|About this Recording
8.559330 - MCKAY, G: Epoch - An American Dance Symphony (University of Kentucky Symphony, Nardolillo)
George Frederick McKay (1899–1970)
The original staging of George Frederick McKay’s Dance Symphony Epoch is one of a collegial effort by youthful faculty members and enthusiastic players and dancers comprising the performing groups of orchestra, dance and voice; together with specialists in stage design and costume at the University of Washington, Seattle, in the early years of the 1930s. This one-hour work in four distinct symphonic movements is a poignant memento from the Pacific Coast of America, when the nation was gradually emerging from the depths of the Great Depression.
McKay stated in a radio interview near the premiere of the Dance Symphony that it was written to express the scenario conceived by John Ashby Conway, joining with the spirit of American history as penned by the poets Edgar Allan Poe, Sidney Lanier, Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg. The four movements of Epoch do not correspond to specific works of poetry, but rather move the audience through an artistic portrayal of the historic periods inhabited by the poets, capturing their creative essence. The production was conducted by McKay, drama and staging was by Conway, choreography by Mary Aid DeVries, costumes and masks by Doriece Colle.
Significantly, McKay carries musical themes from the beginning movement to the final, much the same as he does in another of his works from the 1930s, Harbor Narrative (Naxos 8.559052), in which small vignettes are repeated to link various scenes in music depicting a sea voyage. In Epoch the feeling of impending tragedy in the Poe movement is apparent again in the frenzied Jazz Age Sandburg section.
As the first performance of Epoch approached in the spring of 1935, world political and social events seemed to be spiraling toward ever more dreadful outcomes with the rise of tyrannical regimes and the threat of terrible new wars and diabolical weapons. Labor strife, extremism, and gangland kidnappings marked the American scene. In the very week of the second and third performances of McKay’s Dance Symphony in 1936, Hitler invaded the neutral Rhineland region, spreading fear throughout Europe.
The critical reception for the premiere of Epoch was very favorable and the scenario seemed to be accepted by those in attendance as somewhat of a “slice of the times.” The audience was delighted with the Jazz and Blues satirical vignettes in the fourth movement Machine Age Blues, and an encore was demanded for the final dance segment featuring masked and sequined chorus girls. Quite a bit was written concerning the modern stage settings and lighting techniques, and McKay’s music was praised by writers from both daily newspapers.
The Seattle Times, in a contemporary review of the premiere stated:
“A prologue dramatization of Edgar Allan Poe, ranging musically from the softly lyric to the weirdly fantastic, with blond LaVona Muszynska dancing the principal role, opened the production. A fantastic pendulum rhythm climaxed by the dance of the masked furies, won the applause of the enthusiastic first-nighters at the end of the scene.” … “the real novel thrill of the evening was couched in the final Machine Age Blues episode! Here, as the musical transformation of the mechanized theme into blatant jazz swept the dancers from shadowy robots to satirically masked burlesque dancing girls. Mr. McKay outdid himself in originality and sardonic effect.”
The many frantic moments portrayed in Epoch seemed to have faded away into the dim past, a lost ballet spinning in time, as new wonders, challenges, and characters arose on the stage of American experience. Now, in 2007 thanks to John Nardolillo and the University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra, listeners can enjoy a journey back to capture sounds from a remote part of 20th century American culture.
An imaginative and symbolic conception based upon four of America’s greatest poets: Edgar Allen Poe, Sidney Lanier, Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg, for symphony orchestra, women’s chorus and dancers.
1. Symbolic Portrait Edgar Allen Poe
I. Introduction; the poet anticipates his fate.
2. Pastoral Sidney Lanier
I. Eos calls on the earth and its creatures to waken.
3. Westward! Walt Whitman
I. Introduction; heroic prophecy of conquest – nostalgia and loneliness – a passing uncertainty – confidence returns.
4. Machine Age Blues Carl Sandburg
I. Introduction; the city hubbub in the 1900s – violence, noise, constant motion, the city never sleeps.
(Editor’s note: The foregoing synopsis of the drama played out in music and dance in EPOCH was constructed from the original program notes, score subtitles, and dance interpretations, written by the composer and his collaborators for the 1935 premiere.)
