Born December 10, 1913, in Richmond Hill, NY; died February 22, 1996, in Orlando, FL; son of James and Frances (Arkin) Gould; married twice; four children. Education: Richmond Hill High School, Institute of Musical Art, New York, New York.

Despite receiving no formal education in orchestration or conducting, Morton Gould became one of the most prominent American composers and conductors of the twentieth century. His works have been hailed for their accessibility to the general listener and are included in the standard repertory of bands and orchestras throughout the U.S and Europe. As a conductor he had over 100 recordings and a dozen Grammy nominations to his credit, and he had served as a guest conductor for most top American orchestras. Joseph McLellan wrote in the Washington Post in 1994, "The first thing you notice about the music of composer Morton Gould is how easy it is to enjoy."

Gould was best known for his orchestral works and has written music in many genres. According to The New Grove Dictionary of Music, "Gould has promoted serious music for symphonic band through his own compositions" and is "a master of orchestration." Max Harrison wrote in the Contemporary Composers, "There is also great rhythmic freedom in his [Gould's] music, fluent counterpoint and highly effective orchestration." While many of Gould's compositions are renowned for satisfying a wide range of musical tastes, his symphonic works have been acclaimed by such titans of serious music as Reiner, Toscanini, Stokowski, Mitropoulos, and Rodzinski.

A musical prodigy, Gould was an accomplished pianist by the age of five. A year later he published his first composition, "Just Six." When he earned a scholarship to the Institute for Musical Art at the age of eight, he was the youngest person to train at the school. However, his experience at the Institute proved disappointing. "I wanted to study theory, and they wouldn't let me," he told Musical America about his stint at the Institute. "They said I was too young. It was an old-fashioned, dogmatic kind of approach, and I was miserable." Gould left the school after a year of study to pursue other training, and by age thirteen was learning theory as well as performing. He studied composition with Vincent Jones and piano with Abby Whiteside, and Whiteside became his long-time coach, advisor, and friend. "She [Whiteside] believed that music is all-embracing, that you did not isolate technique from music-making," Gould noted in Musical America. "Much of what she taught me has stood me in good stead over the years."

As a teenager Gould gave piano recitals in the New York City area, often improvising on themes contributed by the audience. His improvisations demonstrated his love for jazz, and many of his future compositions revealed jazz influences. Gould also played piano for silent films, in jazz bands, and as part of a two-piano duo on the local vaudeville circuit. His compositions were first heard in concert when he was just sixteen.

When Gould was seventeen, a friend set up an audition for him with famed conductor Fritz Reiner. Reiner was impressed, and said that he would recommend Gould for a scholarship to the prestigious Curtis Institute. But his father's failing health and financial difficulties in the family during the Depression prevented Gould from taking advantage of the opportunity, and he had to quit school in order to help his parents pay the rent. Gould thinks that his lack of academic training in music may have helped him in other ways. "I don't know whether formal training would have been for the better," he said in Musical America. "Maybe a lot of the positive things that have happened during my career would not have happened if I had gone another route."

In 1931 the still teenage Gould became the pianist at the newly opened Radio City Music Hall, where he performed solos as well as played with the Hall orchestra. At age 21 he began a lifelong affiliation with radio when he was hired to compose, arrange, and conduct weekly orchestra programs for WOR. His programs drew from many musical genres, mostly American, that included jazz, folk, and modern classical.

At age 24 Gould composed his famous Second Symphonette, which contained his highly melodic and popular "Pavanne" segment. His light compositions were popular with millions of radio listeners, giving him a national exposure that accelerated his career. Soon he was in demand by orchestras around the country, and he was also invited into the recording studio. Many of his compositions and orchestrations became staples for high school orchestras and bands in the U.S., most notably his American Salute.

Some critics wrote off Gould as being too lightweight, and at first the composer was upset at the labeling. Later he changed his opinion , and became a champion of "popular" music. He said in the Washington Post, "I was very embarrassed when I was young -- put out by the fact that people liked my music." "It bothered me that because my music was popular it couldn't be important," he added in Musical America. "But in those days, the feeling was that you did one kind of music or the other. The idea of crossing over was not accepted."

