The Music of Harl McDonald - Complete Set (1935-56) - PABX015

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The Music of Harl McDonald - Complete Set (1935-56) - PABX015

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McDONALD Symphony No. 1 etc.
McDONALD Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra etc.
McDONALD Violin Concerto
McDONALD Elegy and Battle Hymn
Symphony No. 3, “A Tragic Cycle”
Builders of America

Recorded 1935-56

Jeanne Behrend, Alexander Kelberine
- piano
Eugene Ormandy · Leopold Stokowski · Harl McDonald Arthur Fiedler • Fabien Sevitzky

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The Music of Harl McDonald, Volume 1 (1935-41) - PASC402

Harl McDonald: one of America's great forgotten tonal C20 composers

"I hugely enjoyed this voyage through the music of Harl McDonald. He is a composer of great gifts marvelously realized" - Fanfare

Harl McDonald was born on a cattle ranch near Boulder, Colorado on July 27, 1899 and grew up in southern California. Musically talented from an early age, he studied piano and French horn, becoming proficient enough in the latter to join the Los Angeles Philharmonic while still in his teens. He received his Bachelor’s degree in music from the University of California at Berkeley in 1921. An orchestral suite he composed won a national prize, allowing him to complete his compositional studies at the Leipzig Conservatory the following year.

Returning to the United States, he began a career as a piano soloist, accompanist, and lecturer on composition, also working as a church choirmaster and, occasionally, a boxer. He received an appointment to teach piano at the Philadelphia Musical Academy in 1924. Within three years, he joined the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, leading several of its choral groups and eventually becoming the head of its music department.

It was probably while preparing some of the university choruses that appeared with the Philadelphia Orchestra that McDonald first met Leopold Stokowski, who encouraged his compositional activities by premièring his Santa Fé Trail Symphony in 1934, the first of several McDonald premières the conductor would undertake. That same year, McDonald was appointed to the board of directors of the orchestra, eventually becoming its manager in 1939, a post he would hold for the next sixteen years.

McDonald was a prolific composer; by 1944, it was estimated that he had written over 150 works. Several of them were influenced by his upbringing in the American southwest with its Spanish legacy, which can be heard in The Santa Fé Trail and San Juan Capistrano. Other compositions were suggested by folk themes, such as those in The Legend of the Arkansas Traveler and the Hebraic Poems.

From Childhood came about as a result of McDonald’s visit to Philadelphia Orchestra harpist Edna Phillips’ home. She was singing old English nursery rhymes to her children while improvising accompaniments on the harp. McDonald suggested that a suite based on the songs would make a good piece, which led Phillips and her husband to commission him to write one. The first movement quotes I saw three ships and Lavender’s blue; the second features The jolly miller and Three blind mice; while the third combines references to There was a lady loved a swine, Oranges and lemons and St. Paul’s steeple.

Interest in performing and recording McDonald’s works waned after his death on March 30, 1955 in Princeton, New Jersey. Although Ormandy conducted The Santa Fé Trail as late as 1971, no new recordings of McDonald’s compositions have appeared in nearly 60 years, and reissues of earlier ones have been sparse. The Stokowski and Koussevitzky sides were released on CD in the early 1990s, but Ormandy’s recordings of The Santa Fé Trail and Cakewalk have not been seen since the LP era, while the Hebraic Poems and From Childhood have never previously been reissued. It is hoped that the current release will spark a new interest in this neglected composer.

Mark Obert-Thorn

The Music of Harl McDonald, Volume 2 (1937-50) - PASC430

Harl McDonald - Second volume celebrating the music of a forgotten American composer

"I can think of no living American composer who surpasses McDonald at his best. It’s time he was rediscovered" - Fanfare

This second release devoted to the works of Harl McDonald (1899 - 1955) begins with a Concerto for Two Pianos whose eclecticism reflects the wide-ranging influences of the American composer.  The second movement variations start with a Bach-like original theme, while the third is inspired by a dance of northern Mexico called the Juarezca.

