Grand Canyon Suite

The Grand Canyon Suite is a suite for orchestra by Ferde Grofé, composed during the period from 1929 to 1931. It consists of 5 parts or movements, each an evocation in tone of a particular scene typical of the Grand Canyon.

Composer Eric Ewazen has a composition called "Grand Canyon Octet" which is occasionally incorrectly referred to as The Grand Canyon Suite.


In 1916, Grofé drove across the Arizona desert with friends to watch the sun rise over the Grand Canyon. Being heavily inspired by the spectacle, he later recalled what he saw and felt and subsequently wrote several pieces of music.

More than forty years later, during a radio interview, he recalled what he saw and felt. He told how he and his friends arrived and set up camp and the next morning, just before dawn, they got up to watch the sunrise. At first, it was very silent; then, as the day got brighter, the sounds of the natural world were first heard. Suddenly the sun came up: the vision was so dramatic that he was unable to express it in words.

Inspired by this experience, Grofé composed a movement of the Grand Canyon Suite called "Sunrise" in 1929. In 1930, he sketched out the "Sunset" and "Cloudburst" sections of the piece, but lacked the time to orchestrate them. The Grand Canyon Suite was completed in the summer of 1931.

In November 1931, the Grand Canyon Suite premiered in Chicago at the Studebaker Theatre, played by Paul Whiteman's band. Grofé subsequently scored the piece for symphony orchestra, and it was also published in a version for solo piano.

About the music

The five movements of Grand Canyon Suite are entitled "Sunrise", "Painted Desert", "On the Trail", "Sunset" and "Cloudburst".

  • Sunrise opens with a representation of the moment of dawn in the canyon. The feeling of peace is present, a sense of still air, of a place owned by nature. Gradually we hear the sun mount the sky until the joyous proclamations of the full orchestra announce the arrival of another splendid and radiant day. Two main musical themes are presented: the first, announced by the piccolo, opens with a four-note motive (B-C#-G#-B) which will reappear later in the work in different guises; the second theme appears in the strings. After the trill by the piccolo, the descending notes that follow reflect the call of the canyon wren, a widespread but not frequently seen songbird common in the canyon country and desert southwest.
  • The Painted Desert is a watercolor of impressive delicacy and subtlety. Grofé manages to suggest the presence of some ageless, unchanging life still present in the arid and apparently lifeless desert, in the brilliant, sometimes startling colors of the rock formations, the geologic artwork of prehistory. Ingenious usage of chords and orchestral tone abound.
  • On the Trail is the best-known of the movements of the Grand Canyon Suite, the aural report of the day riding on the back of a pack donkey (imitating its clip-clop), beginning and ending with a great "hee-haw". A violin cadenza is used to wonderful effect. The principal theme of this movement, which is presented by the horns, and later, trombones, serves as the central motif of the suite.
  • Sunset is a nostalgic and pleasantly sentimental rendering of the most glorious of Grand Canyon moments, when the sky is alive with vibrant colors above the deepening shadows in the great gorge.
  • Cloudburst opens with a sleepy recollection of the theme from "On the Trail" in the upper strings. Then we enter a summation, a kind of panoramic view of the vastness of this Western scene, with brief references to other themes in the work. On to this scene suddenly come dark, scudding clouds and a rising wind. A lone cello solo suggests a mood of apprehension. The evening air is filled with fine sand and bits of tumbleweed, in the form of eerie slow violin glissandi. The storm breaks, with lightning, thunder and pelting rain. Then even more quickly, it is gone, with a last crash of lightning and peal of thunder. The moon emerges from behind the clouds and the earth rejoices in refreshed pleasure in a climactic rousing finish.


The Grand Canyon Suite is featured in the Grand Canyon Diorama on the Disneyland Railroad.

The third movement of the suite also features in the 1983 film A Christmas Story.

"On the Trail" was used for many years as the theme for radio programs sponsored by Philip Morris cigarettes.


Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony recorded a version of the work.

The Paul Whiteman Orchestra's 'Original artist' recording is available on the CD 'Gershwin & Grofé'.

A surround sound recording of the full orchestral version is available on the Audio-DVD 'American Classics - Grofé: Grand Canyon Suite'.

There is a CD of 3 of Grofé's suites (Mississippi, Grand Canyon, and Niagara Falls) performed by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra:

An SA-CD by the New York Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein titled 'Bernstein Gershwin etc.' includes The Grand Canyon Suite:

In 1982, Japanese electronic musician Isao Tomita recorded an electronic version on his Grand Canyon album:

Columbia Released a "Masterworks" of the Grand Canyon Suite performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy. Catalog Number ML5286. Library of Congress catalog card R58-1077


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