Grofé – Grand Canyon Suite

by Max Derrickson

Ferdinand Rudolph von Grofé
(b March 27, 1892 in New York City; d April 3, 1972 in Santa Monica, CA)

Grand Canyon Suite
1. Sunrise
2. Painted Desert
3. On the Trail
4. Sunset
5. Cloudburst

Around 1925, American composer/arranger Ferde Grofé and some of his pals drove from Los Angeles to the Grand Canyon for a camping trip.  Grofé made sure he was awake to witness the sunrise the next morning, and like so many spectators before and after, he was profoundly inspired – the magnificence of colors, the colossal-ness, its roaring silence – and he began composing a musical picture of it.  Several years later, Grofé added 4 more movements, each evoking a different mood of the Canyon, and the finished work was premiered in 1931 as the Grand Canyon Suite.

Though many artists have attempted to capture the essence of such an extraordinary place, Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite perhaps has succeeded best.  And it seems fitting that Grofé, in particular, created it.  His was a humble background – the kind of nostalgic American story we love to hear, of tenacity and courage and meritorious reward.  Born in New York, his parents divorced and Grofé bounced around [. . .]

Grofé was proud to list the dozens of jobs he took during his apprenticeship: paper boy, delivery boy by horseback, brothel pianist, usher at a movie house, and what was maybe his most unusual, a his stint at a laundry service, where the young Ferde soaked clothes in gasoline and then hung them out to dry in the California sun.  Eventually he was playing viola in the Los Angeles Symphony, composing and arranging.  [. . .]

But Grofé was never satisfied with simply arranging, though he was masterful at it.  Already under his belt were quite a few compositions, including another of his best works, the Mississippi Suite (1925).   And in a time when the country was searching for an “American Sound,” [. . .].

Since becoming a “destination” in the late 1800’s and soon thereafter a National Park, the Grand Canyon has inspired artists and writers in steady streams.  Although poets’ words rarely capture such a place as the Grand Canyon, some seem to echo Grofé’s musical impressions brilliantly.

  1. Sunrise
    But the colors, the living, rejoicing colors, chanting morning and evening to heaven! – John Muir, 1902

Grofé’s Sunrise evokes the brimming of energy at dawn with a timpani roll and ascending horn fanfares, bird calls, and gentle contrasting rhythms representing[. . .].

  1. Painted Desert
    It made a coward of me; I shrank and shut my eyes, and I felt crushed and beaten . . . For humanity intruded here. – Harriet Monroe, 1899

The geological layers around the Canyon are called the Painted Desert, and they are mercurial: from glorious to desolate, from sun baked to mud-sopped and treacherous, sometimes glowing ethereally.  In the heat of the day [. . .]

  1. On the Trail
    Yeeee-aw—yee-aw!  Yee-a-a-aw!  . . . Down the trail he plunged, zigzagging from ledge to ledge, ears flopping, tail swinging, hoofs toe-dancing the narrow path. – Marguerite Henry, Brighty [the Burro] of the Grand Canyon, 1953

No picture of the Grand Canyon is complete without its iconic, cantankerous and noisily braying burro, the Canyon’s primary supply vehicle for centuries.  Grofé’s whimsical violin solo at the beginning [. . .].

  1. Sunset
    In the supreme flaming glory of sunset the whole canyon is transfigured, as if all the life and light of centuries of sunshine stored up and condensed in the rocks was now being poured forth as from one glorious fountain, flooding both earth and sky. – John Muir, 1902

With exceptional orchestral colors, Grofé captures one of the signature moments in the Canyon, as sky and earth illuminate in a painter’s fancy, [. . .].

  1. Cloudburst
    In fact, the Grand Canyon is a sort of Day of Judgment.  It is not a show place, a beauty spot, but a revelation. – J.B. Priestly (1937)

Those Canyon storms come at breakneck speed, unleash an apocalyptic fury with thunder and machine-gun lightning strikes, and then they’re gone.  Grofé’s Cloudburst displays his own mastery with orchestral [. . .]  subtitle, “Nature rejoices in all its grandeur.”