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An American Ballet Score Lost and Found

American composer Ferde Grofe in 1937
American composer Ferde Grofe in 1937

Ferde Grofe's Cafe Society: Lost and Found

It's a work by one of the significant names in American music, yet it hasn't been heard for 70 years - until now. We know Ferde (Ferdie) Grofe (Grof-ay) as the composer of the well-known Grand Canyon Suite, and as the original orchestrator of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue for Paul Whiteman's band. But Cafe Society is a ballet from the height of his career that fell into oblivion.

Gary White, conductor of the Philadelphia Sinfonia - the youth orchestra that recently played Cafe Society at Philadelphia's Kimmel Center - will share with us the full story behind this fanciful evocation of Prohibition-era nightlife.


Ferde Grofe: (1892-1972). Cafe Society (1938). Philadelphia Sinfonia, Gary White, conductor

Ferde Grofe: Mississippi Suite (1926). Boston Pops Orchestra, Keith Lockhart, conductor

Commissioned by Catherine Littlefield for her ballet company, Cafe Society depicts the swanky nightclubs of the time. Certain aspects of American culture that we now take for granted actually first sprang forth in the 1930s: rich folks mingling with entertainers, gawkers slipping tenners to doormen to rub shoulders with the celebrities, paparazzi snapping in from the edges, and gossip columnists enticing the rest of us to read all about it in the morning paper.

Grofe satirizes it all in Cafe Society. He was in the vanguard of a controversial movement - the mixing of jazz and classical music - and his longevity doing it (first with Whiteman, then on his own) attests to his success. He and Littlefield both worked in musical theater and knew exactly what they wanted from this piece: a fun entertainment. It includes a cab whistle, a boxing match (with count out), a romance, and a periodically almost-falling-over drunk. Grofe conducted the 1938 premiere in Chicago, but a 1942 concert performance by the Pennsylvania WPA Symphony Orchestra in Philadelphia (one of the 33 federal or "civic" orchestras around the country) yielded the materials housed in the Fleisher Collection.

The composer's son, Ferde Grofe, Jr., was thrilled to have this music performed again, and granted Gary White complete access to the original sketches at the Library of Congress. The conductor painstakingly compared those to the Fleisher materials and a piano reduction in the possession of dance historian Sharon Skeel. He cleared up a number of confusing passages and errors, Fleisher reprinted a new set, and the May 2010 performance was a rousing success. In the audience were a dancer from the very same Littlefield Company and a niece of Catherine Littlefield.

The Mississippi Suite, Grofe's first major orchestral work, shows the composer's fondness for what he called "the American musical spirit" - something he returned to again and again. The four movements: Father of waters, Huckleberry Finn, Old Creole days, and Mardi Gras are a travelogue, very much like what Grofe accomplished in suites for the Hudson River, Niagara, Hollywood, the 1964 New York World's Fair, and, of course, the Grand Canyon. About his most famous work, he wrote, "Always we must realize that there is much more to hear. Our land is rich in music, and if you listen you can hear it right now. This is our music you hear, surging forth, singing up to every one of us." That is the significance of Ferde Grofe.--Kile Smith, Host

More Information:

1938 TIME Magazine Review of Ferde Grofe's Cafe Society

Ferde Grofe on Wikipedia

About Host Kile Smith