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The Legend of the Arkansas Traveler

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Harl McDonald
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Leonard Slatkin, conductor/Peter Schickele, host/"Serious Fun" with American Music Sat., May 12, 2007, 8:00 PM
© Richard Freed
Harl McDonald may not have been a "major" figure in American musical life, but he was a certifiably remarkable one, who functioned productively as a composer, pianist, conductor, educator and, significantly, as manager of the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1939 to 1955. Before he took that position he was on the faculty of both the University of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia Musical Academy. Leopold Stokowski began recording his concert works before McDonald in the early 1930s; Eugene Ormandy continued, with a recording of McDonald's handsome, well crafted First Symphony ("The Santa Fe Trail"), and in Boston Serge Koussevitzky recorded his two-part tone poem San Juan Capistrano. As a conductor, McDonald made the first American recording of Mozart's Requiem, with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

McDonald was by choice an emphatically American composer. His catalogue of works is filled with titles alluding to geographical landmarks, American literature, and historical events (some of those as they took place, from the Great Depression through World War II). The piece that opens this evening's concert is designated a "Concert Paraphrase on an Old American Fiddle Tune"; it was composed in 1939, the year McDonald became manager of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and was promptly performed and recorded by Stokowski. In the scenario supplied by the composer, an old farmer plays his fiddle on his porch; a traveler approaches him to ask for directions and notices that the farmer seems to know only the first part of the tune, so he takes the fiddle and demonstrates how the rest of it goes, and is thereupon invited indoors for some corn likker and more fiddling. Barnyard sounds are included for atmosphere, and the concluding gesture is a predictable but effective summing-up.