MUSIC: Gillis: opening of Star-Spangled Symphony’s Fourth
Movement: Celebration -- Fourth of July,
performed by Sinfonia Varsovia [Albany Records TROY618, track 4]
[under the following]
Welcome to Compact Discoveries. I’m your guide, Fred Flaxman. Stay with
me for the next hour and I’ll share with you the very American music of the very
American composer, Don Gillis. We’ll listen to his ballet Shindig and his
Star-Spangled Symphony, the last movement of which is fading out of the
background right now.
MUSIC: fades out
Don Gillis was born in Missouri in 1912 and he died of a sudden heart attack in
South Carolina in 1978. But his family moved to Fort Worth, Texas, when he was
17, and that is the state where he lived and worked most of his life and that is
the state which inspired most of his music.
While still in high school he formed a jazz band for which he prepared
arrangements and wrote original pieces. In 1931 he enrolled in Texas Christian
University on a scholarship as a trombone player. He graduated in 1935 and moved
on to advanced studies in composition and orchestration at North Texas State
University in Denton.
After that, for two years he served as staff arranger and producer for a Fort
Worth radio station. Then he became a member of the production team for NBC’s
Chicago affiliate. His first major works were created about this time. They had
interesting titles from the very beginning: The Panhandle and Thoughts
Provoked On Becoming a Prospective Papa; a tone poem called The Raven,
and Willy the Wollyworm for narrator and orchestra.
MUSIC: opening of Symphony No. 5: In Memoriam, performed
by Sinfonia Varsovia conducted by Ian Hobson [Albany TROY768, track 1]
[under the following:]
In 1944, after only a year in Chicago, NBC brought Gillis to New York to serve
as chief producer and writer for the NBC Symphony Orchestra concerts, working
with Arturo Toscanini -- with whom he established a close personal friendship.
Toscanini, Antal Dorati, other conductors, and the composer himself conducted
the NBC Symphony Orchestra in many of Don Gillis’s works. Gillis held his
position with the orchestra until it was disbanded on Toscanini’s retirement in
1954. Then Gillis helped form a new broadcast orchestra called the Symphony of
All this administrative work did not prevent him from writing a great deal of
music, including symphonies, operas, piano concertos, rhapsodies for harp and
orchestra and trumpet and orchestra, tone poems, suites, string quartets,
woodwind quintets, and works for band of every description.
Thanks to ArkivMusic.com I have five CDs full of this music to choose from.
All of it is tonal and highly accessible, unlike the compositions of many of
Gillis’s contemporary composers. Like George Gershwin’s long-form efforts,
Gillis’s music combines jazz and popular harmonies with classical
instrumentation and forms. But I think the reason you have probably heard of
Gershwin and may not have heard of Gillis, is because Gershwin had a gift for
writing catchy, memorable melodies which I find lacking in the music of Gillis.
Nevertheless, all of Gillis’s symphonic music is very well orchestrated and
melodic, and most of it is light, fun, and full of humor.
I’ll demonstrate this first with Shindig, a 1949 ballet composed on
commission from the Fort Worth Opera Association. It is a spoof of old-time
Western movies. The principal characters are the Kid, a Dance Hall Girl, the
Sheriff, and the Drunkard. The Sheriff turns out to be the Villain. The Drunkard
is really a Texas Ranger in disguise.
Oh, one other thing I should tell you before we begin the music, and that is
about the title. A “shindig” is a boisterous social gathering, a hoe-down. The
word usually implies drinking, shouting, and violent dancing. Growing up in the
suburbs of New York City, I always assumed “shindig” was another one of those
Yiddish words that had worked their way into English from New York’s Jewish
Some of those words are also one syllable starting with a “sh” sound. But,
according to John Ciardi’s Browser’s Dictionary of Curious Expressions and
Intriguing Facts, it was immigrants from Ireland who brought us “shindig,”
which probably comes from the Gaelic word for leaping around and skipping.