My Country at War gathers together three of McDonald’s prior works into a suite.  The first movement, originally titled Overture 1941, premièred two days before the Pearl Harbor attack that drew America into the war that was already raging in the rest of the world.  The second was inspired by the unsuccessful attempt by American forces to withstand a long siege at Bataan.  The final two movements were originally set for baritone and orchestra, but revamped without soloist for the suite.

The cycle Songs of Conquest, based on poems by Phelps Putnam, looks back with pride at the achievements of the American pioneers while looking forward with unease at the then-current world situation.  The first song celebrates humankind’s triumphs (“Man has prevailed ... over insect and beast/He has forgotten the variable seas”).  The second depicts man as alone and terrified (“I am one who am solitary ... I have hurled my questions into the universe/I have pressed them into the earth and into my flesh”).  The third makes a statement about nations being able to resolve their differences rationally, a sentiment which must have already seemed like a lost cause by the time this was recorded (“Let us declare ... That the weight of seeing is upon us”).  The final song returns to the pioneer theme (“We have cut ourselves from our home as with an axe/The sea could not stop us, being our simple road”) before ending with a reprise of “Man has prevailed”.

The Miniature Suite presents McDonald in the rôle of arranger.  John Christopher Smith was a protégé of Handel, who later became an amanuensis to his patron when the older composer became blind.  The three movements were drawn from Smith’s My Hand and Musicke Book, published in London in 1784.

Like his suite From Childhood on Volume One (PASC 402), McDonald drew upon nursery rhymes for his Children’s Symphony.  Here, he introduces young people to symphonic structure by using familiar tunes in a four-movement framework, each of which has a principal and a secondary theme.  The songs used are “London Bridge is Falling Down” and “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” in the first movement; “Little Bo Peep” and “Oh, Dear, What Can the Matter Be” in the second; “The Farmer in the Dell” and “Jingle Bells” in the third; and “Honey Bee” and “Snow is Falling On My Garden” in the final movement, with a reprise of “London Bridge” to close.

Mark Obert-Thorn

The Music of Harl McDonald, Volume 3 (1943-56) - PASC491

Harl McDonald - Symphony No. 3, Violin Concerto & more!

" I can think of no living American composer who surpasses McDonald at his best" -Fanfare

For this third and final volume in Pristine’s series devoted to the music of Harl McDonald, we turn primarily to live performances of works which were never recorded commercially. His hauntingly melodic Violin Concerto, which had its première the day before the broadcast heard here, shows the influences of several late Romantic composers (Elgar, Sibelius and Rachmaninov among them). The soloist is the Philadelphia Orchestra’s concertmaster, Alexander Hilsberg.

The next selection offers an opportunity to hear a McDonald work in progress. Before he included the “Elegy and Battle Hymn” in his symphonic suite My Country at War (reissued on Pristine PASC 430), it was a stand-alone work with a baritone soloist. The text (“Tall youth, with all of life and living stretched before you/Destroyed, destroyed by treachery”) was based on an essay by Edward Gilson, and deals with the surprise attack on America by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor and the promise of retribution to come. The broadcast heard here was the world première performance conducted by Fabien Sevitzky, who had previously introduced the “1941” movement of My Country.

The next work suggests an unexpected connection. A cycle of sorrowful songs based on the works of a Chinese poet, translated in the composer’s vernacular – could his Third Symphony be Harl McDonald’s Das Lied von der Erde? Unlike the Mahler work, however, there is no pentatonic Chinoiserie here; McDonald was not out to stress the cultural origins of his text. “My object,” he wrote in a program note for the work’s première, “was to uncover in the poems four phases of tragedy that were unlimited by racial conventions or literary styles and to concentrate on the subject matter which seemed universal.” Leopold Stokowski introduced the piece with the Philadelphia Orchestra in January, 1936, and the Ormandy performance heard here was given the year after McDonald’s death as a tribute by the orchestra to its longtime former manager.

