GEORGE FREDERICK MCKAY (1899 - 1970)
Known as the Dean of Northwest Composers, George Frederick McKay composed and arranged a wide variety of works, ranging from orchestral compositions and music for ballet to band marches, over the course of forty years as a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. He began serious musical study there in 1919, studying composition with Carl Paige Wood. After two years in Seattle, he received a scholarship to study composition at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, under the directorship of Howard Hanson, where his teachers were Christian Sinding and Selim Palmgren. 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. McKay was the first graduate in composition from Eastman. He composed at the piano, writing short musical notations in pencil, later to be organized in ink at a large writing-desk. Although his performance instrument was the violin, he was also able to write idiomatically for the piano and for orchestra, an important element in all of McKay’s work being his ability to write engagingly in the art music tradition of his time.
Popular American music in the 1920s was characterized not only by the increasing popularity of New Orleans jazz, but also of African-American and Klezmer-influenced music brought to the American stage. McKay’s familiarity with and affection for American rhythms and melodies is demonstrated clearly in The Caricature Dance Suite (1924), his first published work, issued by Schotts in Germany. Other of his chamber works were published in Europe (by Schott’s and Senart), his orchestral music was performed in Philadelphia, Boston, Rochester, and Seattle, and he was gaining recognition as a rising young American composer from the Western region.
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.
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 avant garde piano pieces for The Marriage at the Eiffel Tower which included the teenage 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, he continued his explorations into more abstract, inner-seeking experiences.
George Frederick McKay’s music during later decades of composition evolved and eventually included 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 that he would produce it.