By Ricky O’Bannon
Neil Grauer’s father loved to tell his son about the grand opening concert of Radio City Music Hall in 1932.
In true Vaudeville style, the four-hour show featured opera excerpts, comedy, a kick line from the Rockettes and a new work by American composer Ferde Grofé titled Sept. 13, 1814.
In 1932, Grauer’s father and grandfather were in the last audience to hear Grofé’s piece for orchestra. After several years of research to find the lost work and a collaboration that included a neuroscientist, library researcher and “Taps” historian, Grauer will be in the second audience to hear the piece at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Sept. 20 gala almost 82 years later.
“My father loved to talk about the opening of Radio City,” he said. “The [concert] program was in our attic, and I found it probably when I was in high school.”
Three years ago Grauer — a cartoonist and former newspaperman who works in the communications department at John Hopkins University — was collecting the saved papers of his father and grandfather to give to JHU, where all three men attended. He had decided to include the 1932 program when he noticed Sept. 13, 1814, which was the third item in the show.
The piece, Grauer said, is described by the program as an evocation of the bombardment of Fort McHenry, which was accompanied on stage by a tableau that included an actor playing Francis Scott Key. A few years away from the bicentenary of the War of 1812 and Key’s writing of the Star-Spangled Banner, Grauer said he thought it would be perfect timing for a revival and started researching the piece.
He wasn’t able to find any mentions of Sept. 13, 1814, but did see that Grofé’s papers were held at the Library of Congress. Grauer reached out to Charles Limb, who is a neuroscientist who has collaborated with the BSO on several projects and like Grauer works for John Hopkins University. Limb and Grauer worked together with Nicholas Brown at the Library of Congress to unearth the original score and then propose its performance to the BSO.
Brown, Grauer said, found the handwritten score to the piece, which was re-titled Ode to the Star-Spangled Banner, after sorting going through more than 200 boxes of Grofé’s papers. Now knowing the new title, the three men found a crude recording of a jazz band version of the piece.
“It was a 1937 recording of a radio broadcast, so it's a little rinky-tinky just because of its age,” Grauer said. “But I was stirred by it.”
Ferde Grofé was an American composer who is best known to orchestras for his Grand Canyon Suite. Grofé was also the long-time arranger for Paul Whiteman’s jazz band — dubbed the “Prime Minister of Jazz” by the New York Times to Whiteman’s “King of Jazz.” Grofé arranged Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue for Whiteman.
Ode to the Star-Spangled Banner is a programmatic tone poem that musically depicts the attack on Fort McHenry. The piece mixes in national music identifiers such as Rule Britannia, Yankee Doodle and of course the Star-Spangled Banner much in the same way as Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory or Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.
Because the piece was never published, the only sheet music that existed was Grofé’s handwritten score. Grauer enlisted the help of another John Hopkins graduate Jari Villanueva — who among other things is a leading historian on the “Taps” bugle call — to engrave the score to be printed. In order to use the piece in the BSO gala, Grauer contacted Ferde Grofé, Jr.
“He was delighted,” Grauer said. “He told me his father performed it during World War II with his jazz band, but I could find no indication whatsoever that he ever did [another] full orchestral performance of it. That's why this [will be] the first time this has been done since 1932.”
As a cartoonist, Grauer is something of a visual thinker. A drawing of a blue jay he illustrated in 1965 for the Hopkins campus newspaper has now become the university emblem. As a visual thinker, Grauer said he wanted to make sure the BSO performance of Ode to the Star-Spangled Banner had something to emulate the tableau, which featured live actors in the original performance.
The BSO performance won’t feature actors, but it will be accompanied by a video that uses scenes from an A&E Channel docu-drama on the War of 1812, which Grauer said he got permission to use and recut with the help of videographer Jay Corey.
After several years of anticipation, Grauer said he’s looking forward to hearing and seeing the Ode be performed for the first time since that 1932 concert.
“If my father hadn't kept the program, nobody except maybe Ferde Grofé, Jr. would know this piece of music existed,” he said. “I will be thrilled to hear it, and I will be thinking of my father and grandfather.”