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8.559225 - MCKAY: Violin Concerto / Sinfonietta No. 4 / Song Over the Great Plains
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George Frederick McKay (1899-1970)
Violin Concerto • Suite on Sixteenth Century Hymn Tunes
Sinfonietta No.4 • Song over the Great Plains

George Frederick McKay, known as the Dean of Northwest Composers and revered Professor of Music at the University of Washington for 41 years, from 1927 to 1968, was born to a pioneering family in the small wheat-farming community of Harrington, Washington on 11th June, 1899. He spent most of his childhood in Spokane where his father worked as a farmland surveyor for a local bank, and began composing orchestral music as early as his high school years. His father did not approve of a career in music, and he was encouraged to enroll at Washington State College at Pullman to earn a business degree. In 1919, weary of this, he transferred to the University of Washington, Seattle, where he began seriously studying music and composition with Carl Paige Wood. Two years later a scholarship allowed him to study composition with Christian Sinding and Selim Palmgren at the Eastman School of Music at Rochester, New York, earning the first composition degree awarded there. His first published compositions were written and published during this time.

After his graduation from Eastman in 1923, McKay embarked on a teaching career that included posts in North Carolina, South Dakota, and Missouri and finally at what became his permanent professorship at the University of Washington, Seattle. There he became recognized over the span of four decades as an outstanding teacher, composer and leader in the propagation of American music. His works were widely performed and broadcast under some of the most distinguished conductors. He was the recipient of many honours during his lifetime, including his twice holding the Alchin Chair at the University of Southern California (1938-39). He received important commissions from national orchestras, and was awarded national prizes for harp, woodwind, piano, organ and symphonic compositions. McKay was equally successful as a teacher, with students including William Bolcom, Earl Robinson, John Cage and Goddard Lieberson. He died in 1970 at his home in Lake Tahoe, Nevada.

In 1941 George Frederick McKay entered his recently composed Violin Concerto in the Heifetz Competition, newly established by Jascha Heifetz and the music publisher Carl Fischer. By 1940, when he wrote his Violin Concerto, McKay was an established composer who could point to many performances and broadcasts by some of the great musicians of the day. His position at the University of Washington in Seattle, however, far removed from the musical centres of the northeast, meant that he was still seen as an artist of largely local significance. McKay, like other competitors, hoped that success would give his work the kind of broad national exposure that only a world famous artist could give it. Though McKay’s work received an honourable mention and was praised by Heifetz, it failed to capture the top prize, which went to Gail Kubik’s Violin Concerto No. 2. McKay’s concerto shares strong formal affinities with Max Bruch’s famous Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, a rather operatic first movement, an inward and poetic slow movement and rhythmically vigorous finale, all written to lie well on the instrument while sounding extremely virtuosic. Like the Bruch, McKay’s work is in one movement divided into three sections that correspond to the standard fastslow- fast scheme of romantic concerti. Unlike Bruch’s concerto, the first movement is actually a three-themed sonata-arch form. The character is declamatory and lyrical. It begins with a brief orchestral introduction of the first theme, followed by the solo violin stating the second, primary theme in double stops. After much recitativelike interplay by orchestra and soloist, the ravishing third theme is played by a soaring solo violin, underpinned by undulating triplets in the winds. The middle section is both development and cadenza, after which the recapitulation reveals the movement’s arch form by returning the themes in reverse order. Another cadenza serves as a bridge to the second movement. This movement is the intimate heart of the concerto. A solo oboe gives a four-bar introduction and the violin enters with a soulful melody resembling a folk-tune. Throughout, the violin spins an endless cantilena until the winds restate the theme of the introduction. This is followed by a striking passage scored only for solo flute and solo violin, in which the composer’s love of nature is most evident. This passage is also a seamless bridge to the finale. The third movement is a vehicle for pure virtuoso enjoyment. Highly rhythmic in a mildly jazzy way, the composer slightly offsets its flow with two dance episodes in irregular metre. The movement ends in triumph after a cyclical return of the first movement’s main theme combined with the irregular dance motive.

The concerto is dedicated to Moritz Rosen, a faculty member of the University of Washington, and was first performed in the fall of 1941 by his son Kensley Rosen with the University of Washington Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the composer. Rosen performed the concerto again in 1946 with the Seattle Philharmonic, and played it many times to other audiences with piano accompaniment. It was not performed with orchestra again until its triumphant revival by Ilka Talvi and the Seattle Symphony in 2001.

The Suite on 16th Century Hymn Tunes is based upon the music for psalms composed by the Frenchman Louis Bourgeois (c.1510-1561). Bourgeois was a follower of John Calvin, and in 1541 went to Geneva, where he was charged with bringing order to the Genevan Psalter (hymnal). Showing great flair for this work, he introduced some unapproved changes to the hymns, and was subsequently jailed briefly. He was released through the intervention of Calvin, who saw the value of Bourgeois’ highly musical adaptations and had them implemented for the Psalter’s publication. After the Psalter was published, he returned to France, where nothing is heard of him after 1560.

McKay’s homage to Bourgeois was composed for organ in 1945 and shortly thereafter cast for string orchestra, a version first performed in 1946 in a benefit concert for refugees of the Spanish Civil War, featuring six of McKay’s works, all conducted by the composer. In 1962 he transcribed the work for two string orchestras, and it is this version that is here recorded. The 1962 transcription differs in that the parts for the second string orchestra are intended for younger players, and a celeste is effectively added in the fourth movement, Choeur Céleste. Vilem Sokol conducted the Seattle Youth Symphony, using more than a hundred string players, in the 1963 première of this version. The score bears the dedication ‘In Memory of Louis Bourgeois – 1510’.

