Music Monday: Gillis: Symphony 5½

Generally, symphonies are Serious Business. Even the lighter offerings from the mid-1700s were meant to mark grand occasions, adding weight and importance to the occasion of their performance. With the advent of Gustav Mahler and his monumental outpourings, one could understandably get the impression that 20th-century symphonies are bound to be intense, fraught affairs. To counter that impression, I present: Don Gillis.

It's not surprising if you've never heard of Gillis. Born in Cameron, Missouri in 1912, he followed the relatively typical (for a 20th-century American composer, at least) path of bachelor's and master's degrees in composition (at Texas Christian University and the North Texas State University, respectively), he then left academia and went to work as a producer with Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra. (Gillis was quite close to the maestro, and produced an extensive radio program about his life after he died. Toscanini, despite his current reputation for strictness and seriousness of purpose, seems to have been quite fond of Gillis's music, and programed quite a bit of it on his radio broadcasts.) He was instrumental in founding the Symphony of the Air after the NBC Symphony disbanded, and continued on as a producer before taking a job on the composition faculty of the University of South Carolina in 1973, a position he held until his death from an unexpected heart attack only five years later. So far as I can tell, his compositions never won a single award, and the academic music world has been quite happy to forget all about his existence.

Lack of formal recognition, however, didn't stop him from composing. Gillis wrote prolifically in his years as a producer, churning out twelve symphonies, several operas, and a plethora of other works as well. On numerous occasions he explained that he didn't really care about how posterity received his work, he only cared about music for people to enjoy in the present. This is probably for the best since — to be perfectly honest — many of his pieces don't hold up that well with the passage of time, diving headlong into kitschy Americana with folksy presented and developed in bland, predictable ways. He also doesn't have a terribly wide stylistic range, and after too much listening, it starts to feel like each piece is the same as the last. Unlike many of the more obscure composers featured here, I wouldn't make the case that Don Gillis is an unfairly neglected master of his craft.

Luckily, tho, some of his pieces do stand up pretty well, and they are delightful pieces at that. In 1946, he started working on a new symphony, which he thought would be his sixth. He quickly decided, however, that the music was too silly for that number and instead called the resulting piece his symphony no. 5½, "A Symphony for Fun". And it is. It's frothy and giddy and absurd, a wonderful antidote for anyone tempted to take Western concert music too seriously. The first movement, "Perpetual emotion", starts with a jazzy fanfare that launches a bustling romp. Cheeky woodwind themes alternate with irreverent percussion in a breathless rush of ideas that hovers just one step away from going off the rails. The "Spiritual?" that follows strikes a more somber note. The thematic content is Gillis's own, but the harmonies are strongly influenced by the music of black composers and performers, another example in the American music scene's long tradition of white people taking the musical stylings of black people (or approximations thereof), "sanitizing" them, and using them to sound hip, contemporary, or popular. (Of course, many of the resulting pieces were wildly popular with white audiences, and there were many borrowings in the other direction as well, so it is not always easy to trace what originated where. The intersections of music and racial dynamics in the United States are many and complicated.)

In place of a traditional scherzo, Gillis next provides a "Scherzophrenia", which has nothing to do with the disorder. The upbeat jazzy effects are back, including a rambunctious dance break that wipes out any expectation of a statelier trio. These persist into the final "Conclusion!", but they merge with music that seems more indebted to the music of hoe-downs and rodeos, with a few passages in the central section that unexpectedly seem to be winking at the opening to Igor Stravinsky's Petrushka. (A quick listen to his treatment of "Here Comes the Bride" in the last movement of his ballet Shindig provides ample evidence that he was no stranger to the art of distorted quotation, so it's not entirely implausible that it's a deliberate reference.) Any semblance of formality is long since gone by the time the music crashes its way to the double bar with one last playful thumbing of its nose.