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Ferde Grofé

Ferde (Ferdie) Grofé (27 March 1892 – 3 April 1972) was an American pianist, arranger and composer. During the 1920s and 1930s, he was sometimes billed as Ferdie Grofe.[1]

Born Ferdinand Rudolph von Grofé, in New York City, Grofe came by his extensive musical interests naturally. Of French Huguenot extraction, 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.


Musical education

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 over a remarkable 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 as a piano player in a 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.

Arranger for Paul Whiteman

Beginning about 1920, he played the jazz piano with the Paul Whiteman orchestra. He served as Whiteman's chief arranger from 1920-1932. 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 jazz musicians. Grofé took what Gershwin had written for two pianos and orchestrated it for Whiteman's jazz 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, George Gershwin wrote a letter to ASCAP complaining that Grofé had listed himself as the composer of Rhapsody in Blue.[2] In spite of this misunderstanding, Grofé served as one of the pallbearers at Gershwin's funeral in 1937.[3]

In 1932, The New York Times called Grofé "the Prime Minister of Jazz".[4] This was an oblique reference to the fact that Whiteman was widely called "King of Jazz", especially after the appearance of the 1930 film of that name which featured Whiteman's music.

Due to Grofé's ubiquity in arranging large-scale musical works and a perceived paucity of American achievements in serious music, the German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler complained that "America has no composers, only arrangers."

During this time, Grofé also recorded piano rolls for the American Piano Company (Ampico) company in New York. These 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 the published rolls are marked "Played by Ferde 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."[5] A writer of a later generation said "the Groféand Gould pieces were the essence of slick commercialism..."[6]


In 1943, he was a guest on Paul Whiteman Presents. 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 programs sponsored by Philip Morris cigarettes, beginning with their 1933 program featuring Grofé and his orchestra. Jon Hendricks wrote lyrics for "On the Trail", and the song was recorded for Hendricks' album To Tell the Truth (1975).

Several times he conducted orchestral programs in New York's Carnegie Hall.[7][8] In January 1933 the premiere of his Tabloid, an orchestral suite in 4 movements, was presented in Carnegie Hall.[9] In 1937, he conducted a concert tribute to George Gershwin at Lewisohn Stadium. Turnout (20,223 people) was the largest in that stadium's history.[10]

In 1934, Grofé announced that he was working on an opera, to be based on the Edgar Allan Poe story "The Fall of the House of Usher".[11]


He began his second career as composer of film scores in 1930, when he provided arrangements (and perhaps portions of the score) for the film King of Jazz.[12]. Published data for this movie do not list Grofé as the score's composer, however.[13] He is also credited with the film score for the 1930 movie Redemption.[14] A review for the 1944 Joseph Lewis film Minstrel Man states "the music, scored by Ferde Grofé, is an outstanding item."[15]

In 1944, he was a panelist on A Song Is Born, 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.

Grofé's compositions

In addition to being an arranger, Grofé was also a serious composer in his own right. While still with Whiteman, in 1925, he wrote Mississippi Suite, which Whiteman recorded in shortened format in 1927. He wrote a number of other pieces, including a theme for the New York World's Fair of 1939 and suites for Niagara Falls and the Hudson River. Possibly as a result of his World's Fair theme, 13 October 1940 was designated Ferde Grofé Day at the American pavilion of the World's Fair.[16] 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.[17]

In 1960, work was announced on a musical production based on the life of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. The music was first assigned to Victor Young, but Grofé was later brought in to complete the work.[18]

Today, Grofé remains most famous for his Grand Canyon Suite (1931) a work regarded highly enough to be recorded for RCA Victor with mastery by Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony (in Carnegie Hall in 1945, with the composer present). The earlier Mississippi Suite is also occasionally performed and recorded. Grofé conducted the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra in his Grand Canyon Suite and his piano concerto (with pianist Jesús Maria Sanromá) for Everest Records in 1960; the recording was digitally remastered and issued on CD in 1997.

He also composed original film music, including the scores to Early to Bed (1928), Minstrel Man (1944), Time Out of Mind (1947), Rocketship X-M (1950) and The Return of Jesse James (1950).

Personal Life

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 fulltime. In 1945 he sold his Teaneck, New Jersey home.[19]

Grofé filed for divorce in Las Vegas, Nevada from his second wife in May 1951. The day after the divorce was granted, he married his third wife (13 January 1952).[20]

Ferde Grofé died in Santa Monica, California on 3 April 1972, at age 80, and was buried in the Mausoleum of the Golden West at the Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California. His obituary was carried in the 4 April 1972 issue of the New York Times.

