Hear The Grapes of Wrath—Steinbeck Suite for Organ

Image of Franklin Ashdown and James Welch at Mission Santa ClaraSanta Clara University recently hosted a celebration in sound for the 75th anniversary of The Grapes of Wrath at California’s Mission Santa Clara—the world premiere of Steinbeck Suite for Organ by Franklin D. Ashdown (at left in photo), a prolific composer of popular contemporary organ music. As University Organist at Santa Clara University and a fan of Steinbeck’s fiction, I had the pleasure of performing the world premiere of Frank’s work in the program of American organ music that I played to conclude Santa Clara University’s 2014 Festival of American Music on February 16. Inspired by passages from The Grapes of Wrath and Tortilla Flat, Steinbeck Suite for Organ brought the Mission Santa Clara audience—which included Lothar Bandermann, a distinguished composer of orchestral, choral, and organ music who shares John Steinbeck’s German heritage—to its feet. (Scroll down to play audio.)

Organ Music for The Grapes of Wrath and Randall Ray

Steinbeck’s biographers say that the writer studied piano, sang in choirs, and appreciated organ music, particularly Bach. Since The Grapes of Wrath appeared, the music-minded author’s spirit has inspired almost every kind of music—including Aaron Copland’s musical setting of The Red Pony— except that written for the pipe organ. Thanks to a fan who lives near Santa Clara University and appreciates Frank’s organ music as much as he does Steinbeck’s writing, this condition ended with the commission of Steinbeck Suite for Organ in celebration of The Grapes of Wrath and in memory of Randall Ray, a North Carolinian who admired the novel and visited Steinbeck Country shortly before his untimely death in 2013. Members of the family present for the performance felt that the passages selected by the composer perfectly reflected Randall’s generous spirit and sympathy for the poor.

A World Premiere at California’s Mission Santa Clara

But hearing is worth a hundred words. Listen for yourself by clicking to enjoy each of the five movements of Steinbeck Suite for Organ recorded live on February 16 at Mission Santa Clara—music that reverberates with the pathos and exuberance of Tortilla Flat, The Grapes of Wrath, and John Steinbeck’s humanism. As I explained to the Mission Santa Clara audience, this organ music expresses energy, drama, and transcendence, qualities of Steinbeck’s writing, in colorful cascades of sound that rise and fall with the emotion of the passage being portrayed. Mission Santa Clara was a perfect venue for the world premiere, located on the Santa Clara University campus midway between Steinbeck’s home town of Salinas and San Francisco, the city where he attended opera and concerts as a boy. The program notes excerpted below were provided by the composer in the original organ music score.

I. Preambolo: “The Humanity of John Steinbeck”

In Preambolo, the first movement of this organ suite, Steinbeck’s sympathy for the individual and the common man is represented by the Trumpet stop which sounds a melody similar in character to Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. As the piece develops, a secondary theme builds to full organ, reflecting the immense influence of Steinbeck’s prose in American culture and politics.


II. Divertimento: The Grapes of Wrath

The Joad family joins a makeshift camp of fellow migrant pilgrims headed on Route 66 for the verdant valleys of California. They enjoy instant community as they trade stories, sit around the camp fire, sing folk songs and gospel songs, and finally join in a spirited square dance.


III. Miserere: The Grapes of Wrath

Ma Joad presents groceries for her large family at the check out counter. The clerk, a man with his own family to feed, cannot extend her credit. But he is sympathetic to her plight and pulls out a dime from his pocket to make up the difference. Miserere creates a somber tone which later brightens in response to the kindness of a stranger.


IV. Musica de los Paisanos: Tortilla Flat

Danny and his friends are a mixed Latino and Caucasian band of brothers living above Monterey, paisonos who spend their days adventuring and drinking booze. Musica de los Paisanos begins with a mellow haze and moves through a patchwork of stylized Spanish and Mexican folk tunes.


V. Toccata: Tortilla Flat

Danny, the central character of Tortilla Flat, inherited two houses. The smaller one, which he gave for the use of his paisanos, burned to the ground due to their carelessness. In a forgiving gesture, Danny let them move into his main home, where they enjoyed rich and colorful camaraderie, like the Knights of the Round Table. But it all ended when Danny died and his main house was consumed by flames. Toccata is emblematic of both houses burning.


