From a Moonlit Ceremony/McKay

November 8, 2008

from-a-moonlit-ceremony1The most important thing about McKay, at least to this reviewer, is the melodic content to his music. It flows as freely as a Max Steiner score with theme upon theme and variation and harmonizing of those melodies. The only lacking ingredient is the silver screen itself which can easily be conjured up in ones mind given the opportunity as I have done on so many occasions. The fact that this composer has been so overlooked for such a long time is puzzling. One can only speculate that living in the upper northwest as opposed to New York had something to do with it. Yet during his lifetime Stokowski, Beecham, Hanson, Fielder, and Dragon performed his works among many conductors.

Written during his second musical period “The Years of Western Flavor” (1937-1949), the work 15+ minutes is divided into 4 sections. It is based mostly on material that McKay studied during a visit to the Muckleshoot tribe near Mt. Rainer where he was given the opportunity to experience the religious ceremony, dances, driving away of the demons and a thanksgiving feast. “Evocation” is a wonderful single theme that weaves in and out of flutes, reeds, brass, and strings for the entire 4 minutes. The cowboy suddenly appearing out of the horizon heading toward the ranch to return to his family is a picture that one can easily conjure up. If you’re familiar with “Call of the Faraway Hill” you’ll enjoy this theme every bit as much. “Demon Dance” with its driving tom-tom rhythm is a McKay original theme complete with everything you would expect to hear of a dance that would drive away the evil spirits. Sacred is the key word for “Spirit Song” an elegant hymn for piece. The woodwinds start the theme that almost naturally slides into the strings to properly set the mood, followed by the call of the brass, proud and majestic. “Festival Dance”, the final selection, consists of three Muckleshoot themes with McKay providing the theme for the harmony. Very Native American it truly depicts a time of being grateful and happy. While parts were performed in the 40’s it wasn’t published until McKay revised it in 1969 which is the version performed on this recording.

This reviewer can only marvel at how well a Soviet orchestra can perform a work that is as American sounding as “Take Me Out To The Ballgame.” We have truly become global at least in terms of performing music these days. The conductor John McLaughlin Williams has also done an additional recording of McKay works as well as a recording of more neglected works this time from American composer John Alden Carpenter. Perhaps there will be more of this wonderful American composer in the future. The Naxos American Classics are expanding as I type and we can certainly expect more from this fine series in the future.

Performed by the National Symphony of Ukraine conducted by John McLaughlin Williams

Naxos CD# is 8.559052

Track Listing:
1…Evocation (3:48)
2…Demon Dance (2:59)
3…Spirit Song (3:58)
4…Festival Dance (4:28)


2 Responses to “From a Moonlit Ceremony/McKay”

  1. Martijn Says:

    “This reviewer can only marvel at how well a Soviet orchestra can perform a work that is as American sounding as “Take Me Out To The Ballgame”.”

    Well, it took a Russian to define the sound of the American West in the movies for *decades*. I guess the Russians, with their nearly genetic disposition towards melancholy and patriotism, simply relate very well to similar sentiments, even if from another continent altogether.

  2. Fred Says:


    The first movement of George Frederick McKay’s “From A Moonlit Ceremony” was premiered by Leopold Stokowski in the Hollywood Bowl in 1946. McKay had been approached to write film music when he was teaching as a visiting professor at USC starting in 1939 while following in the footsteps of Schoenberg and Howard Hanson there. He declined this opportunity for his lifetime post at the University of Washington, Seattle. Two of his students have been active in creating movie music: Earl Robinson and William Bolcom (Illuminata). Robinson actually won a special Academy Award, and has had his music performed by Paul Robeson, Frank Sinatra, and the Three Dog Night. Another McKay student, Goddard Lieberson rose to be president of Columbia Records, instituted the long-play record and was the original record producer for South Pacific and Westside Story, while using these financial successes to record a great number of Leonard Bernstein’s classical discs for Columbia.

    The Hollywood conductor Carmen Dragon used many of McKay’s American folkloric pieces for Standard Oil Radio broadcasts with the San Francisco Symphony and the Los Angeles Symphony in the period 1948-1966.

    McKay’s closest friend in the Los Angeles area was the famed African-American composer William Grant Still, who wrote music for the long-running “Gunsmoke” show on TV. McKay and Still shared a common philosophy concerning the use of inspirational folk themes in concert music.

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