Popular Music for Orchestra – A Brief History (Part Twelve)

by Dick O'Connor


The history of popular music for orchestra culminates creatively in that branch of light music I refer to as orchestral popular – that is, the artistic, exciting, musically complete and satisfying interpretive orchestral arrangement of popular songs and instrumental themes that emerged and gained a following on radio in the 1930s and later flourished on commercial recordings. Strongly rooted in musical theatre orchestration and influenced by modern symphonic and dance band trends, freely incorporating elements from a variety of concert, popular, folk, jazz, salon, and street styles, it blossomed and flowered in the fertile studio climate that combined fine instrumental ensembles, imaginative and facile orchestral writing, and flexible and inventive sound technology. In its design, definition, and development, its promotion and popularization, no figure was more important than the Russian-born American conductor Andre Kostelanetz.


It is perhaps difficult, seventy years later, to comprehend the astonishing impact of the mid-30s half-hour radio concerts mounted and directed by maestro Kostelanetz and sponsored by Liggett & Myers Tobacco. Immediately embraced by a depression-scarred public as hungry for the splendor and novelty of escapist entertainment as for the transforming power of restored confidence, they stirred a mild furor of identity and ideology within the music world while challenging two generations of professional arrangers to re-examine and re-think approaches to popular orchestral scoring. There had never been anything quite like them.


Life in Bolshevik Russia eventually held little promise for a young music student from a comfortable background nursing podium ambitions. With some danger and difficulty Andre Kostelanetz left his homeland in 1922 to join his family in New York City, where he found work as a piano accompanist-vocal coach and arranger. Noted artist manager and high-brow music impresario Walter Judson soon took an interest in his career, encouraging him to consider radio as a suitable arena for gaining experience and developing his talents. In 1928 he began conducting on WABC and two years later was appointed Howard Barlow’s assistant at the Columbia Broadcasting System. For over three years he undertook a variety of network conducting assignments, building a reputation as an interpreter of the symphonic repertoire while conducting endless studio experiments to determine how the physical placement of instruments, the arrangement of microphones, the control of acoustical reverberation, and the manipulation of sound technology might be employed to enhance the performance of orchestral music. In 1933 he devised the format and planned the style that would make his name a household word. Despite the many triumphs and honors of later years his success rests squarely on his 1934 to 1944 radio achievements.


The juxtaposition of concert, operatic, folk, and popular music had become a standard practice on singer-oriented ‘good music’ programs. Kostelanetz extended this juxtaposition to include excerpts from the more sacrosanct symphonic literature and clever, refined orchestral adaptations of theatre songs. The unstated but intentional implication of this format was that Broadway’s best tunesmiths were, in their own way, the equals of Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and other ‘serious’ composers, a suggestion that resonated greatly with an America doing its best to cope with the effects of the depression. The melodies featured were not those of the middle-European operetta heritage that dominated the good music shows, but the recent stage and Hit-Parade successes of Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Noel Coward, Harold Arlen, and Hoagy Carmichael.


For popular selections like these to hold their own in a concert of symphonic music and opera soloists Kostelanetz realized that their arrangement and presentation were of the utmost importance. He and his staff set aside the medley, the theme and variations, the cantus firmus construction, the fantasy, rhapsody, or concert paraphrase, the sing-along, serenade, intermezzo, and the publishers’ stock dance and theatre orchestrations – all the traditional methods of treating popular music for orchestra – in favor of a new and innovative approach that kept the emphasis on the strong and beautiful melodies while raising their setting to a much higher and more adventurous artistic level.


A song was, first of all, a composition for voice, and without that voice its message, as well as its mood, color, depth, and drama must be conveyed instrumentally. A song’s lyrics, Kostelanetz insisted, held the key to its adaptation. An arrangement was planned by an examination and discussion of the orchestral interpretation possibilities called for or suggested by them. At rehearsals each desk of musicians was supplied with a copy of the words so they could orient their performance towards the expression thereof. Secondly, a song arrangement for orchestra must be a complete and satisfying musical work by itself, a single organic entity, lacking or wanting nothing. Thus its composition must be approached with the serious purpose of making a comprehensive musical statement. It must become an interesting, elegant, stylish, complex, dignified, and exciting concert piece. The maestro and his writers were well aware that in this they were building upon the foundations laid by radio predecessors Harry Horlick, Frank Black, Nathaniel Shilkret, and others.


