Ferde Grofé ‘Mississippi Suite’: A Journey Down Memory Lane

Happy Sunday readers! Day G is upon us and what a treat I have for you today! This blog is going to be on a work entitled Mississippi Suite by the brilliant American composer, Ferde Grofé. I hope you enjoy this wonderful suite as much as I do – it is certainly worth it.

Ferdinand Grofé was born in New York City in 1892 and was lucky enough to be born into a musical family. His father was a classical baritone singer, his mother a professional cellist. As well as this, his mother Elsa also taught Ferde the piano and violin, as her other occupation was being a music teacher. After his father’s death in 1899, he and his mother moved abroad to Leipzig, Germany to pursue musical education. Ferde became competent in a wide-range of different instruments, with piano and viola being his favourites. By being so competent in a range of instruments, this allowed Grofé to utilise his arranging, and then compositional skills.

By 1920, Grofé started moving away from classical music, and started playing jazz piano for the Paul Whiteman orchestra. He arranged for Paul Whiteman until 1932, and in that time he had arranged hundreds of popular songs for the ensemble. Perhaps his most famous arrangement still to date is that of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Grofé took the famous work for two pianos, and arranged and orchestrated it for the Paul Whiteman orchestra. The arrangement that we know of today (with that oh so smooth clarinet solo) was from the arrangement by Grofé.

As well as professional arranger, Grofé was also a brilliant composer. He wrote a range of suites, for instance the Niagara Falls Suite, Grand Canyon Suite and the Death Valley Suite, all of which were fairly popular in their time. The Mississippi Suite and the Death Valley Suite are still popular today and recordings are still being made. By the 1930’s, Grofé started composing for film and he produced scores for the films King of Jazz, Minstrel Man and Redemption. After moving back to the USA after leaving Lepizing, Grofé spent most of his life living in New Jersey, although by 1945 he had moved to LA. Grofé married three times and had four children, he died in Santa Monica (CL) in 1972.

Grofé wrote Mississippi Suite  in 1925, and it was first recorded by Paul Whiteman and his Concert Orchestra in 1927. It is a lovely little four-movement orchestral suite, which depicts the scenes along a journey down the famous Mississippi River. The journey starts at the head of Minnesota and ends up down in New Orleans. This suite is very interesting as its been suggested that Grofé took inspiration from Gershwin (after of course arranging his works), but also Aaron Copland. Grofé admired Copland and his ‘American classical music’ style. To me this suite does sound very American, so to know that Grofé was inspired by Copland comes as no surprise! Each of the four movements has its own title, so I will write a small breakdown for each below.

I. Father of the Waters (Depicts the start of the Mississippi River in Minnesota)

The first movement begins with a warm brass chorale, which sets a really lovely tone for the rest of the movement. The woodwinds then shadow this chorale. The strings then enter with what I can describe as a ‘whirling’ figure which grows into this lovely smooth melody in the upper strings. The cymbals play in the background, which creates a very magical feel for the piece. The upper winds and tuned percussion interrupt with a faster-paced motif (which reminds me a lot of the music of Tom and Jerry). The strings play their long melody once more, and the ‘journey’ carries on. I find this movement distinctly ‘American’ and the simple melodies support this idea effectively. The woodwinds bring the tone and texture down, before the brass enter with another chorale. The movement ends with a neat tonic chord, led by the winds.

II. Huckleberry Finn (This movement is based on Mark Twain’s novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The movement depicts the characteristics of Huck)

This movement is more up-beat than that of the movement before and starts with a fun melodic phrase by the bassoon. This is then accentuated by the strings who build up and then play a fast swirling descending scale. The strings then play this playful melody in full, with the brass playing interludes of a fanfare nature. The horns lead us into a slower passage, where the tone is lowered slightly. The bassoon again is at the forefront here, as well as the lower strings. The upper winds and strings play a call and response passage which brings the tempo back up once more. The dotted-rhythms of this theme is what makes it so fun and bouncy. The orchestra cut out and the bassoon plays a small slower, which leads into the upper brass playing a short two pulsating chords. The piece then ends with the whole orchestra playing a very short dominant-tonic chord progression.

III. Old Creole Days (This depicts an interpretation of spirituals sung by slaves on the plantations)

The third movement is the slowest movement of the quartet, and it is also the most sorrowful. It begins with the strings playing a lovely chorale-like melody in their lower registers. A solo violin plays a minor melody, which is very nostalgic. This is then copied by the cor anglais, which gives the melody a slightly different tone. Variations of this theme is taken around the ensemble, in particular the upper strings and flutes. The horn then plays this melody, and the orchestra stay at this low, fairly quiet dynamic. This movement is also the shortest and the music just kind of stops quietly. I really enjoy this movement as its very reminiscent.

IV. Mardi Gras (Depiction of the Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans)

The final movement begins with a brass fanfare, which sets a fast tempo for a dance-like theme to be played by the strings. The dance is reminiscent of the Cakewalk dance, with its jaunty accented motifs. The whole ensemble take a turn in playing parts of this dance theme. The strings play both arco and pizzicato which gives a different tone to parts of this movement. The tempo comes down slightly, and a theme, similar to that from the first movement is heard. This lyrical section is accentuated by Grofé with the use of extremities of range in instruments (upper strings for starters) and the dynamic ranges of the brass. This section leads us next into another nostalgic section, which is interrupted by another brass fanfare. This takes us back to the main dance motif. A descending sequence by the tuned percussion and strings creates a wonderful foundation for the ‘breakthrough’ section. The lyrical theme returns in an almighty form, with the whole ensemble playing out fully. The horns play a wonderful counter-theme and the strings are playing this lyrical melodic cell underneath. The tempo comes up slightly once more for the final stretch of the movement. A fanfare call and response theme is heard, the timpani rolls and brings us into the final chords of the piece, which ends on its tonic chord.

This really is a wonderful suite of music that is very easy to listen to, but at the same time it offers so much to the listener. It offers a story line, history and a distinctive style from Grofé. As a fan of 20th Century American classical music, this is a piece and composer that I like very much. You can hear a wealth of different influences within this suite alone, such as his Broadway-inspirations after arranging many theatre songs, his admiration for Copland and of course his own heritage and culture. I do hope you enjoy this suite, it’s an absolutely fantastic contribution to American classical music, composed by a very distinctive American composer.

This blog is for Chris Bell, who I think is going to really enjoy this suite of music! You’re fantastic, I hope you like this one!

Happy reading!

Recommended Recordings:

After searching for different recordings, I think this one is my favourite!

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