Ferdinand Rudolph von Grofé, known as Ferde Grofé (March 27, 1892 – April 3, 1972) (pronounced Fur-dee Grow-fay) was an American composer, arranger, pianist and instrumentalist. He is best known for his 1931 five-movement tone poem, Grand Canyon Suite.
During the 1920s and 1930s, he went by the name Ferdie Grofé.
Grofé was born in New York City in 1892 to German immigrants. He came by his extensive musical interests naturally. His family had four generations of classical musicians. His father, Emil von Grofé, was a baritone who sang mainly light opera; his mother, Elsa Johanna Bierlich von Grofé, a professional cellist, was also a versatile music teacher who taught Ferde to play the violin and piano. Elsa's father, Bernardt Bierlich, was a cellist in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in New York and Elsa's brother, Julius Bierlich, was first violinist and concertmaster of the Los Angeles Symphony.
Ferde's father died in 1899, after which his mother took Ferde abroad to study piano, viola and composition in Leipzig, Germany. Ferde became proficient on a wide range of instruments including piano (his favored instrument), violin, viola (he became a violist in the LA Symphony), baritone horn, alto horn and cornet. This command of musical instruments and composition gave Ferde the foundation to become, first an arranger of other composers' music, and then a composer in his own right.
Grofé left home at age 14 and variously worked as a milkman, truck driver, usher, newsboy, elevator operator, helper in a book bindery, iron factory worker, and played in a piano bar for two dollars a night and as an accompanist. He continued studying piano and violin. When he was 15 he was performing with dance bands. He also played the alto horn in brass bands. He was 17 when he wrote his first commissioned work, "Elks' Grand Reunion March & Two-step".
Beginning about 1920, he played piano with the Paul Whiteman orchestra. He served as Whiteman's chief arranger from 1920 to 1932. He made hundreds of arrangements of popular songs, Broadway show music, and tunes of all types for Whiteman.
Grofé's most memorable arrangement is that of George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, which established Grofé's reputation among musicians. Grofé took what Gershwin had written for two pianos and orchestrated it for Whiteman's orchestra. He transformed Gershwin's musical canvas with the colors and many of the creative touches for which it is so well known. He went on to create two more arrangements of the piece in later years. Grofé's 1942 orchestration for full orchestra of Rhapsody in Blue is the one most frequently heard today. In 1928, Gershwin wrote a letter to ASCAP complaining that Grofé had listed himself as a composer of Rhapsody in Blue. The dispute was settled, with Grofé receiving a portion of the music royalties for the piece. Despite this misunderstanding, Grofé served as one of the pallbearers at Gershwin's funeral in 1937.
In 1932, The New York Times called Grofé "the Prime Minister of Jazz". This was an oblique reference to the fact that Whiteman was widely called "King of Jazz", especially after the appearance of the 1930 King of Jazz film which featured Whiteman and his music.
During this time, Grofé also recorded numerous piano rolls for the American Piano Company (Ampico) in New York. Some captured performances were embellished with additional notes after the initial recording took place to attempt to convey the thick lush nature of his orchestra's style. Hence those published rolls are marked "Played by Ferdie Grofé (assisted)".
Not everybody appreciated Grofé's flowery arrangements during this time. In a review of a Whiteman jazz concert in New York, one writer said the music was expected to be pleasing, and "it proved so when it was repeated last night, in spite of the excessive instrumentation of Ferde Grofé." A writer of a later generation said "the Grofé and Gould pieces were the essence of slick commercialism..."
Mardi Gras (from Mississippi Suite) was recorded in the radio transcription series Shilkret Novelties in 1931. and again by Nathaniel Shilkret in RCA Victor's transcription series His Master's Voice of the Air in 1932. "On the Trail" (from Grand Canyon Suite) was also recorded in the His Master's Voice of the Air transcriptions.
During the 1930s, he was the orchestra leader on several radio programs, including Fred Allen's show and his own The Ferde Grofé Show. The "On the Trail" segment of Grand Canyon Suite was used for many years as the "musical signature" for radio and television programs sponsored by Philip Morris cigarettes, beginning with their 1933 radio program featuring Grofé and his orchestra and concluding with I Love Lucy (1951-57). Jon Hendricks wrote lyrics for "On the Trail", and the song was recorded for Hendricks' album To Tell the Truth (1975). The piano version sheet music of the suite includes lyrics to the central section of "On the Trail" by songwriter Gus Kahn.
Several times he conducted orchestral programs in New York's Carnegie Hall. On March 25, 1938, Ferde Grofe and his Symphony Orchestra played a concert at Carnegie Hall for the benefit of "Free Milk Fund for Babies, Inc.", Mrs. William Randoloh Hearst, President and Founder. The concert included a number of premieres, with George Gershwin's "Three Preludes" for orchestra (scored by Ferde Grofé) featured.
In January 1933 the premiere of his Tabloid Suite, an orchestral suite in four movements, was presented in Carnegie Hall. In 1937, he conducted a concert tribute to George Gershwin at Lewisohn Stadium. The turnout (20,223 people) was the largest in that stadium's history. In 1934, Grofé announced he was working on an opera, to be based on the Edgar Allan Poe story "The Fall of the House of Usher".
