MORTON GOULD, AN AMERICAN GENIUS
By Enrique Renard
Legend has it that Mozart could compose at age
five. That he, in fact, was too young to write his own music,
hence his father would do the writing with the boy standing
by his side and singing the melody.
Mozart biographers insist that the thing goes
beyond legend, that such an unusual feat was factual. That
may well be the case, because musical genius, similar to that
of any other field of endeavor is a spontaneous thing that
cannot be rationalized. It is also quite infrequent. There
have been very few Mozarts that history could account for.
Amazingly, one of them was born in the USA, New York, December
10th, 1913, the son of James Harry Gould (real
name Isidor Godfeld, of Bulgaria), who migrated to the USA
on May 1910, and who, among other chores oriented to economic
survival, used to play fiddle in a Yiddish Theater.
James economic survival was seriously
marred by great business ideas and horrible execution. He
once came up with an idea for an engraved wooden compact to
be used as a cigarette or lipstick holder. It would be manufactured
in Austria, and upon sample showing it attracted immediate
attention, reflecting a huge first order. The problem was
that the items were handmade, and to fill the order would
have taken years! The deal of course fell through and economic
misery continued to hound James, despite which, and with the
additional burden of bad health, he managed to marry Frances
Arkin, a pretty young woman from a German-Jewish family he
had met on the boat from Europe and which he had reconnected
with during a visit to recover his health at the N.Y. Catskill
James and his wife settled in Queens County,
then a scarcely populated New York area of rapid urban development,
and it was there that their first three children were born:
Morton, December 10th, 1913, Alfred, June 23rd,
1915, and Walter, April 12th, 1917.
Music was not the life of the family then, but
it was important to them. James would play the violin and
at the household there was a player piano complete with rolls
of popular classics such as Light Cavalry Overture,
Poet and Peasant Overture, Rachmaninovs Prelude
in C, Chopins Polonaises, and other famous
classical pieces. It is quite likely that the frequent
listening to such music awoke the prodigy in young Morton
at the tender age of 4, for in an interview with Roy Hemming
in 1985 he said that one day his mother Frances heard the
piano being played at the living room (probably somewhat hesitatingly).
Puzzled, she went there to investigate and found little Morton
playing away with his chubby little fingers, imitating what
he had heard from the rolls.
His father James had, however, a different version
as to the discovery of his sons talent. He stated that
one day upon return from work he heard a flawed rendition
of "Stars and Stripes Forever" being played at the
home piano. To his surprise he saw young Morton at the keyboard.
The sound was not coming from the roll.
Frances recalls that the family finally seized
on the boys talent only after an occasion in which James
was away on business. Morton, then barely five and depressed
by his fathers absence, went over to the piano and played
a sad melody of his own. "It was at that moment",
she said, "that I realized we had someone quite unusual
in the family".
But financial woes seem to besiege the family
endlessly, fueled essentially by James flawed attempts
at doing profitable business. He would gain employment for
a while, but then he would quit enthused by some business
prospect at hand which eventually wouldnt work. As a
result of some unpaid debts someone came over and removed
the piano from the household. Frances was devastated (and
probably so was Morton despite his young age). But James was
a salesman, and he managed to hustle a piano back into his
home, thus avoiding unnecessary interruption in his sons
Morton took his first piano lessons in 1919
from Ferdinand Greenwald, a local piano teacher who, apparently,
didnt attach much importance to musical theory. He did
not teach his pupils how to read music. But there was no stopping
to Mortons rapidly unfolding talent. Eventually he took
classes with a Vienna-trained musical teacher at the Institute
of Musical Art, a few years later.
But it was Greenwald who was the one involved
in that famous and factual story about Mortons beginnings
as a composer that parallels that of Mozarts. The boy
was scarcely six years old when he came up with what was appropriately
titled "Just Six, Waltz Viennese by Morton
Gould" transcribed by Greenwald into a score, and
the illustrious career of one of the most talent and prolific
American classical music composers was launched then and there.
