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 ofNorthwest Composers and revered Professor of Music atthe University of Washington for 41 years, from 1927 to1968, was born to a pioneering family in the smallwheat-farming community of Harrington, Washingtonon 11th June, 1899. He spent most of his childhood inSpokane where his father worked as a farmland surveyorfor a local bank, and began composing orchestral musicas early as his high school years. His father did notapprove of a career in music, and he was encouraged toenroll at Washington State College at Pullman to earn abusiness degree. In 1919, weary of this, he transferred tothe University of Washington, Seattle, where he beganseriously studying music and composition with CarlPaige Wood. Two years later a scholarship allowed himto study composition with Christian Sinding and SelimPalmgren at the Eastman School of Music at Rochester,New York, earning the first composition degree awardedthere. His first published compositions were written andpublished during this time.
After his graduation from Eastman in 1923, McKayembarked on a teaching career that included posts inNorth Carolina, South Dakota, and Missouri and finallyat what became his permanent professorship at theUniversity of Washington, Seattle. There he becamerecognized over the span of four decades as anoutstanding teacher, composer and leader in thepropagation of American music. His works were widelyperformed and broadcast under some of the mostdistinguished conductors. He was the recipient of manyhonours during his lifetime, including his twice holdingthe Alchin Chair at the University of Southern California(1938-39). He received important commissions fromnational orchestras, and was awarded national prizes forharp, woodwind, piano, organ and symphoniccompositions. McKay was equally successful as ateacher, with students including William Bolcom, EarlRobinson, John Cage and Goddard Lieberson. He diedin 1970 at his home in Lake Tahoe, Nevada.
In 1941 George Frederick McKay entered hisrecently composed Violin Concerto in the HeifetzCompetition, newly established by Jascha Heifetz andthe music publisher Carl Fischer. By 1940, when hewrote his Violin Concerto, McKay was an establishedcomposer who could point to many performances andbroadcasts 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 thenortheast, meant that he was still seen as an artist oflargely local significance. McKay, like other competitors,hoped that success would give his work the kind ofbroad national exposure that only a world famous artistcould give it. Though McKay's work received anhonourable mention and was praised by Heifetz, it failedto capture the top prize, which went to Gail Kubik'sViolin Concerto No. 2. McKay's concerto shares strongformal affinities with Max Bruch's famous ViolinConcerto No. 1 in G minor, a rather operatic firstmovement, an inward and poetic slow movement andrhythmically vigorous finale, all written to lie well onthe instrument while sounding extremely virtuosic. Likethe Bruch, McKay's work is in one movement dividedinto three sections that correspond to the standard fastslow-fast scheme of romantic concerti. Unlike Bruch'sconcerto, the first movement is actually a three-themedsonata-arch form. The character is declamatory and lyrical.
It begins with a brief orchestral introduction of the firsttheme, followed by the solo violin stating the second,primary theme in double stops. After much recitativelikeinterplay by orchestra and soloist, the ravishingthird theme is played by a soaring solo violin,underpinned by undulating triplets in the winds. Themiddle section is both development and cadenza, afterwhich the recapitulation reveals the movement's archform by returning the themes in reverse order. Anothercadenza serves as a bridge to the second movement. Thismovement is the intimate heart of the concerto. A solooboe gives a four-bar introduction and the violin enterswith a soulful melody resembling a folk-tune.
Throughout, the violin spins an endless cantilena untilthe winds restate the theme of the introduction. This isfollowed by a striking passage scored only for solo fluteand solo violin, in which the composer's love of natureis most evident. This passage is also a seamless bridge tothe finale. The third movement is a vehicle for purevirtuoso enjoyment. Highly rhythmic in a mildly jazzyway, the composer slightly offsets its flow with twodance episodes in irregular metre. The movement endsin triumph after a cyclical return of the first movement'smain theme combined with the irregular dance motive.
The concerto is dedicated to Moritz Rosen, a facultymember of the University of Washington, and was firstperformed in the fall of 1941 by his son Kensley Rosenwith the University of Washington Symphony Orchestra,conducted by the composer. Rosen performed theconcerto again in 1946 with the Seattle Philharmonic, andplayed it many times to other audiences with pianoaccompaniment. It was not performed with orchestraagain until its triumphant revival by Ilka Talvi and theSeattle Symphony in 2001.
The Suite on 16th Century Hymn Tunes is basedupon the music for psalms composed by the FrenchmanLouis Bourgeois (c.1510-1561). Bourgeois was afollower of John Calvin, and in 1541 went to Geneva,where he was charged with bringing order to theGenevan Psalter (hymnal). Showing great flair for thiswork, he introduced some unapproved changes to thehymns, and was subsequently jailed briefly. He wasreleased through the intervention of Calvin, who saw thevalue of Bourgeois' highly musical adaptations and hadthem implemented for the Psalter's publication. Afterthe Psalter was published, he returned to France, wherenothing is heard of him after 1560.
McKay's homage to Bourgeois was composed fororgan in 1945 and shortly thereafter cast for stringorchestra, a version first performed in 1946 in a benefitconcert for refugees of the Spanish Civil War, featuringsix of McKay's works, all conducted by the composer.
In 1962 he transcribed the work for two stringorchestras, and it is this version that is here recorded.
The 1962 transcription differs in that the parts for thesecond string orchestra are intended for younger players,and a celeste is effectively added in the fourthmovement, Choeur Celeste. Vilem Sokol conducted theSeattle Youth Symphony, using more than a hundredstring players, in the 1963 premi?¿re of this version. Thescore bears the dedication 'In Memory of LouisBourgeois - 1510'.
The Suite is in five movements, given with theGenevan Psalter psalm numbers:1 Meditation (Psalm 6: L'Accueil de Dieu)
2 Rondolet (Psalm 140 & 42:
Les Commandements de Dieu)
3 Air varie (Psalm 107: Donnez au Seigneur Gloire)
4 Choeur celeste (Psalm 12: Donne Secours)
5 Cort?¿ge joyeux (Psalm 118: Rendez ?á Dieu)The titles of the individual movements, broadlydescriptive of the music, are McKay's own, given inFrench to preserve the music's original identity.
Meditation is reflective, and Rondolet playful and courtly.
Air Varie offers four highly imaginative variations of asimple theme, while Choeur Celeste evokes a heavenlychorus. Cort?¿ge Joyeux is akin to a recessional, when allworshipers arise in gladness at the end of a Mass.
McKay sometimes varies the original hymns, with anoccasional change of rhythm, or less frequently, a note.
The Suite is put together with the assurance of a mastercraftsman,