New York City in the early 1930s was an exciting place and Moross took advantage of all the musical attractions it offered. One of his favorites was Harms Music Publishers where, as Moross recalled, “You met people,” and this could include anyone from Oscar Levant (1906-1972) to [Robert] Russell Bennet (1894-1981), and Vince Youmans to Vernon Duke (ne Vladimir Dukelsky, (1903-1969). T. B. Harms, founded in 1875, was the largest publisher of popular music in New York City at the time and handled the publication of several important American composers. Their compositions impressed Moross tremendously. “The songs were so extraordinary,” he later remarked, citing specifically Duke’s “April in Paris” (1932), “Suddenly (1933), and “Autumn in New York” (1934). Moross’s appreciation for their work would draw him to the theater, where he would combine his talent for lyrical melodies with larger formal constructions. Many years later Moross reflected, “Popular music has fallen into the hands of the amateurs, and you don’t get those gorgeous songs anymore."[iv]
In the air there was a great deal of enthusiasm for change, influencing not only popular music in the clubs and dance halls, but in the theater and concert halls. Moross and Herrmann also became acquainted with Henry Cowell (1897-1965) who introduced them to Charles Ives (1874-1954). They became acquainted with Ives’s music by working through the Concord Sonata and became great champions of Ives’s works. “I remember arguing with Aaron Copland that he must play Ives when he was going to run his Yaddo Festival [of Contemporary Music at Yaddo, Saratoga Springs, in 1931] and I gave him my copy of the 114 Songs.” Moross visited Ives regularly for several years, and the influence of Ives is evident throughout his compositions.
Moross graduated from New York University in 1931 when he was only 18. During his senior year he simultaneously attended The Juilliard School as a conducting fellow. Moross generally felt that he did not need formal composition lessons, concluding that his musical education was perhaps best served by his experiences outside the classroom. “I had harmony, fugue, form, everything else. All the grammar you needed. But I always felt that I didn’t want to learn how somebody else writes. All he can do is show me how he writes. Besides, by the time I entered Juilliard I was already composing, and I felt that I was pretty good. . . . I did have a complete grounding in musical techniques. And I had already been playing in pit orchestras, so that I knew my orchestra inside out. So that was my training.” Moross was indeed composing. Paeans (1931), his first work, was conducted by Bernard Herrmann when it premiered in the Juilliard concert hall, and was published by Henry Cowell in his New Music Orchestra Series. Clearly influenced by the modernists, it features abundant dissonances, and at one point, quarter tones.
Moross met Aaron Copland in 1931 and was invited to join Copland’sYoung Composers’ Group, which included Herrmann, along with Elie Siegmeister, Arthur Berger, Lehman Engel, and Vivian Fine, among others. Through the group Moross became acquainted with other well-known composers and performers. Together they planned concerts and performed one another’s music. In a 1936 article Copland wrote, “Moross is probably the most talented of these men. He writes music that has a quality of sheer physicalness, music ‘without a mind,’ as it were.”[vii] Copland supported Moross’s work, recommending him to Ruth Page,[viii] for instance, and their careers would occasionally intersect, particularly in Hollywood. Moross’s next composition, Two Songs (“Jabberwocky” and “Those Gambler’s Blues” for low voice with piano), was performed at the first concert of the Young Composers Group held in 1933.
As a young man
The influence of the Viennese serialists (Schoenberg, Webern) is particularly evident in his first vocal work, Those Everlasting Blues (1932), based on a text by Alfred Kreymborg (1883-1966). Moross quickly shed what he considered to be the confinement of theories and began writing in what he deemed was his own style. Assimilating all types of music became Moross's preferred method of developing his style, so he visited as many musical venues as possible to absorb the music all around him, whether jazz, classical, modern, or popular, or even a carousel.[ix] Moross turned to American idioms and credited Charles Ives, Henry Cowell, and Aaron Copland with encouraging him in this direction. Although he would later minimize the modernist bent of his early works, the music of Ives continued to inspire his composition.
In 1934 CBS commissioned Moross to compose a work to be broadcast on American School of the Air: Folk Music of America. John Lomax, who produced the show, suggested an arrangement of the tune Midnight Special, which Moross completed, giving it the title Ramble on a Hobo Tune.
Eventually this work became the basis for Moross’s first (and only) Symphony (1940-42), premiered by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra in 1943, directed by Sir Thomas Beecham. Lawrence Morton, who reviewed the work, called it an “an attractive piece, a cheerful commentary upon some of the simple pleasures of American life.”[x] Morton goes on to list those pleasures: the drugstore soda, a colorful sunset, cool sheets at bedtime, the appreciation of one’s congressman and “being grateful for the Red Cross.” The Symphony exhibits an intrinsic American sound that infuses all of Moross’s works, from his earliest ballets to the last chamber work.