Morton refused to feel proud about that accomplishment, calling
it "pretty awful, nothing but a sweet little waltz with
some schmaltz in it
" Schmaltzy it may have been,
but try to imagine a six year old composing a waltz, however
menial. It isnt easy. As a matter of fact it becomes
It may come as a surprise to readers who have
been Morton Goulds fans as a composer, arranger and
purveyor of what is termed Light Orchestral Music, to know
that he composed several symphonic concertos, for piano, for
violin, for viola, for tuba, etc., plus several symphonettes.
He arranged, composed and conducted numerous Tin Pan Alley
songs, and had several LP albums masterfully arranged that
sold well. But this was not something he was proud of. He
saw it as a necessary commercial thing oriented to give him
financial income and security, especially considering that
he had been appointed the sole provider for his family. James
took upon himself to conduct Mortons career along such
lines, and the young man went along with it staying with popular
music in radio shows and records despite his strong inclinations
to compose and play classical music that could be termed "serious".
The extent to which his fathers guidance
interfered with an appropriate perception on the part of American
and European music circles about Morton Goulds talent
as a serious classical musician and composer cannot be overestimated.
The impression gathered was that because he arranged and played
Jerome Kern, Cole Porter and Gershwin songs on the radio he
could not possibly be a "serious" musician.
Inevitably, he eventually fell into that well
known mistake musicians and critics who call themselves "serious"
invariably fall. Light Orchestral Music, arranged and played
by a symphonic outfit cannot be considered "serious"
music. Oh, no. Only traditional classical music deserves such
consideration. I submit that this perception comes from a
wrong way of focusing the different styles in music. There
is of course what is termed "pop" music. But the
term represents a dangerous generalization. What is "pop"
(a contraction of "popular") in music? Is it country
music, with its simplicity, repetitive sound and musical limitations?
Yes, it would fit that description. But then, what about jazz?
Is that "serious music, in its multiplicity of
forms? To some, no, it is not. Too raucous, too syncopated.
Well, what about Tin Pan Alley or Broadway songs? No, not
exactly. Too simple, most of it is sentimental mush, and too
brief. What about when they are arranged for large symphonic
orchestra. Well, no. They are too melodic, you see. And those
lyrics! Too sentimental. No. Thats only for simple minded
people with not enough musical sensitiveness to appreciate
Bach, Beethoven, Charles Ives or John Cage. Schönberg
and his 12 tone scale? Oh, yes! Stravinsky and his violent
atonality? By all means! That is indeed "seriousness"
It is an undisputed fact that in music, perhaps
more than in any other field of the arts, with the probable
exception of painting, there is a wide variety of tastes.
What is it that determines taste in music is difficult to
tell. Individual sensitivity, a good ear, good taste, a natural
ability to recognize beauty in sound (whatever the source),
cultural upbringing, you name it. It is also unquestionably
true that there is music that can scarcely qualify as such.
A good example of this is a composition by John Cage called
"Four Minutes" that constitutes total
silence. Mr. Cage comes in while the orchestra sits there
waiting for him. He bows, then he stands in front of the symphonic
outfit (oh, yes, it has to be symphonic, you see) and doesnt
move a muscle. After four minutes - hence the title - he bows
again and leaves. The attendees applaud politely, looking
grave and knowledgeable. This, to them is the epitome of "serious"
music, it would seem.
And then we have Charles Ives, touted by many
critics as a true genius of "serious" music, who
got furious at his publisher when the man changed in one of
Ives scores a note that seemed totally wrong and out
of place. "You are trying to make things nice
he said. "Please dont
I want it like that:
as unmusical as possible
Lets take another example. This time from one of the
greater exponents of Rock-and-Roll: Ozzie Osborne, whose presentation
included eating live chicken and bats on stage under fiercely
loud noise from drums and the distorted wailing of amplified
guitars being smashed against the stage floor, with blood
spilling generously over the interpreters while a crazed audience
of mostly teenagers howls thunderously with pleasure.
