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George Frederick McKAY (1899-1970)
Epoch: An American Dance Symphony (Symbolic Portrait [14:16]; Pastoral [15:28]; Westward! [18:49]; Machine Age Blues [13:47]) (1935) [62:52]
University of Kentucky Women’s Choir/Lori Hetzel
University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra/John Nardolillo
rec. 6-8 February 2007, Singletary Center for the Arts Concert Hall, Lexington, Kentucky
Text by Fred McKay and Harrison McKay
NAXOS 8.559330 [62:52] 
Experience Classicsonline

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’. 

Though 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. 

Although 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. 

After 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. 

The 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.

We 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.

William Kreindler

see also Review by Rob Barnett


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