In 1943, he was a guest on Paul Whiteman Presents. In 1944, he was a panelist on A Song Is Born radio show, judging the works of unknown composers. Before that time he had served several times as judge or co-judge in musical contests. Grofé was later employed as a conductor and faculty member at the Juilliard School of Music, where he taught orchestration.
In addition to being an arranger, Grofé was a composer in his own right. While still with Whiteman, in 1926, he wrote Mississippi Suite, which Whiteman recorded in shortened format in 1927. He wrote a number of other pieces, including a theme for the 1939 New York World's Fair and suites for Niagara Falls and the Hudson River. Possibly as a result of his World's Fair theme, October 13, 1940, was designated "Ferde Grofé Day" at the American pavilion of the World's Fair. In 1961, Grofé conducted his Niagara Falls Suite as part of the ceremony marking the opening of the first stage of the Niagara Falls Power Generation project.
Other notable compositions by Grofé were the Death Valley Suite and a music production about Mark Twain. The Death Valley Suite is a short symphonic suite written by Grofé in 1949, depicting the westward travels of pioneers through the "harsh lands" of Death Valley in California. Grofé was commissioned by the Death Valley 49ers, a nonprofit organization devoted to preserving pioneering and mining history of the Death Valley region encompassing Death Valley National Monument (now Death Valley National Park) and surrounding area. The composition and music was part of a pageant performed on December 3, 1949, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Forty-niners who came by way of Death Valley in search of gold and other riches, as well as celebrating the California state centennial (1850-1950). The 1949 pageant setting was outdoors at Desolation Canyon in Death Valley. Grofé was the conductor, and actor James Stewart was the narrator. In 1960, work was announced on a musical production based on the life of Mark Twain. The music was first assigned to Victor Young, but Grofé was later brought in to complete the work.
Grofé is best known for his composition of the Grand Canyon Suite (1931), a work regarded highly enough to be recorded for RCA Victor with the NBC Symphony conducted by Arturo Toscanini (in Carnegie Hall in 1945, with the composer present). The earlier Mississippi Suite along with the later Death Valley Suite are occasionally performed and recorded. Grofé conducted the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra in his Grand Canyon Suite and his piano concerto (with pianist Jesús María Sanromá) for Everest Records in 1960; the recording was digitally remastered and issued on CD in 1997.
In 1958, Walt Disney released a live-action, short subject film of the Grand Canyon using the Grand Canyon Suite music. The 30-minute Technicolor and CinemaScope film, entitled Grand Canyon, used no actors or dialogue, simply shots of the Grand Canyon itself and several animals around the area, all shown with Grofé's music accompanying the visuals. The short won an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Subject, and was shown as a featurette accompanying Disney's 1959 Sleeping Beauty. Today, the Grand Canyon Suite's third movement, "On the Trail", can be heard playing as the Disneyland Railroad passes the Grand Canyon sections of the "Grand Circle Tour" of Disneyland.
Robert Moses, master urban planner, commissioned Grofé to compose the music for the 1964 New York World's Fair. The fair's opening day's big musical performance was Paul Lavalle conducting a 94-piece orchestra in the world premiere of Grofé's "World's Fair Suite". Moses had previously commissioned Grofé to compose the theme for his 1939 New York World's Fair. Mr. Grofé was present, listening from a wheelchair, having suffered a stroke in 1961. His score was in five movements--"Unisphere", "International", "Fun at the Fair", "Pavilions of Industry" and "National".
Grofé began his second career as a composer of film scores in 1930, when he provided arrangements (and perhaps portions of the score) for the film King of Jazz. Published data for this movie do not list Grofé as the score's composer, however. He is also credited with the film score for the 1930 movie Redemption.
A review for the 1944 Joseph Lewis film Minstrel Man stated, "the music, scored by Ferde Grofé, is an outstanding item." Grofé was nominated, along with Leo Erdody, for an Academy Award in the category "Scoring of a Musical Picture" for this film.
Although he spent the first half of his life living in New Jersey and working in and around New York City, by 1945 he had moved to Los Angeles full-time. In 1945 he also sold his Teaneck, New Jersey, home.
Grofé married his first wife, Mildred Grizzelle, a soprano singer, in 1916, and divorced in 1928. In May 1951, he filed for divorce in Las Vegas from his second wife, Ruth, whom he had married in 1929. The day after the divorce was granted, he married his third wife, Anna May Lampton (January 13, 1952).
Ferde Grofé died in Santa Monica, California, on April 3, 1972, aged 80, and was buried in the Mausoleum of the Golden West at the Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California. He left four children, Ferdinand Rudolf Jr., Anne, Robert, and Delight, all of the Los Angeles area.
Grofé composed a large number of works in a variety of styles, commonly in symphonic jazz.
Works for concert band
Chamber music and solo works
His soundtrack to the 1950 science fiction film Rocketship X-M included the use of the theremin. Grofe's score for this film was released in 2012 on compact disc by Monstrous Movie Music, #MMM1965. His monumental Grand Canyon Suite is his best known work, a masterpiece in orchestration and evocation of mood and location.
Since 2010, the scores Requiem for a Ghost Town, the ballet Cafe Society and the Ode to the Star-Spangled Banner have been performed in newly published musicological scores based on the manuscripts on file with the Library of Congress.