Andre Kostelanetz seems to have understood early on that broadcasting was not only about performance and communication but about overcoming isolation – physical, mental, emotional, and psychological isolation. Consequently he took great pains to insure that his orchestra projected a human warmth, that it be perceived as a living, complex, pulsating, personable, and sometimes slightly quirky being that listeners would delight in welcoming into their homes. This was accomplished by encouraging his arrangers to cultivate a corresponding lively and intricate but buoyant and singing style of orchestration, full of warm colors and dramatic interior accents. Novel and active, it featured the kind of frequent  changes in texture, sound, and ensemble weight that had marked dance band music of the previous decade, now transferred to an orchestral context. Highly inventive, it contained a wealth of lithe accompanying lines that danced their way around the melody in a series of spritely, jazzy runs, fleet figures, and glancing gestures. Countermelodies rose, developed, peaked, and fell away. Unexpected twists and turns and unusual sounds – what was that? – provoked the listener’s interest. It drew on deeper, richer tone colors only possible with a large ensemble, colors so lush and palpable that they seemed to be touched, felt, and gathered in. The orchestra became a sensual caldron seething and bubbling with musical sound as the full range of each instrument was gracefully utilized and explored. Buoyancy was achieved by rejecting the heavy, often plodding, rhythm of dance bands and pit orchestras and replacing it with the lighter, more lilting and transparent salon style that allowed the natural motion of the melody and its attendant lines to carry the music forward, providing the exhilarating impression that the music had taken wing. The texture was further enlivened by the conscious use of orchestral sounds that subtly approximated human whispers, yawns, rustlings and rumblings, gasps, sighs, grunts, groans, breaths, flushes, and exclamations, all woven solidly and enticingly into the fabric of the arrangement. A Kostelanetz treatment was virtuosic, exciting, fanciful, and vital, full of the nervous, expectant energy associated with urban life and the glorious fulfillment of dreams come true.


The creators of this style were young would-be theatre arrangers whose careers had been diverted by the opportunities in radio. Inspired by Gershwin and influenced by modern concert music, particularly Ravel and the ‘impressionist’ composers, they worked skillfully and closely with Kostelanetz to fashion a genre of music specifically suited to the professional broadcasting studio orchestra. George Bassman was a major contributor in the mid 30s before moving to Hollywood. Nathan Van Cleave remained on the staff well into the 1940s, but after the war he too sought work on the West Coast. Both were active in films and television through the 1960s. The latter’s Twilight Zone scores have since achieved a kind of cult status among enthusiasts. Carroll Huxley is a more elusive figure. With Kostelanetz from the beginning of the Chesterfield series and sometimes listed in Radio Guide as primary arranger for this and subsequent shows, he appears to have spent many years writing for the maestro and details of his subsequent career are not known, except that he orchestrated one or two Broadway shows in the late 1950s. Alan Small, Gordon Jenkins, and David Terry furnished scores before the war, and writing talent in members of his broadcasting ensemble was also cultivated, Claude Thornhill and Russ Case being the most notable examples. During this period the acknowledgment of arrangers was generally felt to be unnecessary and even confusing to the public, and thirty-five years would pass before a recording by Andre Kostelanetz listed such a credit, giving rise to much speculation about just who was responsible for his orchestrations, speculation that continues to this day.  


Arthur Fiedler always denied any didactic design in his programs, protesting that they were meant only to entertain. Kostelanetz, however, relished the role of teacher and tastemaker. His shows can be interpreted as efforts to expose his listeners to the greatest and best in music and to instruct them in its enjoyment, and as such were welcomed and praised by the great majority of America’s music educators. Strong sponsor support and the immunity to Tin Pan Alley and Hollywood song-pluggers afforded, at least initially, by a concert format, enabled him to retain control of their content, while the royalties generated by the instrumental recycling of established items in their catalogues eventually appeased both publishers and copyright holders. His half-hours were constructed to allow listeners to hear for themselves the melodic affinities between current popular songs and the compositions of the Romantic symphonic masters. They demonstrated similarities in the thematic treatment of Beethoven, Haydn, Brahms, Gershwin, and the show’s arrangements. They illustrated the direct harmonic, rhythmic, tonal, and formal influence of concert music on popular music and vice-versa, and pointed out the color and mood relationships in the works of Ferde Grofe, Duke Ellington, Maurice Ravel, and Frederick Delius. They examined the commonalities of jazz, Gypsy, and Baroque ornamentation and improvisation, the effect of the mechanical construction of instruments on various styles, and the rhythmic subtleties at play in Classical, Romantic, Modern, and swing music. All with a minimum of or no commentary or conversation – the lessons were in the music itself.


