Program 115
"Don Gillis"

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 the Air.

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 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 immigrants.

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] [22:12]

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 with Beethoven.”

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, the “bobby-soxer.”

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 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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