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ClassicsOnline Home » MCKAY, G: Epoch - An American Dance Symphony (University of Kentucky Symphony, Nardolillo)
George Frederick McKay composed Epoch, which has lain forgotten for virtually seventy years, as ‘An American Dance Symphony’. This new art form was to express in colourful music, costumes and dance scenes, utilizing the latest techniques in lighting and stagecraft, the spirit of four great American poets: Edgar Allan Poe, Sidney Lanier, Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg, as well as the flow of history through romantic, pastoral, pioneering and industrial episodes. Epoch was first performed in 1935 during the Great Depression, with severe social-political turmoil brewing on many fronts, and McKay’s music, like the 1927 silent movie Metropolis, warned of a dawning robotic and polluted modern industrial society, in contrast to a peaceful, natural existence. The lyrical Pastoral depicts idyllic nurturing hillsides, streams and bays, while Machine Age Blues expresses a dark prospective future, with explosive, sardonic mechanical fury.
George Frederick McKay (1899–1970)
EPOCH: An American Dance Symphony
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
This episode serves us as a prologue, with Poe’s life at once foreshadowing and summing up the events that later inspire other poets. The lyric works of Poe are followed by the struggle of transition into the macabre phase and end in hysteria and madness.
I. Introduction; the poet anticipates his fate.
II. Lyric scene; a prolonged intimate reverie (with “Annabel Lee”) is broken as the poet is beckoned to go forward to meet his fate.
III. Fearful farewell; the poet struggles to remain but cannot resist knowing his fate.
IV. Transition to macabre; the poet finds himself alone, haunted and terrified, facing an unknown darkness.
V. Crescendo to madness; the quiet, broken by the slow onset of pulsating sounds – the pendulum – increasing in intensity, swaying the poet to its beat, forward into complete madness, then silence.
VI. Approach of Ghostly Figures; the fate-chorus approaches the dying poet who mirrors their own fate.
VII. Death stream; the figures whirl like leaves in a rhythmless interpretation of meaningless death.
VIII. Retreat of the Ghostly Figures; the figures slowly recede into the enclosing shadow.
2. Pastoral Sidney Lanier
The second episode brings a sharp contrast. In it we find a development of the lyric vein seen in Poe. It includes all that is sane, normal and peaceful in nature done in broad horizontal lines, summing up the romance of southern hillsides, streams and bays.
I. Eos calls on the earth and its creatures to waken.
II. To an unhurried ceremonial set-dance melody, the creatures welcome the earth’s stirring.
III. The creatures delight as the earth blossoms, the skies shine, breezes blow and birds fly and sing; all is peaceful and fruitful.
IV. The ceremonial set-dance welcomes the earth’s abundantly flowing rivers and streams.
V. The rivers run relentlessly through the countryside to the vast seas that await them.
VI. As the rivers reach the sea, one final meadowlark call heralds the arrival and all becomes more tranquil; peace again prevails.
VII. The creatures invoke the set-dance again to end the day.
VIII. The earth is called to rest: sleep and agelessness.
3. Westward! Walt Whitman
Whitman, the poet of America’s pioneer expansion, is a lonely figure, a champion of the common man yet never accepted by him as a friend. The earlier part of this episode portrays man as conqueror of nature through the invention of machinery that will harness power to do man’s work for him, while the latter portion shows man’s struggle to conquer the vast prairie and western mountains.
I. Introduction; heroic prophecy of conquest – nostalgia and loneliness – a passing uncertainty – confidence returns.
II. The Workers; city life in the 1800s bustles, machinery is merrily relieving man of drudgery, and a sense of camaraderie prevails.
III. The call to the west; the call symbolizes the urge of the pioneer spirit, and a confident departure.
IV. The poet watches them go, a lonely figure, relishing their joy in challenging the unknown but unable to join them. As he hears their last call, he retreats in sorrow.
V. The prairie; the looming vastness, loneliness of the prairie and the inevitable tragedy for many, is expressed through the lament “O, Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie.” But the pioneers persist in following the call to their destiny.
VI. Folk dance; despite the impending tragedy they feel, the youthful pioneer spirit exults in confidence and joy in the dance, as they prepare to face the reality, but the lament returns to haunt them.
VII. March of the pioneers; the long trek moves forward to the far distant goals. The poet knows there will be triumphs but also understands that the greater goal of universal peace and brotherhood are beyond reach in his lifetime.
4. Machine Age Blues Carl Sandburg
Sandburg and the 20th century find machinery fully developed with man as its slave, not its master. We have the clatter of everyday existence and people at work and play, but the tune is always called by the machine which forms the basic rhythm of jazz. As the forced merriment reaches its climax, we hear again the insanity theme first heard in the prologue – coming as a warning to us all before it is too late.
I. Introduction; the city hubbub in the 1900s – violence, noise, constant motion, the city never sleeps.
II. Rhythm of the machine; the workers and the machine move together – the machines command while changing tempo.
III. Transition to jazz; the original beat of the machine gradually changes and syncopation insinuates itself and comes to dominate, accelerating until the whistle blows to signal the end of the workday.
IV. Satirical blues dance; the city noise and bustle await the workers who are again captive to a rhythm – a tired-out blues tune – to start their evening.
V. Dance frenzy; the music grows louder and drives the worker-dancers to wildly follow the tempos and changes in rhythms.
VI. Chorus line; women workers are transformed into a chorus line and dance to a cheap tune, then all join in as the dance frenzy returns wilder than ever, with the rhythm of the machine adding to the havoc.
VII. Recurrence of the pendulum; as the workers dance, the madness of Poe reappears, and then dominates the scene; the workers continue dancing insanely – to their end.
Although this drama is at present a tragedy, it is unfinished and lacks a fifth episode. This is now being prepared by time and must be written and enacted by us all. (G.F. McKay. 1935)
(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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MCKAY, G: Epoch - An American Dance Symphony (Univ...