This disc is a composite of several interesting elements. First,
it shows a greater degree of substance than most of the McKay
works that have been recorded up to now. Second, it demonstrates
the fears that were evident in America after it had just come out of the Great Depression but slowly became
aware of the growth of fascism elsewhere in the world at the same
time. Third, it demonstrates that at this time Americans were
realizing that the industrial aspects of the recovery were producing
a country that was strange to many of its citizens. Finally, it
harks back to a period when artistic works that crossed “traditional”
boundaries were popular - this work is sometimes described as
a ‘ballet’ and sometimes as a ‘symphony’.
this work is meant to be danced from start to finish, the musical
section is self-contained, being held together motivically.
It is in the four movements of a symphony, each evoking the
work of a famous American poet (Poe, Sidney Lanier, Whitman
and Carl Sandberg). It does this more in atmosphere than in
any autobiographical sense or through the setting of particular
poems. The chorus is wordless, but is used very effectively.
The evocations of the four poets more or less generate a history
of America from roughly 1835 to 1935, the year of composition.
each movement has an elaborate dance scenario, we hear only
the music here, which hangs together perfectly well. Poe and
his descent (Symbolic Portrait) into madness is an interesting
place to start a symphony and the movement becomes progressively
more jagged and eventually hysterical. In the ballet scenario
various ghostly figures appear which would only add to the gloomy
feeling. McKay’s writing in the last part of this movement is
some of his best ever. Totally different is Sidney Lanier, a
poet not much read today and even going out of style in 1935.
He is the inspiration for a Pastoral that is more in the typical
McKay manner. It is descriptive of nature’s wonders in North America and makes very effective use
of the women’s chorus. The middle sections describing the great
rivers and the coda with chorus are especially serene.
classic American literature and the native landscape comes the
inevitable movement west in the Whitman section (Westward!).
This starts with the growth of American cities and then the
inhabitants steadily moving west. I found the music here not
as original as that of the first two movements, although the
variant of the opening theme from the first movement that is
used to describe Whitman is quite good and the music improves
slightly as the prairies are conquered. At the end of the movement
the triumphal tone begins to show a slight edge, which will
lead us into the fourth movement.
last movement, Machine Age Blues, is the crux of the symphony
and was encored at the premiere. Here, Machine, not Man, is
the master and the skyscrapers are scarier than anything in
the famous work of Carpenter. Multiple troubles assail America: the machinery; jazzy music symbolizing
decadence and a very different City from Whitman’s time. They
combine musically to portray a swift slide towards destruction.
These musical elements later combine with satirical blues and
cheap dances leading to a frenzied combination of all these
musical components. On the stage Poe’s ghost reappears and those
dancing to the cheap music do so to their end. Musically this
is quite effective and I’m sure the visual element would add
quite a bit more. This is not the “classic” American 1930s symphony
of vision and optimism and I’m sure Roy Harris or Walter Piston
wouldn’t have known what to do with it.
are greatly in the debt of all involved in the production of
this recording for showing us not only another side of McKay,
but also a different musical view of a time in American history
from the one that we usually get - one that is perhaps due to
the composer and perhaps to the locale in which he was living.
John Nardolillo is especially to be commended for maintaining
almost constant interest in a piece that goes on for over an
hour and at the same time lacks the visual element of its overall
conception. Occasional longueurs or drops in tension seem to
be less his fault than that of the composer. The orchestra,
while not professional, gives their performance a great deal
of enthusiasm and as said above, the choral preparation is first
rate. The Singletary Center was perhaps
not the greatest choice for this recording - it has a rather
cavernous sound. This disc is very much for those who continue
to be interested in McKay and his magnum opus on disc and to
those looking for a different view of American musical history
of this time.
see also Review
by Rob Barnett