close to the success of Grand Canyon Suite. Perhaps the public considered his style out of date. Some orchestras dusted off some of these forgotten pieces beginning in the late 20th century.
The Grand Canyon Suite
Critics often criticize Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue for having too many themes. Grofé used very few in the Grand Canyon Suite, which he first titled Five Pictures of the Grand Canyon. The work depends more on imaginative orchestral effects and imitations of natural sounds than thematic structure.
Grofé visited the Grand Canyon in 1916 and watched a sunrise. Forty years later, in a radio interview, he said
I first saw the dawn because we got there the night before and camped. I was spellbound in the silence, you know, because as it got lighter and brighter then you could hear the birds chirping and nature coming to life. All of a sudden, bingo! There it was, the sun. I couldn’t hardly describe it in words because words would be inadequate.
Many composers have depicted the sunrise. They commonly include a series of constantly rising scales.
Grofé’s sunrise is not just any sunrise, but one in a specific and spectacular place. It begins with a timpani roll, followed by a sustained cord in the upper strings.
The clarinets play a rising scale pattern and the trumpets begin to chirp like crickets.
The real theme begins in the piccolo as a bird call. Little by little, other instruments join and expand the theme. The rising scales continue in the background until the movement reaches a dazzling conclusion.
I once went camping with a friend who declared, “This land ain’t good for nothin’ but lookin’ at.” That comment could serve as a description of the Painted Desert. It’s breathtakingly beautiful, but not much happens.
Like Sunrise, Painted Desert also begins quietly, as if the heat of the desert forbids any but languid motion. Most of the movement consists of chords and short melodic fragments. The violins offer a more extended theme at the climax, but the music soon subsides to the earlier stillness.
On the trail
The best-known movement of the piece depicts the descent into the canyon on the back of a burro. It begins with the burro’s bray. A violin cadenza continues the hee-haw and contains snippets of the themes to come.
The oboe introduces the burro’s canter, accompanied by the sound of its hooves in the percussion section. Grofé called for coconut shells to provide this effect, although many orchestras probably use temple blocks or something more common.
The burro does not maintain a steady pace. The music frequently speeds up and returns to the canter—and brays some more. Eventually, the horns and trombones introduce a cowboy song.
The middle of the movement features an extended solo for celesta. According to the program notes published with the score, the cowboy comes upon a lone cabin where a music box is playing. The movement ends at a livelier pace, as if the burro recognizes its stable and manger.
The horns introduce theme recalling the theme of Sunrise. It echoes off the walls of the canyon. It has a more the character of a dance than birdsongs. The main theme features descending patterns, although not scales. The music becomes slower and softer as the camper prepares for a peaceful night’s sleep.
Just as many composers have depicted sunrise, many have provided spectacular storms. Grofé uses many of the familiar devices, but never in a way that sounds derivative.
We think of deserts as dry, but it can rain. Hard.
The movement begins, with a reprise of the cowboy song from On the Trail, as quietly as Sunset ended, but the storm comes up suddenly.
With the movement’s frequent descending chromatic scales and other downward figures, the listener can almost feel the downpour and wind.
Grofé adds a wind machine and thunder sheet to make the effect more realistic. The cowboy song brings the movement to a majestic conclusion, but not without interruption from the end of the storm.
In 2000, National Public Radio included the Grand Canyon Suite on its list of the 100 most important American musical compositions of the 20th century. It’s performed less often now than at the height of its popularity, but audiences still greatly enjoy it.
Ferde Grofé / Joseph Stevenson, All Music
Ferde Grofé biography / Song Writers Hall of Fame
Grand Canyon Suite / Theresa Schiavone, NPR. October 29, 2000
Grofé, Ferde [Ferdinand] (Rudolf von) / Jim Farrington. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd edition (2001). Online at http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/A2249674, subscription required
Nature, culture and history at the Grand Canyon: Music / Arizona State University
October 13, 2015 program notes / Sheboygan Symphony Orchestra
Program notes / C. Michael Kelly, Immaculata Symphony. November 22, 1997
Grand Canyon, sunrise. Some rights reserved by tsaiproject
Whiteman band. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Other photos are public domain from the US Postal Service and National Park Service.