The Grand Canyon Suite
by Ferde Grofe
"I think music in itself is healing. It's an explosive expression of humanity. It's something we are all touched by. No matter what culture we're from, everyone loves music." - Billy Joel
From an early age I had a serious interest and love of music. I have fond memories of listening to The Grand Canyon Suite, as it was one of the first recordings with which I began my collection of classical music. And it is classical in the grand romantic idiom with sweeping melodies that painted the vistas of the Canyon, sunrise, the pack animals and storms. It was a wonderful piece to listen to and I still sit back and enjoy it.
Today, Ferde Grofé remains most famous for this suite that was premiered in Chicago at the Studebaker Theatre, played by Paul Whiteman's band in November, 1931. To this day the Grand Canyon Suite is popular with performers and listeners. He was born on March 27, 1892, in New York City and grew up in a musical family. When Ferde was very young, the family moved to Los Angeles. Grofé moved away from home when he was about fourteen; he worked at a number of odd jobs, including bookbinder, truck driver, usher, newsboy, and elevator operator. He studied piano and violin and by the time he was fifteen, he was performing with dance bands. He also played the alto horn (like a small tuba) in brass bands and viola in the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Later, Grofé worked as an arranger of music by other composers, and is best known for his 1924 arrangement for Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. The success of this orchestration established Grofé's reputation as a composer and arranger, particularly in the jazz world. Grofé started working as an arranger and pianist with Paul Whiteman, a jazz bandleader, around 1920. Grofé arranged music and composed original pieces in a symphonic jazz style. Grofé's own works included Mississippi: A Journey in Tones in 1925, Metropolis: A Fantasie in Blue in 1928, and the Grand Canyon Suite in 1931. Each piece painted a musical portrait of an American scene.
In 1916, Grofé drove across the Arizona desert with some friends to watch the sun rise over the Grand Canyon. During a radio interview more than forty years later, he described what he saw and felt. He told how he and his pals had arrived and set up camp. The next morning, just before dawn, they got up to watch the sunrise. He described how at first, it was very silent; then, as the day got lighter, the sounds of the natural world began. Suddenly the sun came up and the vision was so dramatic that he couldn't express it in words. Inspired by this experience, Grofé composed a movement of the Grand Canyon Suite called "Sunrise" in 1929. In 1930, he sketched out the "Sunset" and "Cloudburst" sections of the piece, but didn't have time to orchestrate them. He didn't get a chance to finish the Grand Canyon Suite until the summer of 1931.
The Grand Canyon Suite has five movements, including "Sunrise," "Painted Desert," and "Sunset." While the most famous movement is called "On the Trail", with music that imitates the "clip-clop, clip-clop" of a donkey's hooves, my favorite is the concluding "Cloudburst" movement that briefly reprises the "On the Trail" theme followed by a terrifyingly vivid depiction of a thunderstorm and concluding with the emergence of the moon and transcendent music that resounds with joy.