Personal tastes aside, I would venture to say
that the aforementioned examples have nothing to do
with music. They have to do, in the first instance, with the
gigantic ego of the late Mr. Cage, and his insatiable appetite
to be considered different, therefore special, superior
to everyone else. In the second case, two elements concur:
a) Mr. Osbornes appetite for money, and b) a desire
to be and get others worked up into a frenzy (hence the prevalence
of drugs among rock-and-rollers). But music is nowhere to
Thus we can now safely, I think, discard the
aforementioned examples as "serious" music. The
problem is that, at least in the case of rock, they are immensely
profitable despite its almost complete lack of musical value,
if we are to consider the opinion of reputable musicologists
who have carefully analyzed the genre.
What has all of this to do with Morton Gould,
you may be asking? It has everything to do with him.
By age 20 Gould had developed into an extraordinary musician,
with a remarkable ability to compose at classical level as
well as lighter pieces when he wished or when commissioned
for it. By then his father James as well as the rest of the
family got used to the idea that their financial woes could
be solved by Mortons musical career and the financial
rewards it was supposed to bring. This turned out to be a
misconception. Under James direction, Mortons
musical career never really took off.
Commissions were plenty, for festivals, for
radio shows, for symphonic works played by famous orchestras,
for introduction of his own classical compositions, for ballets,
for movies. Most of this output was lauded by his peers and
by reputed critics. But the general perception among the public,
producers and the musical industry in general of Morton being
only a Cole Porter light music man, just a "pop"
music arranger, remained with him as a stigma he could never
quite remove from his career.
Morton was able to appreciate tunes from Tin
Pan Alley and Broadway, composers such as Cole Porter, Gershwin,
Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, and other writers of that wonderful
period covered by the 20s, the 30s and 40s, where songs were
composed which are still being recorded and played nearly
90 years later! But these were not considered "serious"
music by the pundits of the time. It is a fact that Chopin,
Rachmaninov, Tchaikowsky, Liszt, and even Beethoven, used
folk themes in their symphonic works. The "nationalists"
that followed, such as Khachaturian, Enescu, Falla, Albeniz,
Rodrigo, Grieg, Rimsky-Korsakov, Smetana, Vaughn Williams
and others did so too. Should we be inclined to consider their
work "not serious" because of it?
It seems to me that this type of snobbery should
be recognized for what it is: something valueless, destructive
and unfair. Unfortunately, Morton Gould himself was not immune
to that stereotype, to the extent that he used to deprecate
his own work. He once stated that he did not feel "patronizing"
towards popular music when referring to the aforementioned
popular songs. The type of music heard on the radio and records
during the decades of the 20s, 30s, and 40s were something
he enjoyed to some extent, but that he worked with mainly
because of its commercial value. His inner conflict developed
because of the need to record and play what his father told
him to in order to make money versus and his longing to compose
and play "progressive" classical music, atonal and
otherwise. At age 30 his compositions included shades of jazz
elements such as the blues, folk and a tendency to go along
with Bernstein, Hanson, Barber, Ives and other American contemporary
composers he admired but perceived as competition. And, for
some mysterious reason, Gould had serious doubts about his
own musical talent, even suffering bouts of depression as
a result. He was under contact with Columbia for quite a while,
but in 1954 he moved to RCA.
At RCA they had an eye on Kostelanetz and his
enormous sales input with Light Orchestral Music, reaching
over 53 million by the early 50s for Columbia, and they wanted
something similar. Gould had radio contracts where he had
been presenting popular tunes arranged for orchestras including
large string sections, hence RCA felt Morton was their chance
to attain similar success. But they encountered a problem.
Goulds musical concept was entirely different from that
of Kostelanetz. He once stated: "I cannot just play the
melody straight. I state the theme, and then go somewhere
else". That may have been musically interesting and correct,
but it was not popular. Percy Faith and Jackie Gleason had
undoubtedly the greatest measure of popularity then and in
the years that followed, plus the greatest sales numbers with
Light Music essentially because they played the melodies absolutely
straight, something quite uninteresting for the better educated
ears. But an educated ear is not to be found at popular levels.
Hence the continual battle between producers and musicians.
Musicians like Gould wanted to record interesting music. But
that didnt sell. Uninteresting music played by large
orchestras did sell by the millions, and Morton had to comply.
