The Story of a Tetrachord: Morton Gould's West Point Symphony

By Flinn, J. Wesley | Journal of Band Research, October 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

The Story of a Tetrachord: Morton Gould's West Point Symphony


Flinn, J. Wesley, Journal of Band Research


The author is grateful to LTC Jim Keene (Commander/Conductor), SGM Matt Wozniak, and the rest of the musicians and staff of the United States Military Band in West Point, NY for their assistance in this project. Thanks are also due to Denise Odello and Michael Berry for their input, Abby Gould Burton for access to the Morton Gould oral histories at Columbia University, and Terence Milligan for introducing the author to this work.

The Man and The Piece

The year 2013 marked the centenary of the birth of American composer Morton Gould (1913-1996). Though not as well known today, Gould was at one point as famous as - if not more than - Leonard Bernstein, Pablo Casals, and Aaron Copland. He was a prodigious composer and a pianist of great talent, and one of the first classically-trained musicians to make a successful career playing on radio. He was president of ASCAP for several terms, and during his tenure the organization took the lead on issues of performance rights, composer royalties, and copyright/fair use law. He conducted major American orchestras, had an important role in an otherwise forgettable Hollywood movie, worked with Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine, and was a Kennedy Center Honoree and Pulitzer laureate. He did all this within the last century, yet today very few people in academia or in the general public know of the breadth and depth of his compositional output. There is a widely-held belief that academic composers in the 1950s deemed composers like Gould who wrote in an accessible style unworthy of further study, choosing instead to follow Boulez down the path of serialism to the exclusion of anything tonal. Gould himself seemed to believe this was so.1 However, as Joseph Straus has demonstrated, tonal music was very much a part of the academic and musical world of the 1950s, though perhaps not to the same level as was serial or atonal music.2 Regardless of how acceptable tonality was in academic circles, the push into total serialism and avant-garde techniques cannot be the sole explanation for this ignorance.

There is one notable exception to this: in the world of wind band music, Gould has produced many of the cornerstones of the modern repertoire. Beginning with his first work for band, Gould composed several original works and also made many transcriptions of his orchestral works. Others transcribed still more of his compositions for wind band. Gould's music has been part of the wind band literature for nearly 80 years, and while it may not be played as often as it once was, pieces will still make regular appearances on concert programs for high school and college wind bands. Even as early as 1968, his impact on the wind band world was noted in "high art" circles; Irving Kolodin, music critic for The Saturday Review, wrote of Gould's band music, "Were I a player in a college band, or in a professional organization, I would be grateful to Morton Gould for applying his talents for organization and his skill in tonal blendings to the enrichment of a literature which is more remarkable for quantity than quality."3

The West Point Symphony for band was written for the sesquicentennial of the United States Military Academy in West Point, NY and premiered there by the USMA Band on April 13, 1952.4 The instrumentation is standard, with one exotic percussion instrument, the marching machine. The piece is cast in two movements, "Epitaphs" and "Marches."5

Terms

To assist with understanding, the following terms are defined:

Pitch - a sound generated by a specific frequency, usually shown as a letter and a number. Using scientific pitch notation, proposed by Robert W. Young and accepted by the Acoustical Society of America in 1939, Middle C is C4.6 Most tonal and post-tonal music assumes enharmonic equivalency, in which two notes that have the same frequency but different spellings (such as C# and Db) are equal. Octave equivalency is not assumed. C4 is not the same pitch as C3 or C5. …

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