One of Gould's greatest talents was his ability to place popular standards into a symphonic context. His Cowboy Rhapsody transferred melodies such as "Home on the Range" into the symphonic realm, and works such as American Ballads, Classical Variations on Colonial Themes and Spirituals for Orchestra drew heavily on Americana. According to Harrison in Contemporary Composers, "In fact Gould has been more successful than some more renowned figures in applying classical procedures to jazz, folk and pre-rock popular idioms."

After leaving his post at WOR in 1942, Gould took on similar responsibilities for NBC and other radio stations. He provided music for shows such as the "Cresta Blanca Carnival" program and "The Chrysler Hour" on CBS. Gould soon branched out into music for theater and film. He was commissioned to score ballet music for Agnes DeMille's Fall River Legend in 1949, George Balanchine's Clarinade in 1964, and for Jerome Robbins's tribute to Fred Astaire, I'm Old Fashioned, in 1983. He also provided scores for the Broadway musicals Billion Dollar Baby in 1945 and Arms and the Girl in 1952.

Gould has always considered himself an eclectic composer who eagerly embraces new musical influences. As he said in Contemporary Composers, "I am not a purist and espouse no dogma but am curious and fascinated by the infinite variety of all kinds of musical sounds." A prime example of his innovativeness is 1952's Tap Dance Concerto , a piece that integrated the sound of a solo tap dancer with music played by an orchestra.

Gould satisfied his interest in jazz with pieces such as Derivations in 1956, which he composed especially for clarinetist Benny Goodman. He was also praised for his compositions for two or more pianos, especially his Two Pianos that he composed for the first Murray Dranoff Foundation's International Two Piano Symposium in 1987. Showing he could still adapt to changing musical tastes when he was past 80, Gould wrote a concert piece for children in the 1990s called "The Jogger and Dinosaur" that featured a rap musician with orchestra, dancers and visuals.

Dedicated to fostering music appreciation, Gould lectured on the art of composing, served as a musical commentator on television, and conducted student orchestras and bands. A board member of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) beginning in 1959, he was its president from 1986 to 1994. In 1986 Gould was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and received a prestigious Kennedy Center Honor in 1994 for his lifetime achievements in music. In 1995 Gould was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for "Stringmusic," a 30-minute work commissioned by the National Symphony in Washington, D.C., as a tribute to conductor Mstislav Rostropovich.

Morton Gould died February 21, 1996, at the age of 82. He was in Orlando, Florida at the time as artist-in-residence at the Disney Institute. The night before his death, he attended a concert by the U.S. Military Academy Band which performed all Gould compositions. Slated to conduct the concert, he was advised not to because he was feeling ill. Upon hearing of his death, songwriter and ASCAP presidential successor Marilyn Bergman told Heidi Waleson of Billboard, "America has lost one of its most distinguished composers and conductors, and the creative community has lost one of its great leaders." She added, "His vigor, his wit, and his spirit led us to believe he would live forever. And in fact, through his music and the legacy he left us, he will."

by Ed Decker

Morton Gould's Career

Played piano and composed music at the age of four; was staff pianist, Radio City Music Hall, 1931-1932; was composer, arranged, and conductor in charge of "Music for Today" broadcasts, Mutual Radio Network (WOR), New York, NY, 1935-1942; was composer, arranger, conductor, for CBS-sponsored radio broadcasts, 1942-1945; has served as guest conductor of many major symphony orchestras; has recorded many albums for RCA, Columbia, and other labels; made concert and radio appearances in Europe, 1966, Australia, 1977, and Japan, 1979; has composed numerous works, including three symphonies, ballets, and a score for a television miniseries.

Morton Gould's Awards

Numerous Grammy-Award nominations; Grammy Award, Best Classical Record (Symphony Number One, Charles Ives), 1966; Gold Baton Award, American Symphony Orchestra League, 1983; Elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1986; Gold Medal, National Association of American Composers and Conductors; Kennedy Center Honor, 1994; Pulitzer Prize for "Stringmusic," 1995.

Famous Works

Further Reading


Visitor Comments Add a comment…

almost 15 years ago

As a dancer who performed as soloist in Morton's "Tap Dance Concerto", I was surprised that it is not often listed among his compositions. It's a wonderful piece--very inventive, and a valentine to classical tap dancing All the rhythms for the dancer are outlined in the score, and, as Gould said, "After all, it's a concerto!" I was honored to be able to perform it with the Houston Symphony with Gould conducting, celebrating his 75th birthday--a memorable experience.

about 15 years ago

A musical prodegy indeed, very much indeed.