Playing the Pipe Organ is a Family Affair

In addition to the world premiere of this piece, my February 16 program at Santa Clara University included organ music by American composers, such as Horatio Parker and Richard Purvis, that Steinbeck might have heard. As noted, the writer took piano lessons as a boy and enjoyed a variety of music, particularly the great American genres of jazz and Broadway, throughout his life. Following Steinbeck Suite for Organ on the Mission Santa Clara program, my son Nicholas, age 15, played the piano part for Clifford Demarest’s Fantasie for Piano and Organ, composed in 1917 when John Steinbeck was the very same age. Nicholas is shown at the far left of the photo with our son Jamison, 14, my wife Deanne, and me. Both boys are high school students in Palo Alto, California, where Steinbeck attended Stanford University. Like the writer John Steinbeck and the composer Frank Ashdown, our sons started piano early, and Nicholas now plays the pipe organ at church, as Frank and I did when we were growing up. Enjoying music was a family affair at the Steinbeck home in Salinas. It is at ours, too.

Image of the pipe organ-playing James Welch family

Recording provided by Santa Clara University with the permission of the composer and the performer. Program notes paraphrased by permission of Franklin D. Ashdown. The Mission Santa Clara pipe organ was built by Schantz Organ Company. Frank Ashdown’s choral and organ music is published by Morningstar, Augsburg Fortress, Alfred, Adoro, Concordia, and others. His distinctive compositions for choirs,  pipe organ, and other instruments have been performed in concert halls, churches, and cathedrals including the Mormon Tabernacle, Notre Dame de Paris, and St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. He was born in Utah, grew up in Texas, and lives in New Mexico, where he directs his church choir and composes on an ingenious digital organ, installed in his home, that produces convincing sampled pipe organ sounds.

Mission Santa Clara Premiere of Steinbeck Suite for Organ Kicks Off 75th Anniversary of The Grapes of Wrath

Image of James Welch, pipe organ virtuosoSanta Clara University, located in the heart of California Steinbeck Country, kick starts the 75th birthday of The Grapes of Wrath on February 16 with the premiere of Steinbeck Suite, a dramatic piece of pipe organ music by the American composer Franklin D. Ashdown. Like James Welch, the pipe organ virtuoso (shown here) who will perform the premiere, Frank is a sensitive Steinbeck lover as well as a leading light in the world of organ music.

Mission Santa Clara: Perfect for Artful Organ Music

The February 16 concert will start at 2:00 p.m. in Mission Santa Clara on the Santa Clara University campus near downtown San Jose. Mission Santa Clara is one of 21 ecclesiastical outposts established by early Spanish missionaries between San Diego and Sonoma and noted by Steinbeck in his travels throughout his native state. Like Monterey’s historic Carmel Mission, a place Steinbeck knew well, Mission Santa Clara is famous for its architecture, art, and acoustics. The February 16 Mission Santa Clara concert is part of Santa Clara University’s 2014 Festival of American Music, the kind of academic activity that appealed to the author.

Steinbeck and Pipe Organs: Music for Life and for Death

Steinbeck heard organ music growing up in Salinas, a town 60 miles south of Santa Clara, where he studied piano, sang in the church choir, and became a lifelong fan of opera, jazz, and the organ music of Bach. His first novel, Cup of Gold, ends with the sound of an organ chord reverberating in the mind of its dying protagonist, the pirate Henry Morgan. Organ music was played at John and Elaine Steinbeck’s 1950 wedding and at the writer’s funeral in 1968. With Steinbeck’s love of organ music, musicians, and theatrical effect in mind,  Steinbeck Suite was commissioned by the former organist of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, the Salinas church depicted operatically in East of Eden, The Winter of Our Discontent, and Steinbeck’s “Letters to Alicia.”

Familiar Organ Music Inspired by Nights in Monterey

Frank Ashdown will be present for the February 16 world premiere of his new work by Santa Clara University Organist Jim Welch, California’s most celebrated concert organist and an alumnus of Stanford, the school Steinbeck attended sporadically before devoting himself to his writing. The February 16 program played on Mission Santa Clara’s classic pipe organ will also feature organ music by Richard Purvis, the subject of a recent biography by Jim Welch and the organist at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral following World War II. Purvis’s “Nights in Monterey,” a favorite piece of organ music for lovers of colorful sound, was inspired by camping trips made by the composer to the Monterey Peninsula at the time Steinbeck was writing East of Eden. It is possible that Steinbeck heard Purvis play the pipe organ at Grace.

