Ferde Grofé’s “Grand Canyon Suite” communicates an infectious passion for the beauty of the Canyon, especially the allure of the composer’s magnificent first impressions. His pictorial orchestration is emotional but that does not imply simplicity. It is a strength that welcomes and holds listeners of every age.

Emblazoned with striking black and white titles, the 1958 Columbia Records cover read GROFÉ: GRAND CANYON SUITE, THE PHILADELPHIA ORCHESTRA and EUGENE ORMANDY, CONDUCTOR. And the image. Breaking through the darkest of storm clouds, the barest sun lit the canyon’s shadowed edges.

As a child, Grand Canyon Suite was the second orchestral record I ever listened to. My parents had owned it for a few years and let me play it on the simple box record player in my room. Fascinated, I remember listening to it for weeks as I read and reread the album notes about each movement. I felt as if I was there, and I hadn’t even visited the Canyon in real life yet. And I know I’m not the only one who experienced this wonder.

As an adult, I now recognize the romantic and jazz influences in Ferde Grofé’s distinctive work, but what I find most remarkable is its musical appeal to all ages. Our imagination is easily awakened without composer notes. Children are still captured by it.  We are not overwhelmed by bombast or special effects, but are left with an experience of imaginary sight, sound, and wonder.

Ferdinand Rudolf von Grofé was born in New York City in 1892 and raised in Los Angeles in a family of classical musicians, studying music abroad for a short time. Though he never completed traditional schooling, he played violin, piano, and occasionally alto horn before moving on to play and arrange for several jazz bands. Grofé’s most famous involvement, of course, was his band and later full orchestra arrangements for Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

Grofé completed the Grand Canyon Suite in 1931. At first, he wrote it for a small orchestra of around twenty players. But it was when he expanded it to a full symphony that the distinctly 20th century American pictorial came to life.

His inspiration began with a trip across the Arizona desert to catch the Grand Canyon sunrise. He was in his 20s and had strapped gas cans to his vintage jeep. In an NPR interview late in his career, he reminisces,

I first saw the dawn because we got there the night before and camped. I was spellbound in the silence, you know, because as it got lighter and brighter then you could hear the birds chirping and nature coming to life. All of a sudden, bingo! There it was, the sun. I couldn’t hardly describe it in words because words would be inadequate.

Somehow Grofé transcribed his experience into the language of music, something that everyone could understand and delight in.

Original Ormandy recording:

Bernstein with canyon footage:

The five movements of the Suite follow a natural day. “Sunrise” may only be a few minutes but commences with the rumble of low timpani joined by the birdsong of trilling piccolo and flute. The horns rise in an ascending scale followed by the English horn and strings who join the morning melody. The sun crests the horizon. Horns join as the volume increases with the brightness of life as a new day is born.

Almost mysterious, the second movement, “Painted Desert,” features a curious give-and-take. It begins in a minor key with muted trumpet. Amid strings and winds, the minor is resolved into a pleasant melody before reverting to the magical minor. Thunderous strings lower again before we leave the desert.

A delightful violin cadenza introduces the melody of the third movement, “On the Trail.” Comedic in tone, the oboe then mimics the burro’s canter, accompanied by the sound of its hooves, the clip-clop of coconut shells in the percussion section. The burro’s pace increases then returns to its canter before braying more. The horns and trombones soon introduce a cowboy song. The middle of the movement features a brief solo for celesta, a unique keyboard sound if ever there was one, because according to the published score notes, the cowboy comes upon a lone cabin where a music box is playing. The movement ends at a livelier pace, as if the burro recognizes its stable and manger.

After a full day, the horns of “Sunset” reintroduce the sunrise theme. Less birdsong than the morning, arpeggios climb and decline before sweeping strings. Perfectly juxtaposed to the final movement, the music slows and softens as the camper prepares for a peaceful night’s sleep.

In “Cloudburst,” the refrain of the cowboy song emerges through strings and English horn before the storm suddenly breaks. We hear the thunder of the thunder sheet, wind machine, lightning strikes, and the rumble of brass so similar to the climactic sound of Paul Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice before strings and horn sections peak. It is a symphonic whirlwind before descending scales bring all to stillness. Grofé leaves us with two sections he calls “Moon Comes From Behind the Clouds” and “Nature Rejoices In All Its Grandeur.” And then, a grand and joyous conclusion envelops us, a truly happy ending.

Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite communicates an infectious passion for the beauty of the Canyon, especially the allure of his magnificent first impressions. The composer’s pictorial orchestration is emotional but that does not imply simplicity. It is a strength that welcomes and holds listeners of every age.

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Editor’s note: The featured image is by John Keesand is licensed under Creative Commons 3.0.

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