They were lively and often fun. Concert works were regularly edited to fit the programs’ time constraints, doing away with what less sophisticated listeners regarded as the ‘boring’ parts. Moments of levity were frequent and unheralded as simple ditties appeared in absurdly inflated or overly dramatic dress, or when the full orchestra tackled Tiger Rag, Bugle Call Rag, and other jazz standards at breakneck tempos, and fragments of familiar tunes suddenly popped up within the arrangement of another song. Popular standards might receive a Baroque treatment, while a Mendelssohn melody might be returned in a jazzy dance orchestration. Classical excerpts and Tin Pan Alley hits were sometimes placed side by side in a medley or combined contrapuntally in a single number. The 1938 recording of The Man on the Flying Trapeze contains ‘swinging’ violin gestures and circus fanfares within a tongue-in-cheek swing setting. Casey Jones, from the same session, is replete with orchestral ‘train’ effects and a cartoon crash.


Some did not approve of his approach. Serious music purists objected to the presence of ‘inferior’ pop tunes and to his editing and adaptation of symphonic works. Jitterbugs and swing faddists found little in his broadcasts to interest them aside from the occasional appearance of a popular instrumentalist. The most vehement opposition, however, came from within the music industry, from both established and younger theatre and commercial orchestrators who seem to have been threatened by the complexity and flamboyance of his popular music treatments and the demands they placed on both writers and performers. Calling them pretentious, overdone, insincere, and unnecessary, they criticized them as meaningless assemblages of sound and fury that arrogantly trampled on their actual composers’ true intentions to excite and gratify a gullible, thrill-seeking public. Some accused him of overseeing the creation of a ‘mongrel’ style that lacked both the inspiration and greatness of concert music and the vitality and communication of popular music. Many condemned them as impractical in their dependence on fresh, inventive, high-caliber writing, large, experienced, and virtuoso instrumental forces, and smart up-to-date studio engineering – conditions that existed only in radio and motion pictures, and then only some of the time. Daunted by the prospect of having to re-learn a craft to accommodate their new methods and techniques, some retired or left the business. Most remained and worked at it or consciously cultivated a more conservative style.


Later in life Andre Kostelanetz would claim, or be credited by others with, a number of radio innovations that were in fact standard practices by the mid 1930s. It was not as often the originality of what he did as its excellence that made the difference. In planning and execution, in coherence and attention to detail, in orchestrational elegance and ensemble virtuosity and unity his Chesterfield shows (1934-38), Tune-Up Time (1939-40), and The Pause That Refreshes on the Air (1940-44) had no superiors. Certain other music programs enjoyed greater popularity due to the personal appeal of particular singing stars, but on a Kostelanetz broadcast it was the orchestra that was the ‘star’, not to minimize the merit of the contributions by vocal soloists such as Rosa Ponselle, Lawrence Tibbett, and his wife Lily Pons. Each show was carefully and meticulously prepared. He requested of his sponsors, and was granted, five to six hours of full rehearsal for every half-hour program. His orchestra, which consisted of 50 to 65 pieces (usually a smaller number were employed on the popular selections), half CBS staff instrumentalists and the remainder regularly employed independent players, became legendary for its perfection and to this day is so recalled with wonder and disbelief by musicians and music-lovers who heard it in the early 1940s. Members of that orchestra have spoken of the maestro’s promptness, efficiency, and good humor in the studio, his communicative and untheatrical conducting, and his painstaking efforts to balance instruments and achieve specific dramatic and tonal effects while maintaining continuity. A Kostelanetz program was unfailingly artistic, absorbing, entertaining, and effective. 


His influence can be heard in the general trend toward greater complexity and luxuriance and the use of larger orchestras in commercial music from the mid 1930s as radio producers began demanding richer and more interesting settings, often re-scoring operetta, folk, and older popular favorites to reflect the “new pop sound”, and vocalists asked for instrumental backing “ala Andre”. When the enthusiasm for swing cooled many dance bands cultivated increasingly lush ballad styles after Kostelanetz, many adding string sections and harp to their line-ups. Others moved toward a greater intricacy of line, color, and texture in their arrangements. Bill Finegan, Axel Stordahl, Claude Thornhill, and Gil Evans were among the band writers to expand on the ‘impressionistic’ concepts set forth in Kostelanetz’ treatments and through them the influence reached the work of Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Frank Sinatra, Miles Davis, and other major entertainment figures.


In the wake of his initial success radio programs spotlighting studio orchestras essaying extravagant and sumptuous interpretations of hit songs by established or especially talented younger arrangers became everyday fare on the networks, the major stations, and, through transcriptions, local broadcasting outlets as well. By the end of the war there were few professional radio orchestrators who could not produce a creditable imitation of a Kostelanetz popular song treatment on demand. Percy Faith, Morton Gould, Philip Lang, Toots Camarata, Richard Jones, and Warren Barker directly extended and updated various features of his style in fashioning for themselves distinctive, articulate, and highly personal idioms of greater expressiveness and emotional intensity that after the war found favor with the record-buying public. Conductor and Kostelanetz assistant Raoul Poliakin produced a series of albums for Everest in the 1950s that attempted to approximate the vintage radio sound of his former employer. From the later 1940s and well into the 60s the style influenced several British and continental writers as can be heard in the recordings of Van Phillips, Dolf Van Der Linden, Guy Luypaerts, Cyril Ornadel, and Brian Fahey. All arrangers, whether or not they chose to emulate Kostelanetz, found their efforts better appreciated and more highly rewarded in a climate that now recognized the importance of their work.