Still he managed to always inject interesting concepts in
his arrangements of popular tunes, special sonorities and
colours, sounds that made it possible to quickly identify
The Morton Gould Orchestra, as it was labeled.
By the mid 60s and on, some of the surviving
arrangers from the 40s and 50s with famous orchestras were
being asked to play rock! That was an enormous absurdity,
but the music business is crammed with people who dont
care about music but care very much about money! Gleason was
a businessman who had violent disputes with his arrangers
when they wrote some interesting phrase in a score. He forced
them to write what people liked. "Stick with the melody!...",
was the order, and he sold millions of LPs world wide. But
for true musicians, interested in good music and new, interesting
musical ideas, the situation was sheer torment, and the era
of Light Orchestral Music came to an end by the mid sixties
as a result.
Morton was a complex man. The dichotomies present
in his character could be puzzling. He was essentially a shy
man, quiet and unassuming, who could go into a fit of rage
that sometimes terrified his immediate family. The possessor
of a strong libido, he was what someone would euphemistically
term "a ladies man". Physically he wouldnt
have conformed anything resembling masculine beauty, far from
it. He had an unusual, long, pear shaped face, a receding
chin and too ample a forehead. But he could whisper into the
ear of a woman such poetic, sweet words, he became quite successful
at the art of seduction. He was extremely eloquent, both orally
and in writing. But, as he himself insisted, he had only two
true loves in his life, and both were named Shirley.
The first one was Shirley Uzin whom he fell
in love with at Richmond Hill High School "physically,
intellectually and in every conceivable way", he stated.
He felt she was his twin soul, a part of him that had been
missing all his life. She was an intelligent, well read and
cultured young woman who appreciated good music, "with
none of those ridiculous feminine inanities most girls have
concerning sexuality, therefore she is regarded as abnormal,
immoral and God knows what", he wrote to Abby Whiteside,
one of his first teachers and a dear friend. The marriage
took place in 1936, but it was doomed to disaster. Shirley
was an intensely independent woman, not in the least interested
in being a housewife or taking care of a husband. She was
politically inclined, and she is said to have been a member
of the American Communist Party, which eventually caused Morton
to be investigated by the infamous U.S. Congressional Committee
for the Investigation Un-American Activities during the 50s,
with no consequences.
Morton was not much of a householder either.
One morning Shirley prepared some rice for Mortons lunch
in a square Pyrex container, telling him: "Just take
the rice the way it is, put it in a pan, and light the stove.
Once warm, put it in a plate. Dont do anything else".
When Morton got hungry, he went into the kitchen and followed
directions placing the dish into the pan, lit the stove and
ambled back to work. "Suddenly there was this horrible
explosion", he says, "and I didnt know what
had happened. The kitchen looked like a World War I battlefield
To this day, those sitting in that kitchen and looking at
the ceiling will be baffled by those poke marks in it. Little
would they suspect they were caused by rice!
On another occasion he decided to warm up a
frozen food item and placed it in a pot with hot water without
removing it from the box. The reader may now gather an idea
of Mortons culinary abilities.
Interested more in her politics and in her independent
ways, Shirley did nothing to save the marriage, and Morton,
still quite young, had no way of dealing effectively with
the situation. To his dismay, divorce became inevitable.
After a few years and a number of affairs he
said to be meaningless, around his 30th birthday
Morton started to date vivacious and pretty Shirley Bank,
youngest child of an affluent Jewish family from Minneapolis.
Somehow now free from his fixation with Shirley Uzin, Morton
fell in love head over heels with his new Shirley, who held
a degree in English and Spanish from the University of Minnesota
and lived part of the year in New York. They met on a blind
date in 1943, and embarked in a peculiarly intense love relationship.
She was sweet and innocent, and seemingly only interested
in him. They were married on June 3rd. 1944 and
had four children.
Shirley Bank was not interested in music at
first, but she eventually came to like and admire her husbands
work and offer him every support. She was seven years younger
than him. Still, as years went by, a feature in his character
increasingly started to annoy her and ended driving a deep
wedge between them that ended in divorce as well: he became
tighter and tighter with money concerning her and the household,
and she intensely resented that. Independent and determined,
she came to regard him as a nuisance, and the final rupture
was inevitable after a good number of years.