Organ Music Written to be Heard, Like Steinbeck’s Fiction

A widely published composer of choral and organ music, Frank Ashdown has had his works performed at Grace, Salt Lake City’s Mormon Tabernacle, the Cathedral of Notre Dame, St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, and churches and concert halls throughout the world. A perceptive student of Steinbeck’s fiction, he writes as Steinbeck did: to be heard and appreciated by average people, not specialists. Jim Welch, who recommended Frank for the commission celebrating Steinbeck’s anniversary, comments: “From the opening movement, an homage to the humanity of The Grapes of Wrath, to the fiery closing toccata depicting the conflagration of Danny’s house in Tortilla Flat, Frank’s Steinbeck-inspired organ music will keep listeners on the edge of their seats. Mission Santa Clara’s reverberant sound, reverent atmosphere, and visual splendor are perfect for Frank’s Steinbeckian sense of acoustical theater and spiritual transcendence.”

Image of sign to Mission Santa Clara and Santa Clara UniversityThe February 16 concert of organ music at Mission Santa Clara is open to the public. For tickets, see the Santa Clara University performing arts series website. Santa Clara University is located at 500 El Camino Real in Santa Clara, California, 10 minutes from San Jose International Airport and five minutes from Interstate 880. Take the Alameda Exit north and follow the curve in the road right as The Alameda becomes El Camino Real. The Santa Clara University campus entrance is on the left. Free parking is available in the new Santa Clara University garage near the campus entrance, and Mission Santa Clara is a two-minute walk from the garage. February 16 is a Sunday, but Californians dress casually. If this is your first visit, come early and drink in the beauty. Like The Grapes of Wrath, Mission Santa Clara is breathtaking. So are the organ music of Frank Ashdown and the organ virtuosity of Jim Welch, artists who love Steinbeck the way Steinbeck loved Bach.

Why Pipe Dream Failed

What made Pipe Dream, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical version of Steinbeck’s novel Sweet Thursday, a failure on the stage? The 1955 theatrical production had a great source, a great team, and great prospects. It also had a run of bad luck, closing after six months despite record advance single-ticket sales, respectable group sales, and nine Tony Award nominations. I love Steinbeck and I love Rodgers and Hammerstein, but I’ll admit I never heard of Pipe Dream until I read Bob DeMott’s introduction to the 2008 Penguin edition of Sweet Thursday, the 1954 sequel to Cannery Row written by Steinbeck with Broadway in mind. I ordered the cast-recording CD, played the piano-solo version, and (I think) discovered the problem behind the problem with Pipe Dream.

Rodgers and Hammerstein pictured at the pianoWhy Rodgers and Hammerstein and Not Frank Loesser?

Cy Feuer and Ernie Martin, the show’s producers, wanted Frank Loesser to write the music and lyrics for Steinbeck’s off-key love story about Doc, a deeply melancholy marine biologist based on Ed Ricketts, and Suzy, the whore who steals the heart of Fauna, madam of Cannery Row’s Bear Flag brothel. Loesser was a logical choice. The winner of two Tony Awards for Guys and Dolls, he had been part of Steinbeck’s inner circle. If he wasn’t nervous about glamorizing Damon Runyon’s downtown gangsters and molls, he certainly wouldn’t worry about an off-the-wall romance set in a California whorehouse. Unfortunately, the Loesser of Two Goods was already working on his next hit, Most Happy Fella. But Rodgers and Hammerstein—the Greater of Two Goods, judging by Broadway’s bottom-line standard—were willing, available, and friends of the Steinbecks. Strike one.

Feuer and Martin also wanted Henry Fonda for the role of Doc, the troubled male lead in Pipe Dream. A 1940 Academy Award nominee for his portrayal of Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, Fonda had won a Tony Award in 1948 for his performance in Joshua Logan’s Broadway musical Mister Roberts. Fonda was also Steinbeck’s friend. Unfortunately, his singing voice wasn’t acceptable to Rodgers and Hammerstein and a less experienced performer got the part. Strike two.

For the demanding role of Fauna, Rodgers and Hammerstein were determined to have Helen Traubel, a classical singer whose Metropolitan Opera contract hadn’t been renewed because Rudolph Bing, the Met’s imperious manager, didn’t like her moonlighting as a nightclub singer. Hammerstein heard Traubel perform at the Copacabana club in New York and later in Las Vegas, where he offered her the part of Fauna in Pipe Dream. Honest about her lack of acting experience, Traubel accepted Hammerstein’s offer anyway. Strike three.