George Frederick McKay during the 1930s
At the time George Frederick McKay was composing music for Epoch he was enjoying success in various segments of his early years as a professor at the growing new University of Washington in Seattle. He had received publication of some of his chamber works in Europe (Schott’s and Senart) and his orchestral music was finding performances in Philadelphia, Boston, Rochester, and Seattle, with conductors such as Karl Krueger, Fabien Sevitsky, and Howard Hanson. McKay conducted the premiere of his own work Fantasy on a Western Folk Tune with the Seattle Symphony in the 1934-35 season. The orchestral version of his Caricature Dance Suite was performed by Nat Shilket’s orchestra on a nationally broadcast NBC music show in 1929, and he was gaining recognition as a rising young American composer from the Western region.
McKay’s career had been much aided by his studies at Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, where he was mentored by the Scandinavian master composers Christian Sinding and Selim Palmgren. In Epoch the listener can appreciate both the sophisticated classical technique exhibited in McKay’s composing along with a passion and understanding concerning folklore and musical history from the American scene. Sinding especially encouraged McKay to throw away his textbooks and write in a true melodic sense, related to his knowledge of the American cultural environment. Palmgren offered McKay firm artistic support by nominating his Violin Sonata of 1923 for the Pulitzer Prize. In terms of the Jazz and Blues motifs in Epoch it should be noted that the young composer had himself played ragtime piano and formed a small popular orchestra and composed his own popular songs while in Army boot camp and in undergraduate studies as a student in the rollicking 1920s, and even tried on one occasion to introduce Professor Sinding to dance band music in 1922, with amusing results, whereby Sinding’s ears were so seared by the Jazz riffs of the student band he had to hastily retreat pleading auditory injury.
Following the completion of Epoch McKay filled out the decade of the 1930s with a diverse and growing number of works including a modernistic Organ Sonata which won the American Guild of Organists National Prize in 1939. In 1936 he composed more music for the stage, with incidental music for Bury the Dead, an anti-war play by Irwin Shaw, who is now famous for his novels and movie scripts, e.g. the film The Young Lions, which starred Marlon Brando. In subsequent years McKay was to receive many performances of his works from Howard Hanson, the new musical director of Eastman while he was studying there. Of particular significance, Hanson presented a revised and expanded third movement from Epoch titled Symphony Evocation at a Composers’ Festival in Rochester.
McKay also pursued his interest in folk music, composing Variants on a Texas Tune, and Port Royal, 1861, the latter being based on African-American hymns. Also in his repertoire of this time were two new string quartets, a quintet, a trio and many choral works for all levels of performers’ virtuosity. In general, as America distanced itself from the glorious “roaring twenties” George McKay’s music took on somewhat of an ultramodern aspect, along with his informal mentoring of John Cage in Seattle that culminated in a collaboration with Cage in “The Hilarious Dance Concert” of 1939 at the Cornish School. McKay contributed several short avantgarde piano pieces for The Marriage at the Eiffel Tower which included the teen-age Merce Cunningham in the dance troupe. This was followed by satirical piano pieces such as Dance Suite No. 2 (Naxos 8.559143) and the comical set Walking Portraits, which pictures college campus characters. At the same time, as can be heard in an award-winning work for organ, he continued his explorations into more abstract, inner-seeking experiences.
George Frederick McKay’s music during later decades of composition evolved and spread to eventually include more than 500 titles covering a extraordinary range of genre and performance levels —from works for the young child to the virtuoso —and numerous, varied instrumental combinations. He was both an educator and a composer, and desired the best for all musicians with whom he felt a strong brotherhood. He himself was an accomplished violinist, and earned his way through college playing tired old classics at cinemas and concert halls. For the rest of his career, he carried with him the conviction that not only should musicians earn fair wages, but that they should also have interesting fresh music to play, and he would produce it. He fulfilled that pledge.
Fred McKay and Harrison McKay
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