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ClassicsOnline Home » MCKAY: Suite for Viola and Piano / My Tahoe Window / An April Suite
By Herman Trotter
The Buffalo News
By Michael Anthony
George Frederick McKay (1899-1970) Chamber Music
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. He began serious study of music 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 McKays teachers were Christian Sinding and Selim Palmgren. McKay was the first graduate in composition from Eastman. Mckay 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, the piano compositions here included exemplify his ability to write idiomatically for the piano.
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. Shows such as Shuffle Along (1921) by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle as well as the Ziegfeld Follies were transforming American popular song. McKays familiarity with and affection for American rhythms and melodies is demonstrated clearly in The Caricature Dance Suite (1924). He had begun work on this composition during his time in Seattle, and later at Eastman, and it became his first published work, issued by Schotts in Germany. The full suite also exists as an arrangement for orchestra.
After a whimsical opening, the first movement of the Caricature Dance Suite, Snickertyskip, features the "rag-like" cakewalk rhythm early in the movement, clearly demonstrating its overall ternary form, with the middle section characterized by a lovely melody that returns to the cakewalk. Both the second and third movements, Jabbertyflip and Swaggerhop are relatively short. The final movement, Burlesque March, is a rhythmically and melodically delightful composition that was also published successfully in a version for band. The suite demonstrates immediately how McKay began to develop his own, clearly American voice, with wonderful jazzy rhythms and a rare gift for melody possessed and cultivated by far too few of his peers.
After his retirement from the University of Washington, McKay spent a great deal of time at Lake Tahoe. The seven movements that comprise the suite From My Tahoe Window - Summer Moods and Patterns (1965) are all relatively short miniatures reflecting his feelings about nature in general and his own response to the changing seasons of his own life. Sunrise is an evocative, dream-like piece, reminding one at times of a Bill Evans piano solo. It is followed by A Morning Mood, a short, whimsical piece. In the beginning the music of Looking Upward ascends and then relaxes into moments that are alternately bluesy and slightly melancholic, finally returning to the opening ascending figure. Like all of the pieces in this suite, Storm Clouds is programmatic in character, while avoiding cliché, an evocation of both the potential and energetic threat of such clouds. It is followed by Caballeros, a vigorous rhythmic tribute to the men of the title. Both of the last two movements are introspective and thoughtful in character. Sundown is the more optimistic of the two pieces, whereas Summers End also suggests, perhaps, the waning days of ones life.
Although the next two compositions both date from 1924, they are completely different in character. Both the Americanistic Etude, Op.27, and An April Suite, Op.3, were carefully preserved by McKays sister Diantha for six decades before their re-appearance for the present recording. The Americanistic Etude is a rhythmic and energetic romp, as American in its meter and harmony as the Charleston, with jazz rhythms and syncopations abounding. The ending, however, demonstrates how very difficult it can be to end any composition, and may not seem entirely successful, Of course, other listeners will find it idiosyncratically consistent. An April Suite, Op.3, reflects on the composers younger days, with immediate romanticism in the To The Blue Eyed Days of Spring. Even the more whimsical second movement, One April Morning, is characterized by romantic harmonies and melodies. The last two movements, A Remembered Happiness and Prelude to a Summer Day, continue the romantic, perhaps even occasionally French-sounding character of this nostalgic set of short pieces.
In the 1930s the McKays enjoyed friendly relations with many of Seattles more colourful personalities and artists, including John Cage and Mark Tobey. In 1938 McKay composed the Dance Suite No.2, which he dedicated to Bonnie Bird. In 1939 he also composed works for a Bonnie Bird/John Cage ballet presentation, The Hilarious Dance Concert, staged at the Cornish School in Seattle. The dance troupe included a very young Merce Cunningham and McKays daughter Georgianne. Dance itself may be seen as dealing with differences in energy levels. The Dance Suite No.2 is a delightful and diverse set of five movements, offering, in their different energy levels, opportunities for a choreographer to work both with that energy and against it. The fourth movement, Calisthenics a la Hollywood, has an energy that plays beautifully against the expected stereotype. The other four movements aptly portray the intent of their titles; Insouciant Proclamation, Naive Pastorale, Athletic Poem and A Giddy Pace.
The two-piano work Dancing in a Dream (1945) is a short whimsical fantasy on a Fred Astaire film or a Broadway musical, wherein the dancers move with ease and grace across the screen or stage.
Selections from Five Songs for Soprano (1964) illustrate McKays love for poetry, both the dramatic and playful. It may be noticed how the text dictates the character of all aspects of the music, including the melodic line, accompaniment, dynamics, and metre. The selections open with a very dramatic composition based on Bunches of Grapes by Walter de la Mare. This is followed by the anonymous Days of the Week, and concludes with a setting of The Flower Will Bloom Another Year by Keats.
Every Flower That Ever Grew (1969) is a setting of an ancient Irish song and text. Again, the words dictate the character of both the vocal line and the piano accompaniment. Composed the year after McKay retired, this song clearly reflects his interest in providing compositions whose intent is to provide an uplifting spiritual moment for his audience.
The final composition included here is the Suite for Viola and Piano (1948). McKay was himself an excellent violinist, and this work demonstrates his ability to write compelling and idiomatic music for string instruments. The composition consists of five movements. The first, Allegro moderato, vigoroso e parlando, uses frequent contrapuntal interchanges between the viola and piano to create music that is both dramatic and melodically and rhythmically engaging. The second movement, Cantante e poetico, is characterized by a lovely, elegiac melodic line against complementary harmonies in the piano. The third movement, Moderato scherzoso e grotesco, is a moderate scherzo that is equally only moderately grotesque. It possesses a lot of rhythmic and dynamic energy and contrasts well with both of the slower and song-like movements that frame it. The longest movement in the composition, the fourth movement, Moderato cantabile, marks a return to McKays neo-Romantic sensibilities. The concluding movement Moderato marziale, ritmico e marcato is all that this suggests, and in many ways summarises an important element in all of McKays music; his ability to write engaging music that is firmly rooted in the art music tradition of the time.
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