The cover of Pipe Dream pictured, showing the story's main charactersOdds in Favor of a Rodgers and Hammerstein Success

Yet the odds in favor of another Rodgers and Hammerstein success were strong. Oklahoma!, the pair’s first Broadway collaboration, ran for 2,212 performances after opening in 1943. Carousel—a tender story that touched the taboo of domestic violence—ran for almost 900 performances starting in 1945. But South Pacific was the Rodgers and Hammerstein home run that played for years, proving the team’s staying power. Co-written with Logan, Hammerstein’s book openly treated racism, also off-limits for Broadway musicals of the time. Rodgers’ timeless tunes were performed by Ezio Pinza, a classical musician who (unlike Helen Traubel) could act as well as sing.

There were modest failures for Rodgers and Hammerstein along the way, but not many. Allegro opened in 1947 and lasted only nine months. A serious work with a heavy moral, it had a Greek chorus, no sets, and direction and choreography by Agnes de Mille. Me and Juliet—the story of a backstage romance involving an assistant stage manager, a chorus girl, and her electrician boyfriend—featured complex machinery and lighting in place of standard sets and props. Though the odds in 1955 favored Pipe Dream, there was precedent for failure with Rodgers and Hammerstein. Allegro and Me and Juliet, shows that took a bet on breaking rules, had good music and short runs. Two of these traits would also characterize Pipe Dream.

Two CD covers pictured representing the cast recording and remake of Pipe DreamWhy Did Hammerstein Sentimentalize Steinbeck’s Story?

Following not breaking Broadway rules proved to be the problem with Pipe Dream when it opened. Steinbeck closely observed the process of production and worried that Hammerstein was making a mistake in fudging the character of Suzy, the female lead. Described by Steinbeck in a letter to Hammerstein as “an ill-tempered little hooker who isn’t even very good at that,” Suzy had to be a whore, Steinbeck said, for Pipe Dream to work as drama. Fauna’s Bear Flag establishment—in Steinbeck’s novel, the best little whorehouse in Monterey—was becoming a Hallmark card in Hammerstein’s timid treatment of Steinbeck’s tough story. Worse yet, Richard Rodgers was hospitalized with cancer during rehearsals for Pipe Dream, leaving Steinbeck alone to lose his argument with Hammerstein about how much reality audiences were ready to accept regarding Suzy’s true vocation and Fauna’s business. Strike four.

Yet from the show’s overture to its reprise, the music for Pipe Dream is Richard Rodgers at his best. “All at Once You Love Her,” “Everybody’s Got a Home But Me,” “Suzy Is a Good Thing,” “The Man I Used To Be,” “Sweet Thursday,” “The Next Time It Happens”—the show’s songs are as good as Carousel or Oklahoma! despite a single, significant exception. Hammerstein’s reluctance to reveal the truth about Suzy and the Bear Flag is evident in the words and music of Fauna’s signature song, “The Happiest House on the Block.”

I’ve played it a dozen times. Is the Bear Flag’s proud proprietress singing about an all-night whorehouse with a heart or a Hallmark household that simply stays up later than the neighbors? Major key or minor key? Comedy or kitsch? Like Hammerstein’s words, Rodgers’ music can’t quite decide which, leaving this listener—and audiences—confused. Steinbeck was right about Suzy. For anyone to care, she had to be a whore, not the virginal vagrant created by Hammerstein and derided by Steinbeck as coming across like a visiting nurse. And the Bear Flag had to be a brothel, not a house party with a happy-you’re-here message.

Broadway Musicals, the story of Stephen Sondheim, pictured with an image of John SteinbeckIf Only Stephen Sondheim Had Staged Pipe Dream Instead

Sometimes serendipity comes in small packages. While I was thinking about what happened to Pipe Dream between Sweet Thursday and opening night, I received a DVD of the TV special, Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy, for contributing to my local PBS affiliate. There I learned the startling reason Hammerstein was so wary about Suzy, Steinbeck’s whore—and why Stephen Sondheim would have been a better choice to stage Steinbeck’s ironic story 60 years ago. I’d always assumed that Hammerstein—like Stephen Sondheim and other social outsiders who created the Broadway I loved more than life—was Jewish. I was wrong.

Although his grandfather was a first-generation impresario on the pre-Broadway Jewish stage, Oscar Greeley Clendenning Hammerstein II was reared as an assimilated, Anglicized Protestant. And though Stephen Sondheim became Hammerstein’s greatest protégé before the composer died, Sondheim remarks on the DVD that he always resented Broadway’s genteel, Gentile habit of avoiding ambivalence by forcing happy endings on unhappy realities. From the Stephen Sondheim point of view (also mine), a Suzy without her profession, a Doc without his darkness, a Monterey without its whorehouse are monochromatic monads devoid of drama: Oklahoma without the Joads— Oklahoma! without The Grapes of Wrath.

