THE WORLD OF JEROME MOROSS

by Christopher Palmer

In the beginning was the Land; and the Land was with Song; and the Land was Song. And perhaps the most exciting development in the history of American music was the moment when art-composers 'heard' that Song for the first time, realized that here was the basis for a music of their own, a music by America, of America and for America. Jerome Moross was in the vanguard of these composers; both historically and musically (some composers matter more historically than for the intrinsic quality of their music) he is a figure of national importance. Why, then, is he so little known? That is a complex question, and one that has nothing to do with the merit of his work, which no one can question. Extra-musical factors - the changing guard of contemporary music fashions, the composer's own reluctance to promote his name and music in the mandatory socio-political ways (he was essentially a private person) - were more directly responsible. However the important fact is that now at last, with this premiere recording of three of Moross' major scores, the long silence has been broken.

Moross was born in New York on August 1, 1913. He started playing piano and composing at an early age, and graduated from New York University School of Music at 18, having concurrently held a year's Conducting Fellowship at Juilliard. Note that he never studied composition per se, only the basic tools of composition, of musical technique - harmony, counterpoint, fugue, form. This was a conscious decision on Moross' part - even in his mid-teens he knew instinctively what he wanted, which was not a ready-made style imposed from the outside by a teacher. Moross already had a style, or at least the raw materials of one: the American vernacular. The Song of the Land: blues, stomps, rags, foxtrots, one-steps, carousel waltzes. Moross grew up with and listened to jazz bands, played in theatre-pits and found that his own composing style was totally, spontaneously conditioned by it. He shared this early certainty - this precocity - with a contemporary whose compositional style set in a quite different mold, namely Bernard Herrmann; and both men, having found their metier relatively early in life, stuck to it through thick and thin to the end. The frame-of-reference itself changed hardly at all, although Moross constantly discovered new ways of making it interesting And perhaps because he was so young when he found his voice, his music sounds young - always, early and late. The liner notes for the first soundtrack album of his classic film-score The Big Country - composed in 1958, at the height of his career - described him as "one of the most exciting of America's new composers." "Exciting... new..." the words ring true even today. Moross' music is 'exciting,' it does sound 'new' - in the sense not of revolutionary, but new-minted.

Typically, in his early New York days Moross consorted with notable mavericks like Herrmann, Percy Grainger, Henry Cowell and Charles Ives. At a time when Ives was still being totally ignored by the Establishment, Moross gave the first broadcast performance of a movement from the First Piano Sonata; he also (as did Herrmann) flirted briefly with the European avant-garde (Paeans, for chamber orchestra, written when the composer was 17) but dropped it almost at once, seeing no future in it for him. He had to go his own way. Yet one aspect of that way was as tradition-bound as could be: Moross never failed in allegiance to what he called the 'classical verities.' Look at the movement titles of the Symphony No. 1 - Theme and Variations, Sonata-Scherzo, Invention, Fugue: could be Beethoven or Brahms. Moross practiced classical disciplines (of form and compositional procedure) not merely in concert works, but also - less expectedly - in stage-works and even in film scores. For instance: what was originally the fourth part of Ballet Ballads (Ridinghood Revisited) is subtitled "A Silly Symphony" and the Overture is in strict classical sonata form (shades of Bernstein's Candide, composed years later). And the texture of his music - for all its apparent simplicity and accessibility - is often quite sophisticated, and far from easy to project in performance. He is, for example, a master-contrapuntist: the third and fourth movements of the Symphony and The Last Judgement in its entirety, throw dramatic light on this aspect of his talent. But this should not surprise us once we recognize that counterpoint, whatever the connotations of its forbidding-sounding name, is basically the science of composition with melody; and the well-springs of melody flowed for few composers more abundantly than for Moross (try counting the tunes in The Last Judgement). This ongoing freshness of melodic invention - together with the bouncy, sexy rhythms derived from dance, i.e. from body language - make for a virile music which irresistibly celebrates life, the sheer joy of being alive. As long ago as 1936 Copland hailed the 23 year-old Moross as "probably the most talented" composer of his generation, commenting on the "quality of sheer physicalness" to be found in his music. Forty years later that quality was still well in evidence.

All Moross' music has a strong theatrical - particularly balletic - dimension, and much of his best work was done for the theatre. Paul Bunyan: An American Saga was his first ballet; in his third and best known - Frankie And Johnny, composed in 1937— Moross reckoned his mature style crystallized. During the 1940s he collaborated with the brilliant young lyricist John Latouche on Ballet Ballads, three (originally four: of the fourth, more anon) innovatory theatre-pieces that anticipated Stephen Sondheim in that they abandoned dialogue in favor of a continuous flow of song and dance. The Golden Apple (book and lyrics also by Latouche, first produced 1954) was Moross' greatest theatrical success, whereas Gentlemen, Be Seated! (completed 1961) was a failure that seriously undermined his self-esteem. He felt rejected by the medium that had claimed so many years of devoted labor. Ironically, the medium that brought him more fame and fortune than any other was the one which he took least seriously as a creative outlet, namely the cinema. Moross first worked in Hollywood in the 1940s but was too 'modernistic' to be turned loose on films of his own; instead he was assigned to established composers to help them orchestrate their scores (Copland's Our Town was one). In the 1950s he began to do original film-scores and won a long-deserved world-wide acclaim for The Big Country (1958). The Western-American style he devised for this film and other Westerns (The Proud Rebel, The Jayhawkers, Wagon Train) arose from a quasi-mystical experience he had undergone 20 years before when traveling by bus to California and encountering the Great Plains and American West for the first time. Arriving outside Albuquerque, New Mexico he was overwhelmed by the grandeur of the mountains and vast open spaces. A Tall Story (1938) was the first piece in which Moross attempted to evoke the American landscape; and at the end of the third movement of the Symphony ('Invention') the strings seem to rise higher and higher into a hazy vastness, like mountains cutting off the horizon.

During the 1960s and 70s Moross concentrated on putting his major works in order and on a series of chamber works for different combinations (e.g the Sonatina for Clarinet Choir, Sonatina for Contrabass and Piano, Concerto for Flute and String Quartet). His last theatre-pieces - in fact his last major work - was a one-act opera, Sorry, Wrong Number, based on the play by Lucille Fletcher (Bernard Herrmann's first wife). He died in Miami, Florida, July 25, 1983, just a week short of his 70th birthday.

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