While Mahler may not have been the antecedent for the Third Symphony, Copland was the likely inspiration for the final work on our program, the only studio recording here, and the last one made by the composer. The cantata Builders of America expands on the model of Lincoln Portrait by adding a chorus and focusing on two Presidents. The sung text was based on a poem by Edward Shenton, expanded to include a narration authoritatively declaimed here by actor Claude Rains. The recording was made less than a week after the work’s première during a session otherwise devoted to the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the “Columbia Chamber Orchestra” may well include members of that ensemble. (The solo flautist certainly seems to have William Kincaid’s trademark vibrato.) With the exception of two additional recordings of works which had previously been set down on disc (a 1953 taping of From Childhood conducted by Felix Slatkin, and a 1996 version of “Fiesta” from San Juan Capistrano with Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops), Builders of America would bring to a close the discography of the works of Harl McDonald.

Mark Obert-Thorn

Click below to expand track listing:
The Music of Harl McDonald, Volume 1 (1935-41) - PASC402

Full Track Listing

  • Symphony No. 1, “The Santa Fé Trail” (1932)
    Recorded 20 October 1940 in the Academy of Music, Philadelphia
    Matrix nos.: CS 056567-1, 056568-1, 056569-2, 056570-1, 056571-1 & 056572-1
    First issued on Victor 17765/7 in album M-754

  • Two Hebraic Poems (from Three Poems on Aramaic Themes) (1935)
    Recorded 5 April 1937 in the Academy of Music, Philadelphia
    Matrix nos.: CS 07572-2 & 04003-1
    First issued on Victor 14903

  • Cakewalk (Scherzo from Symphony No. 4) (1937)
    Recorded 9 May 1938 in the Academy of Music, Philadelphia
    Matrix no.: CS 022376-1
    First issued on Victor 15377

    The Philadelphia Orchestra · Eugene Ormandy



  • San Juan Capistrano – Two Evening Pictures (1938)

    1. The Mission
    2. Fiesta

    Recorded 8 November 1939 in Symphony Hall, Boston
    Matrix nos.: CS 043582-2A & 043583-2A
    First issued on Victor 17229

    Boston Symphony Orchestra · Serge Koussevitzky



  • Rhumba (Scherzo from Symphony No. 2, “The Rhumba”) (1934) 
    Recorded 25 November 1935 in the Academy of Music, Philadelphia
    Matrix no.: CS 94619-2A
    First issued on Victor 8919

  • Dance of the Workers (from Festival of the Workers) (1932)
    Recorded 25 November 1935 in the Academy of Music, Philadelphia
    Matrix no.: CS 94620-1
    First issued on Victor 8919

  • The Legend of the Arkansas Traveler (1939)
    Alexander Hilsberg, solo violin
    Recorded 27 March 1940 in the Academy of Music, Philadelphia
    Matrix no.: CS 047815-1
    First issued on Victor 18069

    The Philadelphia Orchestra · Leopold Stokowski


  • From Childhood – Suite for Harp and Orchestra (1940)
    Edna Phillips, harp
    Recorded 15 March 1941 in the Academy of Music, Philadelphia
    Matrix nos.: CS 062564-1, 062565-1A, 062566-1, 062567-1A, 062568-1 & 062569-1
    First issued on Victor 18256/8 in album M-839 

    The Philadelphia Orchestra · Harl McDonald


    Producer and Audio Restoration Engineer: Mark Obert-Thorn

    Special thanks to Nathan Brown and Charles Niss for providing source material

  • The Music of Harl McDonald, Volume 2 (1937-50) - PASC430
    Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra (1936)

    1          1st Mvt.:  Molto Moderato

    2          2nd Mvt.:  Theme and Variations 

    3          3rd Mvt.:  Juarezca – Allegro  

                Recorded 19 April 1937 in the Academy of Music, Philadelphia 

                Matrix nos.:  CS 07596-1, 07597-1, 07598-1, 07599-1, 07600-1 & 07601-1

                First issued on Victor 15410/2 in album M-557

                Jeanne Behrend & Alexander Kelberine (Pianos)

                The Philadelphia Orchestra ∙ Leopold Stokowski

    My Country at War – Symphonic Suite (1941-43)