It is also said that the vogue for ransacking the concert classics in search of themes that might be transformed into popular hits, a trend that lasted well into the 50s, originated with the Chesterfield series. Kostelanetz did have a hand in several of these adaptations, the most successful being Moon Love and On the Isle of May, both after Tchaikovsky.


It is clear that Andre Kostelanetz regarded himself as a symphonic conductor in the European tradition in spite of his emphasis on popular music and the fame it brought him. Though respectful of his musicians and good-natured toward them, he maintained an aloofness that might be interpreted as a privilege of the deference accorded a conductor in that tradition. Throughout his radio career he clung to the ‘black tie’ concert format, relaxing it as time went on to include crooners, guest stars, a greater proportion of popular arrangements, and a minimum of cordial banter. Always interested in and willing to discuss aspects of the serious music world and the achievements of ‘high-brow’ colleagues, he seldom had anything to say – at least publicly – about his radio music contemporaries. And when radio failed him it was to this world that he increasingly turned.


Of the dozens of popular orchestral programs that imitated his approach few were more than station or network time-fillers. Those that attempted to challenge his pre-eminence failed commercially. Only in the years just before America’s entrance into the war did a group of younger arranger-conductors – Morton Gould, David Rose, Percy Faith – begin to intrigue and capture numbers of his listeners. Toward the end of the conflict he resigned from the Coca Cola show to undertake two USO tours of Europe and Asia, returning at the height of his stature a hero only to find that his radio format no longer pleased a changed post-war audience. From 1935 to 1939 he had recorded sporadically for Victor and Brunswick before a re-vitalized Columbia Records prevailed upon him to begin committing popular items from his radio repertoire to disc, additionally promoting him as a concert ‘pops’ conductor in response to the success of  Victor’s Arthur Fiedler. Strategically marketing his releases as ‘classical’ but making them available at a relatively low price, the company reaped substantial rewards, especially after the war when returning G.I.s, taking advantage of the new economic climate to establish home collections, honored a familiar figure they knew and trusted by purchasing recordings. It was on this phase of his career that Andre Kostelanetz now concentrated, producing classic albums of American song interpretations that continued to set the standard for orchestral popular music. The move to a microgroove medium, long envisioned and prepared for by the company, enhanced their effectiveness and increased their availability. By 1955, when Columbia transferred most of his catalogue to its lower-priced popular line, their sale had furnished the foundation for that company’s rise to the top of the industry, and few homes in the U.S. with playback equipment were without a Kostelanetz record.


In 1953 radio and recording fame were parlayed into a special conducting post with the New York Philharmonic by faithful Walter Judson who from 1940 had been offering the maestro’s services as a guest conductor to major and minor symphonic ensembles both here and abroad. His later years were marked by endless rounds of such engagements, the artistic and musical direction of the hugely successful spring Promenade Concerts at Lincoln Center in the 60s and 70s, and several spectacular premieres that garnered much attention. He continued to record until his death in 1980 but the gala, glitter, and go of an international conducting career seems to have negatively affected the once-careful planning and oversight of his popular music sessions. Despite a well-publicized attempt to modernize and further enliven his sound few of his later LPs approach the level of his pre-1960 work. Indeed, some come off as listless, ill-conceived and hastily executed affairs that do little credit to the considerable talent involved. By the mid 70s, however, the once-thriving New York City studio orchestra scene was no more. Within a year of his death an unfinished memoir appeared in print. Revealing and interesting, it managed only to touch upon a few of the highlights of a long, influential, and productive life in music.


(This concludes this remarkable series about our music - popular music for orchestra.  Many thanks to Dick O'Connor for the knowledge and research he has distilled in this series for us to enjoy and learn from.  I had asked Mr. O'Connor to write about Andre Kostelanetz in particular, and here we are!  I'd like to invite Mr. O'Connor back soon to highlight the individual talents that made up the predecessor to what became "beautiful music" on the radio, mood music and the artists who made it great - and the commercial/corporate pressures that sent it tumbling from the radio dial.  Everyone who has learned from this series, please write Mr. O'Connor at my email address, vistabad@kc.rr.com,  and I'll forward the emails to him).