Today is a very special day for a special mouse. Happy Birthday to Disney’s own Mickey Mouse! And boy, do we have a gift for you…
You know Deems Taylor from the Disney classic, Fantasia. Yes, that’s right, you recognize him now, he was the narrator illuminated in blue hue on stage with the orchestra. However, Fantasia, although an important highlight of his career, was only a mere dent.
Deems Taylor, born in NYC in 1885, was one of the best-known musical figures of the first half of the 20th-Century. He had an incredible career as a music critic, journalist, a radio commentator, and as a composer. Taylor has written for The New York Tribune, The New York World, The New York American, and Music America, and is the author of The Well-Tempered Listener, Of Men and Music, and Music to My Ear. As a broadcaster and radio commentator for the New York Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera, he brought new light on the classical and contemporary genres. In fact, Taylor is the first American composer to have an opera broadcasted on the radio, which was The King’s Henchman. In addition, Taylor served as ASCAP’s President from 1942-1948 and was a member of the board of directors from 1933-1966.
In order to preserve the lost music of Deems Taylor, his grandson, Michael Cook, signed on with PARMA to release THREE CENTURY SUITE, which was only performed once before. With release day tomorrow, Michael Cook’s A&R Representative, Chris Robinson, had a chance to chat with Cook about his famous grandfather and the release.
ROBINSON: For those who may not already be aware, could you share the story behind how you re-discovered “Three Century Suite” and began seeking out a way to realize this project?
COOK: When my mother died, I found a cassette tape of the only live performance, which took place in 1961. Since this year is the 50th anniversary of Deems’ death, I wanted to do something to honor his music. At first, I thought it would be great if someone would perform this piece again. I retrieved the handwritten score from the Taylor archives at Yale and got it transcribed into Sibelius. I sent the score and the recording to several conductors, all of whom were interested, but none of whom could get it on their schedule this year. So I decided to record it with PARMA.
ROBINSON: What’s your earliest or most-lasting memory of your grandfather and his work?
COOK: One of my vivid memories is when Deems visited me at National Music Camp in Interlochen, Michigan, where I was a camper for three summers. It was there that Three Century Suite was performed, by the University orchestra, and I was sitting next to Deems at that concert. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that this was the first time he had heard the piece played, too!
ROBINSON: What has been the most surprising and/or significant thing you learned about Deems’s work since you first embarked on this project?
COOK: Working to record Deems’ music has been a catalyst for significant growth in my own musical education. I have played several instruments from an early age, written hundreds of songs of my own, and written and produced two full-length musicals. I have studied composition with two teachers, and jazz improvisation with students of Lennie Tristano. But working with Deems’ scores has been an education in orchestration, and instrumentation, and has opened my mind to what orchestral composition is all about. In addition, I have read several books on the history of twentieth-century music, in order to better understand Deems’ place in history, and this has also been a revelation and a joy.
ROBINSON: What about this piece do you think best represents Deems’s writing?
COOK: The lovely melodies, and his use of countermelodies, especially in the last section, Bartholomew Fair. Of course, his orchestration is wonderful. Also – in the Pavan, the way he constantly alters his theme – by modulation, extension, etc. – is something he does a lot. The overall craftsmanship of the work is very impressive to me – he wanted to be an architect, and his feeling for form reflects this, I think. Finally, the overall sense of life – the emotions he communicates – are benevolent, and joyous. There’s no “angst”, anger, rage, fear, horror – hallmarks of much of twentieth-century music.
ROBINSON: What goals would you like to achieve for Deems and his music through this release?
COOK: I would love for many people to hear and enjoy this wonderful piece and be led to explore his other recorded works. I would also like to see some of his other unrecorded work recorded. He deserves to be rediscovered.
ROBINSON: How has his music shaped who you are as a musician today, and how do you think this project could help to continue his legacy?
COOK: As I said above, it has sparked an interest in the intellectual aspects of composition. This project has resulted in a period of intense listening and study which is ongoing. As for his legacy – again, his music is a joy and deserves to be heard. With Three Century Suite, we have made available something that was lost in the mists of time, buried in a box in a library in New Haven. I believe it is a significant find, and it is the last orchestral piece he wrote. In that sense, it is a major release.
ROBINSON: As this is Volume II of The Lost Music of Deems Taylor, what do you have in mind for Volume III?
COOK: One piece that is high on my list is Marco Takes a Walk, which is a lovely bit of program music based on Dr. Seuss’s first book And to Think I Saw it on Mulberry Suite. A live performance can be heard on YouTube, from 1954 I believe.