The Suite is in five movements, given with the Genevan Psalter psalm numbers:

1  Méditation (Psalm 6: L’Accueil de Dieu)
2  Rondolet (Psalm 140 & 42:
    Les Commandements de Dieu)
3  Air varié (Psalm 107: Donnez au Seigneur Gloire)
4  Choeur céleste (Psalm 12: Donne Secours)
5  Cortège joyeux (Psalm 118: Rendez à Dieu)

The titles of the individual movements, broadly descriptive of the music, are McKay’s own, given in French to preserve the music’s original identity. Méditation is reflective, and Rondolet playful and courtly. Air Varié offers four highly imaginative variations of a simple theme, while Choeur Céleste evokes a heavenly chorus. Cortège Joyeux is akin to a recessional, when all worshipers arise in gladness at the end of a Mass. McKay sometimes varies the original hymns, with an occasional change of rhythm, or less frequently, a note. The Suite is put together with the assurance of a master craftsman, and the writing for strings is, as always, of a high order.

McKay wrote five sinfoniettas, each preceding some further stylistic development realised in a later work. In the case of Sinfonietta No. 4 the work is most certainly a conscious precursor of the true symphony McKay planned to write one day, achieved with the commission of his Evocation Symphony in 1951 (Naxos 8.559052). His study of contemporary European compositional developments had a decisive impact upon the evolution of his late style, and this can first be seen clearly in his Sinfonietta No. 4. From its opening it is apparent that McKay’s expression has taken on a new astringency. The motives are angular and are based upon chords of the fourth or tritonal relationships. The overall orchestral sound has taken on a steely, burnished quality and a rough-hewn spareness that will be completely realized in the Evocation Symphony. There is ceaseless eighth-note (quaver) motion and the brass instruments (muted throughout) are used as punctuation, a hallmark of McKay’s late style. The first movement is quite terse, presenting two themes in the customary order, offering no development, no longueurs and a straightforward restatement. The second movement is a poem in the Western style cultivated by McKay during the 1940s. The lonely theme presented by clarinet and bassoon has the contour of a Native American folk-song, the rolling timpani suggesting clouds in the distance, a storm coming. There are highly expressive solos for clarinet and oboe leading into the restless middle section, which rises to a full orchestral climax. The opening themes are returned, albeit in reverse order, until the movement stops precisely where it began. The Finale is written in McKay’s most playful and fun-loving mode. The strings rustle in sixteenth notes (semi-quavers) beneath the flutes and clarinets hopping and skipping. A more serious element appears in a brass fanfare, punctuating as in the first movement. There is a second, more lyrical subject played by the winds and answered by violas and cellos. The intervals of the two themes are combined with a new theme and worked motivically for a short, intense development. An abbreviated recapitulation follows, hustling to a joyful coda capped by a humorous, chordal tag. The work was first given by the Seattle Symphony on 13th November, 1944, under Carl Bricken, and revived in 1972 at the Seattle Center Opera House as part of Seattle’s Festival ‘72, on a day reserved for the memory of the composer.

The Song Over the Great Plains is one of the first works of McKay’s maturity, the result of a commission in 1953 by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra for a work featuring the piano to commemorate the centennial of the Steinway Piano Company. McKay was one of four composers commissioned for the occasion; the others were Leo Sowerby, Nicolai Berezowsky and Henry Cowell. One of McKay’s early teaching assignments during the 1920s was in the gold-mining town of Lead, South Dakota. He later explained that the Song was based on a meadowlark call he had noted down in the Dakotas. He often added programmes to his works, and on the autograph score of Song Over the Great Plains he appended the following guide:

“It is early spring ... but the desolation of winter has not yet given over to the new life lying dormant in young buds and branches. Suddenly the song of the meadowlark bursts forth over brooding landscape, and for a moment all that is beautiful in life is held in the mind and heart ... Sing on blithe spirit!... fill the skies with your irrepressible joy!”

The spare atmosphere here suggested manifests itself immediately, with craggy, dissonant brass declamations over a pedal tone. Throughout the work, the concertante piano plays mostly in its higher registers, as the voice of the meadowlark, whose bitonal song always soars above the other instruments. A magical moment occurs when the flute gently tumbles down an arpeggio leading to a gorgeous English horn theme, played over shimmering string tremolos, as if revealing the vast emptiness of the Plains for the first time. This is the work’s main theme, and though original, it has a modality reminiscent of the Western folk-music that often inspired McKay. The flutes and horns take this up as the music rises from its dreaminess, agitating and stirring awake. The brass plays a typical McKay fanfare, announcing full day on the Plains. Harmonic instability accompanies the winds recalling the opening motive, as the meadowlark call leads to a comforting and hopeful theme in D major. This tune is spun out until the full orchestra arrives at a triumphant and grandiose recapitulation of the main theme. The atmosphere suggests the majesty of the plains, becoming more and more ecstatic, until the orchestra spends its energy in a great climax, then falls silent. A short bridge section leads to an extended solo piano cadenza, and the work dies away in pianissimo. Song Over the Great Plains enjoyed a number of performances in the 1950s, but remained unpublished.

George Frederick McKay’s achievement as a nationalist, neo-romantic composer cannot be underestimated. He was able to resist the consuming influence of native composers proselytizing the methods of European composers as well as that of Aaron Copland and his imitators in their establishment of what many accepted by default as the “American Sound”. By remaining true to his Northwestern roots and drawing upon the vast musical resources of the region’s migrants and indigenous peoples, McKay forged a style at once wholly individual and completely American, one filled with a striving and nobility that mirrors the determination that led to the founding of America.

John McLaughlin Williams

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