Ferde Grofé

1892 1972

Ferde Grofé

Composer • Conductor


Ferde Grofé’s tremendous musical influence can be heard in big band and symphonic music all throughout America and even in Europe and Asia. As a composer and arranger, he is responsible for having shaped the sound of the modern big band and bringing jazzy, light works to the classical stage. He was also a contributing factor to the success of Paul Whiteman’s orchestra beginning in 1920.

Ferde Grofé (also known as Ferdinand Rudolph von Grofé) was born in New York on 27 March 1982, though he was raised in Los Angeles. Both of his parents were avid musicians—his father was an actor and singer and his mother a cellist and music teacher. Later, despite their own musical careers, Grofé’s parents encouraged him to study law and not music. Fortunately, he chose to disobey them and left college to focus on music.

As a child, Grofé studied in Germany for two years (1900-02) with Otto Leonhardt. By the age of 15, he was an accomplished all-around musician, giving performances on violin, viola and piano. He also played the alto horn in brass bands.

Grofé was a viola player in the Los Angeles Symphony from 1909 to 1919 and also began working as a pianist and arranger with Art Hickman’s orchestra in 1914. He also performed with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and in cabarets, theatres, vaudeville houses and for films. In these early years with Hickman’s orchestra, Grofé already began introducing innovative ideas in his diverse works and arrangements. For example, he divided the reed and brass sections, used countermelodies and various musical settings of choruses. Essentially, he was applying composition techniques from European music to jazz and dance music—music that was considered vulgar at the time.

Grofé moved to the east coast in 1920 after having been hired by band leader Paul Whiteman. The two had met five years earlier, and impressed with the work Grofé had done with Hickman and with Art Guerin, Whiteman offered him a job as pianist/arranger/composer of his orchestra.

The two made a superb team, between Grofé’s arrangements and Whiteman’s personality and salesmanship, they were unstoppable. The orchestra also featured some of the country’s best musicians. During their collaboration, the orchestra made hugely successful recordings with Victor, selling millions of copies. Part of their success was also due to Grofé’s ability to tailor each of the instrumental parts to a specific player of the orchestra, leading to the creation of the ‘Whiteman Sound’.

It was Grofé’s 1924 arrangement of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, however, that really confirmed his reputation as one of the greatest arrangers the time. Based on this success, Whiteman encouraged Grofé to compose original works for the orchestra in this symphonic-jazz style, leading toMississippi (1925),Metropolis (1928) and the Grand Canyon Suite (1932). After the premiere of the latter work, Whiteman and Grofé parted ways. Other arrangements from his period with Whiteman include hits such asWhispering, Japanese Sandman and Three O’Clock in the Morning.Of his original works, the movement “On the Trail” from Grand Canyon Suiteis the most popular.

Following the Whiteman years, Grofé pursued a public career as a radio arranger and conductor, holding the position of chief musical arranger and ‘composer laureate’ at Radio City Music Hall beginning in 1932. In addition, he became an active member of the American Bandmasters’ Association in 1935 and wrote many works for concert band. He also received numerous ballet commissions during the 1930s. He held a teaching post in orchestration at the Julliard Summer School from 1939 to 1942 and was also a major presence at the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair with his all-electric New World Ensemble, which featured four Novachords and a Hammond organ.

Beginning in the 1940s, Grofé turned his focus toward large-scale compositions and guest conducting appearances. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his 1944 film scoreMinstrel Man. Other film scores include Time out of Mind (1947) andThe Return of Jesse James (1950). Grofé’s post-Whiteman era compositions include6 Pictures of Hollywood (1937), Hudson River Suite (1955), Death Valley Suite (1957) and the World’s Fair Suite (1964).

While Grofé is not remembered for a particular composition per sé, he is remembered for his influence on the big band—its sound and repertoire. In addition, the level of big band and dance performance was greatly raised by his works, which he wrote down. He was able to bridge a gap between the ‘vulgar’ and ‘raucous’ American dance/jazz music and the elite European classical style. Not only did he find a way to combine these styles, but he was also able to satisfy the tastes of a broad spectrum of Americans.