Moross turned to composing dramatic works early in his career, and focused initially on ballet. His first ballet, composed for the Charles Weidman Dance Group, was based on the legend of Paul Bunyan, titled Paul Bunyan: An American Saga (1934). While the music for this ballet has not survived, we may imagine that it was successful, since Moross almost immediately began composing another for Weidman. Called Biguine (1934), it was conceived originally as a dance piece, yet was eventually published (again, by Henry Cowell) as an orchestral work.
With the assistance of Herrmann, who had established himself in radio as a conductor, Moross supported himself beginning in 1935 by writing cue music for The March of Time, the popular radio show that ran from 1931-1942. It used actors to portray real people as it dramatized current events, and music was an important part of supporting the sense of realism. Moross was to compose cues for subsequent radio shows, including In Memory of a Hero, a work for the Free World Theatre in 1943.
Moross’s first job was as musical director for Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera, which played for two weeks at the Empire Theatre in New York in 1933, and for Bertolt Brecht’s version of Maxim Gorky’s The Mother for the Theatre Union, for which Moross also contributed incidental music. Moross’s first composition for the theater, as he described it, was similarly “socially important.” It was a leftist musical revue called Parade (1935) based on social issues.
While the subject matter of Parade did not go over well with audiences, Moross’s experience as musical director drew the attention of George Gershwin. As Moross related, “A few weeks before Porgy and Bess finished its New York run [which began on October 10, 1935], Gershwin suggested that I take over the piano job in the pit and go out with the show for a six week tour.” The tour took the company to Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., from January 27 to March 21, 1936. This was the first time that Moross would leave New York City.
When the tour ended, Moross returned to New York and began composing An American Pattern (1936), his first of several ballets for noted choreographer Ruth Page (1899-1991) at the recommendation of Aaron Copland. A feminist portrayal of a bored housewife, this ballet would set the tone for Moross's subsequent unconventional stage works. In October 1936 Moross returned to Chicago to work on An American Pattern with Page. Moross completed his orchestration as contracted and left Chicago in December, heading to Los Angeles in preparation for the west coast production of Porgy and Bess. As a young man of 23 with some time on his hands, Moross made a stop in Albuquerque, a decision that altered his perspective and had a long-term impact on his musical style. Later he shared his feelings about the trip:
"I traveled by bus from Chicago to Los Angeles . . . and as we hit the Plains I got so excited that I stopped off in Albuquerque . . . and the next day I got to the edge of town and then walked out onto the flat land with a marvelous feeling of being alone in the vastness with the mountains cutting off the horizon." [xi]
"The whole thing was just too much for me, and then when I hit Los Angeles and California...it was marvelous, and I just fell in love with it. I wandered all around the west. I was ecstatic about it." [xii]
Moross's impressions during this trip inspired his later Western film scores, but first he expressed them in A Tall Story for Orchestra, his premier orchestral work for radio. At age 24, he was the youngest composer ever commissioned by the Columbia Composers Commission, a program spearheaded by Howard Barlow (1892-1972), music director at CBS, to encourage American composers. Moross received one of several commissions granted in 1937 and 1938, along with Aaron Copland and William Grant Still. Moross's A Tall Story for Orchestra was first heard on the radio program Everybody's Music on September 25, 1938.
While still in Los Angeles in October 1937, Moross received a call from Ruth Page asking him to return to Chicago to create Frankie and Johnny, a work they had discussed during Moross’s previous engagement. In addition to working on the new ballet, they were finally able to premiere An American Pattern at the Civic Opera House in Chicago (December 1937). Moross lingered in Chicago, but then returned to Los Angeles on New Years Day 1938 to resume work on the Porgy and Bess performances. Porgy and Bess “fizzled out after three weeks,” according to Moross, and the disastrous California flood of 1938 prompted the organizers to declare bankruptcy and dismantle the show.[xiii] Moross remained in San Francisco, however, to complete the score for Frankie and Johnny.
Moross relished those opportunities when he could strike out in new directions and reinterpret the traditional musico-dramatic forms, while challenging his audiences with provocative subject matter. Frankie and Johnny is based on the American folk song that Carl Sandburg referred to as the “classical gutter song,” when he published it in An American Songbag.[xiv] While the plot centers on Johnny’s infidelity and murder, an incongruous trio of Salvation Army girls (singing and playing tambourines) comments on the action much like a Greek chorus. The juxtaposition of the sacred (the Salvation Army) and the profane (the two lovers) was probably intended to spark interest and controversy. Frankie and Johnny was especially popular and well received when it premiered in 1938 (less so when it was staged again in 1945) at the Great Northern Theatre in Chicago. The program also included a revival of Moross’s An American Pattern and was so successful it continued for six weeks after which Moross returned to Los Angeles.
Dancers in Frankie and Johnny
The success of the two previous commissions prompted Ruth Page to request a third ballet from Moross, this time an adaptation of Bizet's Carmen, called Guns and Castanets. Although he worked on this score through October 1938, both in Los Angeles and Chicago, contractual disagreements between Moross and Page prompted him to return to New York in late 1938.