    4          1st Mvt.:  1941 

    5          2nd Mvt.:  Bataan   

    6          3rd Mvt.:  Elegy 

    7          4th Mvt.:  Hymn of the People 

                Recorded 20 December 1944 in the Academy of Music, Philadelphia

                Matrix nos.:  XCO 34020-1, 34021-1, 34022-1, 34023-1, 34024-1 & 34025-1 

                First issued on Columbia 12241-D through 12243-D in album M-592

                The Philadelphia Orchestra ∙ Eugene Ormandy

    Songs of Conquest (1937; rev 1939) (Text: Phelps Putnam)

    8          The breadth and extent of man’s empire  

    9          A complaint against the bitterness of solitude 

    10        A declaration for increase of understanding among the peoples of the world 

    11        The exaltation of man in his migrations and in surmounting of natural barriers

            Recorded 20 October 1940 

    First issued as Victor 18164/5 in album M-823

    University of Pennsylvania Choral Society ∙ Harl McDonald

    John Christopher Smith (freely transcribed by Harl McDonald):  Miniature Suite

    12        1st Mvt.:  Prelude 

    13        2nd Mvt.:  Air  

    14        3rd Mvt.:  Allemande  

                Recorded 12 April 1939 in Symphony Hall, Boston

                First issued on Victor 4443/4 in album M-609

                Arthur Fiedler’s Sinfonietta ∙ Arthur Fiedler

                Children’s Symphony (On Familiar Tunes)          

    15        1st Mvt.:  Allegro moderato   

    16        2nd Mvt.:  Andante patetico  

    17        3rd Mvt.:  Allegro scherzando 

    18        4th Mvt.:  Allegro marziale  

      Recorded 19 March 1950 in the Academy of Music, Philadelphia

             First issued on Columbia ML-2141 (LP)

             The Philadelphia Orchestra · Harl McDonald


    The Music of Harl McDonald, Volume 3 (1943-56) - PASC491

    Violin Concerto (1943)

    1 1st Mvt.: Allegro moderato (8:13)
    2 2nd Mvt.: Andante (6:41)
    3 3rd Mvt.: Allegro moderato (4:30)

    Alexander Hilsberg (violin)
    Eugene Ormandy ∙ The Philadelphia Orchestra

    Live recording, 17 March 1945 in the Academy of Music, Philadelphia

    Elegy and Battle Hymn (1942)

    4 Elegy (7:23)
    5 Battle Hymn (5:10)

    George Newton (bass-baritone)
    Fabien Sevitzky ∙ Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra

    Live recording, 28 January 1943 in the Murat Theatre, Indianapolis

    Symphony No. 3, “A Tragic Cycle” (Lamentations of Fu Hsuan) (1935)

    6 1st Mvt.: Molto adagio – Molto agitato (13:03)
    (“The night is calm and softly breathes the earth”)

    7 2nd Mvt.: Adagio maestoso (6:41)
    (“Once more may I gaze upon thy face, – once more”)

    8 3rd Mvt.: Marziale con ismania (4:00)
    (“Demons and shadows are charging through the night”)

    9 4th Mvt.: Molto adagio – Molto agitato (8:09)
    (“A cloud of darkness covers all the earth”)

    Emelina De Vita (soprano)
    Philadelphia Orchestra Chorus ∙ William R. Smith (director)
    Musical Art Society of Camden ∙ Henry Smith (director)
    Eugene Ormandy ∙ The Philadelphia Orchestra

    Live recording, 17 November 1956 in the Academy of Music, Philadelphia

    10 Builders of America (Washington and Lincoln) (1953) (15:23)

    Claude Rains (narrator)
    Harl McDonald ∙ Columbia Chamber Orchestra and Chorus

    Recorded 26 April 1953 in the Academy of Music, Philadelphia
    First issued on Columbia ML-2220

    Producer and Audio Restoration Engineer:  Mark Obert-Thorn
    Pitch stabilisation (Tracks 1–3) and additional noise reduction (Track 10):  Andrew Rose
    Special thanks to Peter Bay, David DeBoor Canfield, Frederick P. Fellers, Dr. Karl Miller and Edward Sargent for providing source material

