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George antheil
 

 



Representing all the abandon, excess, and machine-worship of the Roaring '20s, George Antheil's "Ballet Mécanique" was scored for 16 player pianos, two airplane propellers, four xylophones, siren, electric bells, and other percussion. If the Paris premiere of the work in 1926 was a scandal, the New York premiere the following year was a disaster. The airplane propellers were pointed at row 11 of Carnegie Hall, and blew such a roaring wind that audience members had to hold onto their hats. The siren took longer to wind up than the percussionist anticipated, entering late and still running minutes after the piece had ended, drowning out the applause. One poor soul in the audience tied his handkerchief to his cane and held it in the air as a sign of surrender. And a newspaper review, playing off of Antheil's name, sported a headline "Mountain of Noise Out of an Antheil."

And yet within a few years, Antheil would abandon all pretensions to avant-gardism. First he switched to the Bach-imitating neoclassic style of Igor Stravinsky in his "Symphony en Fa" and other works. He moved to Hollywood and wrote film scores. His most famous later work was his Symphony No. 4, a patriotic work celebrating America's victories in a world-syndicated column of advice to the lovelorn, wrote articles for "Esquire" magazine, published a book of his predictions for World War II (many of which came true), developed a patented torpedo with the actress Hedy Lamarr, and contributed to the field of glandular criminology.

Between the 1920s and 1930s everything changed in America, and it suddenly wasn't hip to be outrageous anymore--even for America's Maverick composers.

The Roaring '20s were a golden age of musical Americanism. Money was everywhere, and commissions were easy to get. The Pan American Association founded by Cowell, Chávez, Ruggles, and Whithorne established a new American music (Edgard Varèse was its first president). Patrons, seemingly all women, like Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, Blanche Walton, and Claire Reis, created an American repertoire of music by handing out money to rising composers. Machines were considered hip, sleek, modern. One otherwise rather conservative composer, Frederick Converse, wrote a 1926 symphonic poem called Flivver Ten Million (flivver being a slang term for an automobile) to celebrate the Ford Motor Company's production of its ten-millionth car. George Gershwin's "An American in Paris" imitated taxi horns in a traffic jam. The hot style of the day was called "ultramodernism," a search for un-noises. American composers, who had been completely obscure only 10 years before, learned that Europeans were now looking to them as standard bearers of a new modernism forged in steel. Everything seemed possible. Progress had no ceiling.

And then came October of 1929. With the stock market crash of Black Monday, money dried up overnight. Commissions for composers slowed to a trickle. As millions of Americans stood in bread lines, the search for outrageously avant-garde noises seemed frivolous, elitist, and self-indulgent. In the 1920s, the most visible avant-gardists had been Henry Cowell, George Antheil and Leo Ornstein. By the mid-1930s, all three had evolved a more conservative, even undistinguished style. Many composers who had heavily invested in ultramodernism gave up composing altogether. Dane Rudhyar quit composing dissonant piano music and became a writer on astrology. Charles Seeger, once a great theorist of dissonance, became a pioneering ethnomusicologist. His wife Ruth Crawford quit composing to collect and arrange the folk songs that were vanishing from rural Appalachia.

Marxism became the dominant political philosophy of progressive artists. Almost every American artist of the 1930s either belonged to or at least flirted with the Communist Party. Composers Wallingford Riegger, Marc Blitzstein, and Conlon Nancarrow were Communist Party members, and Nancarrow fought with the Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. One Communist-oriented musical organization in New York--the Composers' Collective--included Charles Seeger, Elie Siegmeisterer, and Stefan Wolpe. Aaron Copland wasn't a member himself, but he wrote a political song in 1934 that won first prize in the Composers' Collective. Later, in the 1940s and '50s, the era of the McCarthy witch hunts, many of these composers would be called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. But in the 1930s, being a Marxist was simply the politically correct response to the Depression.

And so, from 1930 to 1941 composers--as Tom Wolfe put it, "suspended the modern movement" because of their leftist politics. Political [progressions] in a democratic attempt to reach a mass audience. Composer Arthur Berger later said of the era, "To be politically correct one had to write accessible music, music for the masses. This did not appeal to me, and the only compromise I could make with my politically leftist sympathies was to stop composing altogether for a few years." Composers who could simplify their style survived; those who couldn't did not.