In any case, here’s Don Gillis’s Shindig as performed on this Albany
compact disc by the Albany Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Alan Miller.
MUSIC: Gillis: Shindig, performed by the Albany Symphony
Orchestra conducted by David Alan Miller [Albany TROY391, tracks 5-12]
Shindig by Don Gillis. David Alan Miller conducted the Albany Symphony
Orchestra on an Albany Records compact disc.
You are listening to Compact Discoveries. I’m your guide, Fred Flaxman.
I’m devoting this hour to music by the very American composer, Don Gillis.
[optional break not included in the total timing of the hour]
Don Gillis wrote some 13 symphonies, several of them with names as well as
numbers or with names without numbers. The Star-Spangled Symphony,
which we’ll hear next, was acknowledged by Gillis to be his “Ninth,” but he was
reluctant to number it as such because, as he put it, he didn’t want to “compete
His 10th symphony was called Symphony X, subtitled “The Big D,” probably
for Dallas. But Gillis said the “X” did not stand for “ten.” Then there was
Gillis’s Symphony No. 5 1/2, subtitled a “Symphony for Fun.” And there
were also two symphonies for concert band.
The Star-Spngled Symphony is divided into four movements, which could
each be separate pieces, so I’ll tell you about each movement as we come to
them. The performance is by Sinfonia Varsovia conducted by Ian Hobson on another
Albany Records compact disc release.
The symphony dates from World War II and its fast tempo opening movement, called
“Production Line,” suggests the assembly line of a factory geared up for war.
MUSIC: Gillis: Star-Spangled Symphony, “1. Production
Line,” performed by Sinfonia Varsovia conducted by Ian Hobson [Albany Records
TROY618, track 1] [6:15]
The second movement of Don Gillis’s Star-Spangled Symphony
is called “Prayer and Hymn for a Solemn Occasion.” This shows Gillis’s more
serious side. It is a tribute to the men and women who have sacrificed their
lives for the American way of life in wars past and present. This 11-minute
movement could stand on its own as a tone poem.
MUSIC: Gillis: Star-Spangled Symphony, “2. Prayer and
Hymn for a Solemn Occasion,” performed by Sinfonia Varsovia conducted by Ian
Hobson [Albany Records TROY618, track 2] [11:03]
The third movement of Don Gillis’s Star-Spangled Symphony
is a jazzy scherzo with a blues trio section called “Bobby Socks.” It paints a
portrait of a high school dance populated by the uniquely American phenomenon,
MUSIC: Gillis: Star-Spangled Symphony, “3. Bobby Socks,”
performed by Sinfonia Varsovia conducted by Ian Hobson [Albany Records TROY618,
track 3] [5:01]
The final movement of Don Gillis’s Star-Spangled Symphony
is an all-stops pulled out July 4th celebration, complete with patriotic
marches, fireworks and dances of all kinds. It is called, appropriately enough,
“Celebration -- Fourth of July.”
MUSIC: Gillis: Star-Spangled Symphony, “4. Celebration
-- Fourth of July,” performed by Sinfonia Varsovia conducted by Ian Hobson
[Albany Records TROY618, track 4] [6:06]
The Star-Spangled Symphony by Don Gillis, performed by Sinfonia Varsovia
conducted by Ian Hobson.
MUSIC: Gillis: opening of Shindig, performed by the
Albany Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Alan Miller [Albany TROY391, track
1] [under the following]
This hour of Compact Discoveries has been devoted entirely to the music
of the American composer Don Gillis. I’d like to thank ArkivMusic.com for
supplying the recordings I used, and Stuart Triff for supplying the program
notes for Albany Records, from which I obtained my information about the
composer. I’m Fred Flaxman.
Compact Discoveries is distributed internationally by the Public Radio
Exchange. This program was made possible by the financial support of members of
public radio station WXEL-FM, West Palm Beach, Florida.
MUSIC: fades out amd program ends at 58:00
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