Meanwhile, Mortons musical career flourished
inevitably. He composed the now famous American Symphonettes
and Concertettes, short symphonic works where he tried to
state an American classical musical language with jazz and
folk music overtones masterfully blended into his symphonic
structures. Fritz Reiner, of the Chicago Symphony, admired
his classical works and so did Dimitri Mitropoulos, renowned
classical conductors at the time, who continually played his
music. He gave piano recitals, was with the New York Philharmonic
as guest conductor on several occasions, and conducted the
Chicago Symphony and several other Symphonic Orchestras all
over the world featuring his own works together with other
classic repertoire. Among his works we should mention American
Salute, American Ballads, Classic Variations on Colonial Themes,
Spirituals for Orchestra, Cowboy Rhapsody, Latin American
Symphonette, Minute Rag Waltz, Stringmusic, and countless
other symphonic works. He wrote the music for the ballets
Fall River Legend, Arms and a Girl (a Musical)
and Clarinade. His was the music for Holocaust,
the well known TV Miniseries. He collected 7 Grammies as a
result of his enormous talent and output. In 1994 he was awarded
the Kennedy Center Honors, and in 1995 he was awarded the
Pulitzer Prize for his composition Stringmusic.
Of his Light Music LPs, three stand out as extraordinary
examples of light music turned into real symphonic pieces,
all recorded in the 50s: "Memories", featuring songs
from the 20s, wherein he manages to get the whole orchestra
to swing, not an easy feat. "Kern and Porter Favorites"
and "Beyond the Blue Horizon" came later in arrangements
with a lovely rhapsodic style. Upon careful listening to his
arrangements of these songs for orchestra, one concludes that
it is impossible to arrange them better. Its not only
the technical virtuosity, the imagination to improvise with
lovely variations on the themes, the colours he injected or
the good taste in sound he displayed. It is also the emotion
he conveyed without any sort of cheap sentimentality or mush.
My friend Frank Bristow once told me he had tears in his eyes
listening to Goulds arrangement of Time on my Hands.
Those songs, great as they are, never reach your heart
as deeply as they do when arranged and played by Morton Gould.
The 70s were a painful period for Gould. Light
Music had practically disappeared from radio and recordings,
commissions started to falter as well, and the financial arrangements
concerning his divorce from Shirley Bank left him in a precarious
financial position. But then something happened that saved
the situation. He was appointed president of ASCAP the American
Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, with a six
figure salary. At the time ASCAP was said to be a veritable
snake pit besieged by internal conflicts, with two prominent
Board members vying for power who apparently felt that they
needed a president with no guts to continue their maneuverings
unabated. Morton, then aged 72 and of gentle demeanor, appeared
as someone they could easily override. Theirs was an unfortunate
miscalculation. Behind the gentle façade there was
a steely determination, a penetrating intelligence and a huge
deal of experience in the music business now displayed by
the new president. After a while the executive troublemakers
were removed from the organization, now out of danger when
facing the competition from BMI that was threatening its extinction.
Gould presided 8 years over ASCAP, the best presidency it
ever had, while in the meantime composing and conducting symphonic
orchestras all over. He never stopped. "Composing is
my life", he once stated, "If I stop, Ill
have no life".
Morton Gould died on February 21st,
1996, aged 82. He had been invited to play his music at a
concert hall in Disney World, in Orlando, Florida. Those who
knew him well observed he seemed weaker than usual that day,
and he complained of not feeling very well. Yet, he went through
rehearsals with the orchestra, looking frail and somewhat
stiff, but he signed autographs and chatted with those present.
The following morning, his daughter Deborah noticed he was
late in rising, heArd a noise and looked into his room. He
was on the floor, leaning against one side of the bed. An
artery had ruptured near his heart, and he was gone.
He was a prodigy, indeed, an unquestionable
but never quite appreciated American musical genius, one that
only time will reveal in his true stature, as is often the
case with great artists.
During his final years Morton Gould was a
member of The Robert Farnon Society.
This article originally appeared in the December
2009 issue of Journal Into Melody.