Within years of Pipe Dream, Stephen Sondheim liberated Broadway from its remaining taboos: ambiguous sexuality, ambivalent relationships, and fear of 3/4 time sustained without let-up in a show. Too late, too bad, and a bit haunting when you imagine what might have been if Hammerstein had been as brave as his pupil and less attached to his class when writing Pipe Dream. Like Steinbeck, the lyricist of South Pacific and The King and I was a political progressive with a social conscience. Unlike Steinbeck—or Stephen Sondheim—he never abandoned his Middle-American devotion to happy endings and keeping up appearances. Other than not being Jewish, I wonder why he couldn’t make the leap. Perhaps because—unlike John Steinbeck and Stephen Sondheim—Oscar Hammerstein was a better-socialized product of a better-adjusted childhood with less reason to rebel, reject, or revolt.

In his closing interview for Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy, the director-producer Hal Prince reinforced my thoughts about Oscar Hammerstein’s timidity. Prince recalled that when he read Kander and Ebb’s original treatment for Christopher Isherwood’s “Goodbye to Berlin,” he thought their concept was too old-fashioned and added a sexually ambiguous character with the anonymous name Emcee. The show became Cabaret, Joel Grey became famous, and it was 1965—10 years after Pipe Dream and less than a decade before Stephen Sondheim replaced Rodgers and Hammerstein as monarch of the Broadway musical. I hope that John and Elaine Steinbeck saw Cabaret when it opened. I wonder if either imagined what might have been if Pipe Dream had been staged by Hal Prince or Stephen Sondheim.

Free Friday Concerts: Chamber Music at Steinbeck’s Church

John Steinbeck and St. Paul's, the Writer's Salinas, California ChurchFrom J.S. Bach to New Chamber Music: Free Friday Concerts at Steinbeck’s Church in Salinas, California

St. Paul’s, John Steinbeck’s Episcopal church in Salinas, California, sponsors free Friday chamber music concerts at noon throughout the year. Selections ranging from J.S. Bach to new works are performed by Central California musicians such as violinists Tyler and Nicola Reilly, pianist Karen Denmark, and organists Steven Denmark, Rani Fischer, and William Ray. St. Paul’s Episcopal Church is located at 1071 Pajaro Street in Salinas, California.

The Literary Music of The Grapes of Wrath

James Welch, organist, photoAs I was writing my book about the life of Richard Purvis—a California contemporary of John Steinbeck who composed literary music for the organ with a colorful, cinematic character—I was reminded how hard the task faced by writers of books really is. It certainly was for Steinbeck, one of my favorite writers of books on any subject. Steinbeck’s language has always sounded like literary music to my ears, but I wasn’t sure why that was before reading about the background of The Grapes of Wrath. I knew Steinbeck wrote the novel in Los Gatos, not far from Palo Alto, where I live. Recently I learned that he listened to Bach’s Art of the Fugue as he wrote. No wonder the literary music of Steinbeck’s masterpiece conveys such convincing counterpoint. He had Bach’s masterpiece in his head as he was wove the literary music of the Joads, California, and Depression-era America into his great verbal fugue.

As a concert organist, I’m used to practicing my art long hours each day. Most writers of books do as well, but Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath at an incredible pace. Two- to three-thousand words at a sitting is extraordinary, a fact I came to appreciate when I was writing my biography of Purvis. I couldn’t help speculating that certain subjects of Purvis’s literary music, particularly his “Night in Monterey” for organ, would have appealed to the author of The Grapes of Wrath. After all, the literary music of Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic” inspired Steinbeck’s title and was reproduced on the endpapers when the book was published.  How many other writers of books ever paid similar homage to a specific piece of music?

I read about how Steinbeck liked listening to Bach in Working Days, the collection of daily journal entries Steinbeck made to warm up before resuming work on The Grapes of Wrath. It occurred to me that, for writers of books, this process is like organists running through scales and arpeggios at the piano before beginning daily organ practice. To make music on the organ—or create literary music at a desk—requires limberness, dexterity, and well-developed skill. So I wasn’t surprised to hear from the organist at Steinbeck’s Episcopal church in Salinas that the author of The Grapes of Wrath took piano lessons as a boy and sang in the children’s choir. Though he attended Stanford University 50 years before I did, Steinbeck and I have much in common. We both like science, enjoy travel, and love Bach and the beach. We’re both from California, a state that has produced distinctive literary music, from Richard Purvis to the Beach Boys, over the years. Other writers of books hailed from sunny California, but for me, none was a literary music maker quite like the author of The Grapes of Wrath.