Jerome Moross (1913-1983)
Frankie and Johnny • Those Everlasting Blues • Willie the Weeper
A native New Yorker, Jerome Moross began piano lessons at the age of five and was composing by the time he was eight. In a feat of musical and logistical virtuosity, he held a Juilliard School of Music conducting fellowship while finishing his degree at the New York University School of Music. Moross was awarded Guggenheim Fellowships in 1947 and 1948. In his early career, he wrote extensively for the concert stage, including his Symphony No. 1, which was first performed by Sir Thomas Beecham with the Seattle Symphony in 1943.
Moross’s music was distinctively American and remained tonal and melodic throughout his career. He loved folk-tunes and popular songs of his day, and in his formative years continually sought out indigenous music influences.
As well as writing Broadway musicals, ballets and concert works, Moross worked in Hollywood, first as an orchestrator for numerous films in the late 1930s and 1940s, and later as a composer. Of his seventeen film scores, The Big Country (1958) is the best known and is now recognized as a ‘Western’ classic.
The Ballad of the Scandalous Life of Frankie and Johnny
The popular song Frankie and Johnny, based on an actual incident that occurred in St Louis in 1899 when a prostitute named Frankie Baker shot and killed her pimp/lover following an argument, was first published in New York in 1904. As early as 1933, when Jerome Moross was only twenty, he told the New York Evening Journal that he planned to compose on the Frankie and Johnny theme: “What I plan to do is to take the elements that make a good Broadway Show interesting, and add them to opera. I will take Jazz and use it as a basis for true American Music.”
In 1938, Chicago dancer-choreographers Ruth Page and Bently Stone formed the Page-Stone Ballet Company as part of the Federal Theatre Project. At Aaron Copland’s suggestion (Moross had been a member of Copland’s Young Composers’ Group), Ruth Page commissioned Jerome Moross to compose an original ballet score. Frankie and Johnny, the first ballet to be truly “American” in form, content and creative personnel, was first given on 20th June 1938 at the Great Northern Theater in Chicago. Ruth Page and Bently Stone danced the title characters, and most of the choreography was by the latter. Reviewing the première performance, a critic proclaimed it the “most arresting and vital dance production to have come out of the Federal Theater [Project].”
Moross composed his Frankie and Johnny as a Ballet Suite for Orchestra, and also wrote the libretto, in collaboration with Michael Blankford. He used a vocal trio of Salvation Army girls (“Saving Susies”) in the manner of a modern-day Greek Chorus, commenting on the action as they wander throughout the scenes playing tambourine, bass drum and cymbals. He was amused that the Salvation Army girls, normally seen trying to save souls, would be found singing the narrative of what was then considered to be a very naughty poem.
In the programme note for Frankie and Johnny’s original theatrical production, Moross wrote: “Faithful Frankie loves Johnny madly. Johnny loves Frankie too, gladly accepting the money she makes from other men. But immediately after a tender love duet with her, he starts playing around with Nellie Bly. Then, ‘Frankie goes down to the corner saloon to buy her a large glass of beer.’ Her friends form a group around Nellie and Johnny to keep Frankie from seeing what is going on between them. However, the bartender takes keen delight in telling her the real situation, which at first she refuses to believe. Now, ‘Frankie was a good girl as everybody knows,’ but when she looks up at Nellie’s parlor and finally realizes that Johnny is actually there ‘A-lovin-up Nellie Bly,’ she works herself up into a frenzy of jealousy and melodramatically shoots Johnny ‘root-a-toot-toot-toot-toot’. All of their friends have a fine time celebrating at Johnny’s wake. Frankie tries to hang herself from the nearby lamp-post but is saved by Nellie. Finally, Frankie is left alone with her lover in the coffin and the philosophic words of the Salvation Army Sisters are heard in song:
This story ain’t got no moral,
Oh, this story ain’t got no end,
Oh, this story just goes to show you that
You can’t put no trust in any men!”
Those Everlasting Blues
Those Everlasting Blues was composed by the nineteen-year-old Moross during the summer of 1932, begun in Vienna and completed in Cagnes-sur-Mer in France. It was first performed in New York City on 4th November of that year in a Pan American Association of Composers concert conducted by Henry Cowell, with the contralto Paula Jean Lawrence as soloist. The works of the American poet Alfred Kreymborg were being set to music by several of Moross’s colleagues, and he decided to set Those Everlasting Blues in a style reminiscent of the “Negro Popular Song.” Still very much influenced by the compositional language of his mentors Charles Ives and Henry Cowell, Moross periodically strays into a jazz-like tangent. He employs a modest ensemble consisting of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet and trombone, piano, percussion and strings to accompany a deep contralto or baritone voice. The vocal line rarely exceeds the range of one octave, relying mainly on two tri-tones at the outset–and using an occasional “gutteral [sic] vibrato” and the effect of “singing-speaking.” The cantata is in three connected sections: Sad and slow, Faster and Very Fast.
Willie the Weeper
Ballet Ballads, the first fruit of Jerome Moross’s collaborative partnership with librettist John Latouche (1914-1956), was first given in the spring of 1948 and moved to Broadway in May of that year. The three one-act dance cantatas, Susanna and the Elders, Willie the Weeper and The Eccentricities of Davy Crockett, combine dance, song and story-telling in a through-composed dramatic form without any spoken dialogue. A planned fourth piece, Red Riding Hood, was sketched but never finished.
The partners explained their concept in the production note for the Ballet Ballads score’s first printed edition: “The Ballet Ballads were produced in New York as dance-operas; they were intended to fuse the arts of text, music and dance into a new dramatic unity.” The idea was “to so mix the singing and dancing that you didn’t know where the singers began or where the dancers ended” said Moross in a 1978 interview. Moross and Latouche’s next show, The Golden Apple, which further refined this form, was produced on Broadway in 1954 and also had no spoken dialogue. Both shows received rave reviews, and The Golden Apple won the 1954 New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Musical.
Moross was never one to waste a good idea, and several elements of his early works reappear in Willie the Weeper. The melody from a song he wrote in 1932 (also called Willie the Weeper) is fully developed in the opening sequence, and an extended segment of the Cocaine Lil sequence was borrowed from his earlier musical A Cow in the Trailer.
All performances of Ballet Ballads (including the Broadway ones) during Moross’s lifetime were of its piano/vocal score. However, he clearly intended his orchestrations to be performed, even indicating in the piano/vocal score’s Composer’s Note that an orchestrated version would soon be available. In 1966, the CBS network paid Moross a fee to orchestrate Ballet Ballades for a planned television production (that ultimately never took place). The Hot Springs Music Festival gave the première performance of Moross’s orchestrated version of Willie the Weeper in June 2000.
~ Laura and Richard Rosenberg