Morton Gould (1913-1996) was an American conductor, composer, and pianist. He was recognized as a child prodigy very early in his life, and as a result he published his first composition before his seventh birthday. His talents led him to become the staff pianist for Radio City Music Hall when it opened in 1932. He went on to compose movie soundtracks, Broadway musicals, and instrumental pieces for orchestra and band while also cultivating an international career as a conductor. Among the honors he received were the 1995 Pulitzer Prize, the 1994 Kennedy Center Honor, a 1983 Gold Baton Award, and a 1966 Grammy Award. By the time of his death in 1996 he was widely revered as an icon of American classical music.
Gould wrote Ballad for Band in 1946 on commission from Edwin Franko Goldman and his Goldman Band. They premiered it on June 12 of that year in New York City. It is constructed from original melodies (as opposed to using existing folk material as Gould often did) based on his impressions of African-American spirituals. He elaborates:
I have always been sensitive to and stimulated by the sounds that I would call our “American vernacular”—jazz, ragtime, gospel, spirituals, hillbilly. The spirituals have always been the essence, in many ways, of our musical art, our musical spirit. The spiritual is an emotional, rhythmic expression. The spiritual has a universal feeling; it comes from the soul, from the gut. People all over the world react to them … I am not aware of the first time I heard them. It was undoubtedly a sound I heard as a child; maybe at a revival.
Ballad is cast in a broad ABA form, with each slow A section unfolding at a leisurely, unhurried pace. The central B section is lively and rhythmic, but seems only like a brief episode interrupting the reverie of the outer sections. Gould again had something to say about this structure:
Ballad for Band is basically an introverted piece that starts slowly, is linear, and has a quiet lyricism; it is not big band in the sense that there is little razzle-dazzle. A discerning listener who is programmed to appreciate the nuances and subtlety of a contemporary piece would respond favorably to this, but others merely find it from relatively pleasant to slightly boring. Only certain listeners respond to what this piece represents musically.
The President’s Own United States Marine Band plays Ballad:
To see where Gould got his inspiration from, here is a choral version of the famous spiritual, “Oh Freedom”:
There are several short biographies of Gould on the Internet. Each one is more glowing than the last:
Wikipedia – concise biography and list of works.
G. Schirmer – Gould’s publisher gives a much more eloquent account of the composer’s life (which wikipedia seems to have stolen and mangled).
Kennedy Center – Heaps yet more praise on the composer.
There is even an entire book dedicated to the biography of Morton Gould, by Peter W. Goodman. It is called American Salute.
Google books preview of the book here.
Review of said book here.