Almost eleven years ago (my God; has it really been that long?), when I first heard of composer Morton Gould’s death, I posted the following to the electronic discussion list of the American Musicological Society.
Date: Thu, 22 Feb 1996 14:37:28 -0700 (MST)
From: Jonathan D Bellman
Subject: Morton Gould
I do not want to mentally say good-by to Morton Gould without at least semi-publically (meaning the amslist) acknowledging some music that I haven’t heard anything about in decades. People have been mentioning a variety of his works, including the soundtrack to the TV miniseries Holocaust, which I missed. What I haven’t head mentioned is is soundtrack to the 1964 documentary series World War I, which I was allowed to stay up an extra half hour, 8:00-8:30 PM, to see (I was seven). His music was evocative and almost intolerably powerful, and provided the perfect backdrop for the authentic film footage of which the documentary series was entirely made up. I made my parents buy me the soundtrack album, which was an unlikely thing for us to have spent money on in those lean years.
Gould’s music provided as powerful a musical experience as I can remember from my childhood.
Forn gezunt, Mr. Gould.
Now, more than four decades after I first saw the shows, I got the DVDs of this 1964 CBS World War I series through Interlibrary Loan, and we watched the first five episodes last night. It is extraordinary: there is Archduke Ferdinand, Nicholas II of Russia, the Hapsburgs…the whole pathetic, childlike, inbred wreckage of European nobility. There’s the Lusitania. There’s Belgium. And there’s ship after ship sunk by the U-Boats and their strutting captains and crews. There’s Big Bertha.
I remembered the music, which plays throughout the entire series and was composed by Morton Gould, as being very powerful. Indeed it is, but listening to it in its proper context—as opposed to on my nearly-worn-flat LP of it—is revelatory. Gould has a variety of chosen musical themes, two or three for each affect: battle, giddy Europe ignoring the threat, arming and preparing for war, soldiers leaving for the front, and so forth. He treats these themes as a traditional, common-practice composer might: in a variety of different orchestrations, different rhythmic treatments, augmentations, moods. There is ample use of the orchestra, and also much use of the symphonic wind ensemble. It is wonderful, evocative music, and it increases the eerie effect of this historic footage—footage I cannot believe survived.
What I realize now, and (of course) could not have known as a seven-year-old, was that this is still School of the Newsreel (I believe that newsreels did occasionally show up in the cinema in the early 1960s, though it was more specialized than in the 1930s and 1940s). The war is played out, horrific calamity after horrific calamity, with a constant running commnentary read by Robert Ryan and Gould’s symphonic score. The sense of the Epic is unmistakable. WWI certainly needs no such help, certainly, but the music and narration have the paradoxical effect of both distancing the footage—one has to keep reminding oneself it was all too real, not staged—and making it more vivid and disturbing.
That was, by the way, from a time when broadcasting companies were required to devote a certain amount of airtime to serving the public, since they were using public airwaves. It is a superb effort, the result (obviously) of many hours of archival research.
Borrow it on ILL. Very, VERY worthwhile.