Some Americana this weekend. Harl McDonald, born in Boulder Colorado in 1899 and died in Princeton New Jersey in 1955. In addition to composing, McDonald was a pianist, conductor and teacher, most working at the University of Pennsylvania starting in 1927. In addition to four symphonies, he composed a number of pieces for piano as well as choral music.
After his death in 1955, much of his music went unplayed and he became largely forgotten until the past few years. A few independent Classical labels have taken up the cause of Harl McDonald, introducing new audiences to his work and offering a number of first recordings for much of it.
Like so many composers from this era (1920-1960), McDonald wasn’t adventuresome and sought to break no barriers. He offered honest, straight-forward pieces, usually based on themes of American folk lore or based on American folk tunes – as many of his contemporaries had. And Howard Hanson, as director of the Eastman School of Music was one of the premier champions of this conservative approach to music. At the time it was very popular, especially during the Depression years and the War when pieces which evoked a sense of Nationalism were standard features at Concerts all over America.
But as the avant-garde grew, and the 12-tone school of Schoenberg and the pioneering work of Igor Stravinsky gained a larger audience, this school of music faded from popularity – and the ones responsible for it faded from view.
Admittedly, much of the music from this period is unremarkable. It’s tuneful in places but poses no challenges. I suppose that’s really no criteria as, in the big picture, there is validity in honest-yet-unchallenging music. And why does music have to pose a challenge all the time?
But beyond all that, there are gems to be found. This short piece, The Mission At San Juan Capistrano is short, sweet and evocative. And it does precisely what it set out to do; create an atmosphere and mood.
If you aren’t familiar with the music of Harl McDonald, this is a good place to start – much of his music is being recorded now, so you can investigate what else there is.
In the meantime, enjoy.
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