Composition list

Grofé composed a number of original pieces of his own in a symphonic jazz style. Grofé's works include:

  • Grand Canyon Suite (1931)
  • Sonata for Flute and Bicycle Pump
  • Trylon and Perisphere for the New York World's Fair of 1939-40
  • Hollywood Suite
  • Niagara Falls Suite
  • Mississippi Suite (Tone Journey) (1925)
  • Broadway at Night
  • Three Shades of Blue
  • Blue Flame
  • Metropolis: a Fantasy in Blue (1928)
  • Gallodoro's Serenade for Saxophone and Piano (1958) written for the virtuoso Al Gallodoro
  • A Symphony in Steel
  • Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in D
  • Cafe Society
  • Death Valley Suite
  • Kentucky Derby Suite
  • Over There Fantasie (WWII Patriotic Medley).
  • Halloween Fantasy for Strings.
  • Hudson River Suite (1955)
  • Tabloid Suite.
  • Valley of the Sun Suite
  • San Francisco Suite (1959)
  • Aviation Suite (1960)
  • World's Fair Suite (1964)

His soundtrack to the 1950 science fiction film Rocketship X-M included the use of the theremin. His monumental Grand Canyon Suite is his best known work, a masterpiece in orchestration and evocation of mood and location.

Selected discography

  • Grofé's Grand Canyon Suite, performed by the NBC Symphony, conducted by Arturo Toscanini. On LP and on the recently out-of-print CD, it is coupled with works by George Gershwin, and (on the CD) Samuel Barber and John Philip Sousa.
  • Grofé's Grand Canyon Suite, performed by the New York Philharmonic (with John Corigliano, the violin soloist) conducted by Leonard Bernstein. Coupled with Bernstein conducting Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (with Bernstein at the piano) and An American in Paris (Sony 63086)
  • Grofé's Grand Canyon Suite, performed by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antal Doráti. Coupled with Doráti conducting Gershwin's Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture (London/Decca Jubilee 430712)
  • Symphonic Jazz: Grofé and Gershwin, performed by the Harmonie Ensemble/New York conducted by Steven Richman (Bridge Records 9212), playing:
    • Grofé's Mississippi Suite (the original Whiteman Orchestra version)
    • Gershwin's Second Rhapsody for Orchestra with Piano arranged by Grofé, with Lincoln Mayorga on the piano (premiere recording)
    • Grofé's Gallodoro's Serenade for Saxophone and Piano with Al Gallodoro on alto saxophone and Mayorga on piano (premiere recording)
    • Grofé's Grand Canyon Suite (original Whiteman Orchestra version; first complete recording)
  • Grofé's Grand Canyon Suite and Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (with Jesus Maria Sanroma) with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Grofé. Out-of-print Everest LP, reissued on CD in 1997.[21]


  1. ^ Goldman Harry and Ed Angel. Kenneth Strickfaden, Dr. Frankenstein's Electrician. McFarland, 2005.
  2. ^ Holden, Stephen (1989-02-13). "They Got America Humming: A Celebration". New York Times. Retrieved 2009-03-23. 
  3. ^ New York Times, 14 July 1937. (Archive, fee applies)
  4. ^ New York Times, 16 October 1932. (Archive, fee applies)
  5. ^ Downes, Olin (1928-10-08). "MUSIC: Whiteman’s Jazz.". New York Times. Retrieved 2009-03-23.  (Archive, fee applies)
  6. ^ New York Times, 8 June 1966. (Archive, fee applies)
  7. ^ New York Times, "Orchestra at Carnegie Hall meets enthusiastic crowd", 10 January 1937
  8. ^ New York Times, "Grofé Guest Conductor at Benefit Concert for 'Free Milk Fund for Babies', 25 March 1938
  9. ^ New York Times, 26 January 1933
  10. ^ New York Times, 10 August 1937
  11. ^ New York Times, 15 July 1934
  12. ^ New York Times, "The King of Jazz, score by Ferde Grofé", 12 January 1930
  13. ^ King of Jazz, Wikipedia entry
  14. ^ New York Times, 3 May 1930
  15. ^ New York Times, date not available
  16. ^ New York Times, 14 October 1940
  17. ^ New York Times, 7 February 1961
  18. ^ New York Times, 14 May 1960
  19. ^ New York Times, 1945
  20. ^ New York Times, 13 Jan 1952
  21. ^


  • Liner notes by Don Rayno for Symphonic Jazz: Grofé and Gershwin (Bridge Records 9212)

External links



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