Where I come from, there are really just two seasons, Winter and Road Construction. The late winter and early spring bring potholes in the road. Big, mean, tire-killing potholes on every road you drive. “Holes” doesn’t even begin to describe these Volkswagen eating monsters. They are craters. Canyons really, deep enough to have archeologists carbon date the layer of bedrock at the bottom.
Dodging these canyons in the road made me think of the most famous canyon in America, the Grand Canyon. This led me to listen to one of the most picturesque pieces of orchestral music I know: The Grand Canyon Suite by the American composer Ferde Grofé. Our man Ferde lived from 1892 to 1972, and his Grand Canyon Suite was first performed in 1931. Grofé was an all-around musician who composed, arranged and played piano. He taught at the Juilliard school in New York for a time and wrote film scores for a number of Hollywood movies.
The Suite is depictive music in five parts. Each part portrays some particular impression of a visit to the Grand Canyon. Grofé was a master orchestrator, who used different sounds to write very evocative music. The five parts are labeled Sunrise, Painted Desert, On the Trail, Sunset and Cloudburst. Those titles are really all the program or story you need to understand what Grofé is doing with the music. It is very accessible music in that respect.
The first movement Sunrise starts softly and builds and grows, adding more and more instruments and getting louder like a sunrise gets brighter and brighter. Grofé talked in a radio interview about a dawn he witnessed at the Canyon:
“I first saw the dawn because we got there the night before and camped. I was spellbound in the silence, you know, because as it got lighter and brighter then you could hear the birds chirping and nature coming to life. All of a sudden, bingo! There it was, the sun. I couldn’t hardly describe it in words because words would be inadequate.”
I think his music is plenty adequate to describe the experience. Other movements have some unusual effects in the orchestra. In On the Trail, you can hear coconut shells imitating the sound of a burro’s hooves making its way down the canyon. In Cloudburst, there are sheets of metal used as to make thunder in the percussion section. All five movements have innovative orchestration. Take a listen.
Nature and weather has been a frequent inspiration for composers over time.
Here is the famous thunderstorm movement from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 “Pastoral”
The Prelude to the first act of Die Walküre by Richard Wagner also portrays a storm, complete with the Leitmotiv for Thor, the god of thunder.
I should probably put an umbrella in my car, along with a can of fix-a-flat in case I hit a pothole.