    Total Timing:  79:16

    Fanfare Review

    I can think of no living American composer who surpasses McDonald at his best


    This is Pristine’s second CD devoted to the music of Harl McDonald. The first was an absolute triumph, and this one is nearly as good. McDonald grew up in the American West during the early years of the last century, and his musical personality exhibits the warmth and openheartedness one associates with such an upbringing. That is not to say McDonald lacked technique; he possessed all the compositional apparatus one expects from a student at the Leipzig Conservatory. In particular, he was an exceptionally resourceful orchestrator, and gets a sound that seems as natural to him as breathing. Although he spent most of his career at the University of Pennsylvania, McDonald was no mere academic composer. He absorbed influences from many cultures and different strata of music, from the arcane to the popular. His compositions are affecting without ever being sentimental. I listen to McDonald’s music the way I listen to Alexander Glazunov’s symphonies, relishing his ease of expression, his good nature, and a mastery of form that picks you up in one place and drops you off comfortably in another. As with Glazunov’s symphonies, McDonald’s tunes are not especially memorable in themselves, yet they are of a piece with the artfulness of his total concept. McDonald is a composer who convinces you that you are better off for having known him and his oeuvre.

    In the opening movement of the concerto for two pianos and orchestra, soloists Jeanne Behrend and Alexander Kelberine play with rhythmic urgency, while Stokowski and the Philadelphians send waves of color drifting over them. The next movement, a theme and variations, has a deftness in orchestration underlying pianistic elegance that recalls Saint-Saëns’s piano concertos. The work concludes with a dance of northern Mexico called a juarezca, a real toe-tapper which subsides only for a pianistic interlude that is pure Latin sensual reflectiveness. Recording two pianos with orchestra is difficult with the best equipment, so to do it ably in 1937 is a tribute to this recording’s original producer, who I would guess was Charles O’Connell.

    McDonald’s suite My Country at War seems to me as successful as a more celebrated work of the Second World War, George Antheil’s Symphony No. 4, “1942.” The opening movement, “1941,” is a song of foreboding over the events prior to Pearl Harbor. In the next movement, Ormandy draws haunting playing from the Philadelphia first chairs in a beautifully subdued study of American heroism in the failed defense of Bataan. An “Elegy” follows, with a reflective cello solo, and the work ends with a “Hymn of the People,” which is a sturdy confection of marches and chorales leading to a populist gesture, McDonald’s introduction of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

    Songs of Conquest is a choral work set to poems by Phelps Putnum (texts are not given). It basically is a celebration of the pioneer spirit, with a sound recalling William Billings. The composer draws stirring, even rousing singing from his university’s choral society. The second song, “A complaint against the bitterness of solitude,” is a rare moment of angst in McDonald. John Christopher Smith: Miniature Suite is a selection of works by a protégé of Handel, “freely transcribed” by McDonald. The piece has at least as much charm as Hamilton Harty’s arrangements of Handel. Arthur Fiedler’s Sinfonietta play it with style and panache. The composer conducts the Philadelphians in an alert and enthusiastic performance of his Children’s Symphony, a largely pedagogical work. It uses children’s songs to introduce kids to the orchestra and symphonic form. It has tender moments and raucous ones, like the noisy treatment of Jingle Bells. I doubt kids today, in the era of Radio Disney, would be drawn to the Victorian world of innocent melodies McDonald draws upon. Still, it is an exuberant composition and worth hearing, though it lacks the staying power of McDonald’s From Childhood—Suite for Harp and Orchestra, which appears on volume one of Pristine’s series.

    Restoration engineer Mark Obert-Thorn appears to have done a sane and conscientious job of transferring the various source materials. It is well to ponder the role of fashion in taking a composer like Harl McDonald out of the repertoire. Even the revival in the recording studio of American Romantic music from the middle of the last century largely has passed him by. Surely American conductors such as Gerard Schwarz and Leonard Slatkin would have something valuable to say about his music. In the meantime, we are fortunate to have Pristine’s reissues of the historic recordings of McDonald’s work. I am not an expert on contemporary music, but I can think of no living American composer who surpasses McDonald at his best. It’s time he was rediscovered.

    Dave Saemann
    This article originally appeared in Issue 38:5 (May/June 2015) of Fanfare Magazine.