 

Aaron Copland

 

Of all the simplifiers, the most successful was Aaron Copland. Copland was born November 14, 1900, "on a street in Brooklyn," he later wrote, "that can only be described as drab." At 21 he noticed an advertisement for the Summer School of Music for American Students at Fontainebleau, applied, was accepted, and sailed for France. Here he studied with Nadia Boulanger, who would become the most famous composition teacher of the early 20th century. "What endeared her most to Americans," Virlater said of Boulanger, "was her conviction that American music was just about to 'take off,' just as Russian music had done 80 years before." Copland became Boulanger's favorite student, the one she most expected to take off. And when he returned to New York in June of 1924, he had opportunities opened up for him that most young composers could only envy.

The works Copland wrote upon his return to America were imbued with jazz. First, there was "Music for the Theatre" of 1925, whose syncopated rhythms played with what the European-trained Copland must have considered a jazz feel. When Copland played through some of this music on the piano for his friend Roy Harris, a composer from Oklahoma, Harris jumped up with a big grin and shouted, "But that's whorehouse music!" Koussevitsky conducted the work with the Boston Symphony nonetheless, and next asked Copland for a piano concerto. Here Copland imitated jazz even more directly.

In the late 1920s, Copland went even further in a thorny, modernist direction, experimenting with tone rows and atonality as he had heard Arnold Schönberg was doing in Europe. (Copland was, in fact, one of the first to bring the news of 12-tone music to America, lecturing about it at the New School in New York as early as 1928; the technique was then only seven years old.) The apex of Copland's abstraction before his great stylistic turnaround was his "Piano Variations" completed in 1930: spare, thorny, muscular, and now considered one of the classics of modern piano literature.

These pieces gained Copland a reputation as a wild-eyed modernist. Later, he went through a self-conscious style change. "I began to feel an increasing dissatisfaction," he later wrote, "with the relations of the music-loving public and the living composer. It seemed to me that composers were in danger of working in a vacuum. Moreover, an entirely new public had grown up around the radio and phonograph. It made no sense to ignore them and continue writing as though they did not exist. I felt it was worth the effort to see if I couldn't say what I had to say in the simplest possible terms."

After a visit to the Mexican composer Carlos Chavez in 1932, Copland wrote "El Salon Mexico," his first work based on folk songs, and indeed written "in the simplest possible terms." This was successful "Billy the Kid" in 1938, "Rodeo" and "A Lincoln Portrait" in 1942, "Appalachian Spring" in 1944. And in 1946, his monumental Symphony No. 3, in some respects his masterpiece, arrived, containing a separate, brassy, triad-filled coda that has become an emblem of American music: "Fanfare for the Common Man."

With all these works, Copland defined what would become the public conception of an American orchestral music. His friends pleaded with him to return to the dissonant modernism they had been committed to. But unlike other composers of the era, Copland didn't have to cheapen his music to simplify it. While Cowell, Ornstein, and Antheil had based their music around the tone cluster, the industrial noise, the audacious rhythmic gesture, Copland had based his on rhythm itself, and specifically on the idea of using rhythmic variety to enliven small groups of pitches. It blossomed during the Depression and World War II while that of his colleagues languished, and the image that America learned to see of itself on the concert stage was the wide-open spaces of the ballet "Billy the Kid." When the plight of poverty-stricken Appalachia became a national crisis, and dozens of composers and music scholars turned to a rural song repertoire that looked like it might disappear forever, Copland turned the shaker hymn "Tis the Gift to Be Simple" into perhaps the most loved American orchestral work of all time, "Appalachian Spring."

Copland wasn't the only composer quoting folk songs. Virgil Thomson, a music critic for the "New York Herald Tribune" who had also studied with Boulanger, had been interested in folk songs before they became popular: "Symphony on a Hymn Tune" and his film score for the WPA "The Plough that Broke the Plains." Copland's nearest competition as the great American symphonist was Roy Harris, who never let anyone forget that he had been born in a log cabin in Oklahoma on Abraham Lincoln's birthday. Irrepressible, convinced of his own greatness, almost self-taught except for a brief and tempestuous stint with Boulanger, Harris based symphonies on tunes like "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" and "The Girl I Left Behind Me." But the work that caught the public imagination was his Symphony No. 3 of 1938, whose aggressive fugue in the final movement, leading to a bitterly tragic chorale, seemed to sum up the experience outward expansion with all the epic energy of John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath."


Ruth Crawford

 

Maverick composer Ruth Crawford was an interesting case. Born in Ohio in 1901, she went to college in Chicago, and found herself in the heady milieu of the pre-war Chicago music scene. She went to parties at the house of the wealthy composer John Alden Carpenter; she met Henry Cowell as he traveled between California and New York; she encountered Dane Rudhyar heading westward, spreading the new gospel of Scriabin. In addition, Crawford taught piano to the daughters of the poet Carl Sandburg; the music critic Alfred Frankenstein fell in love with her; the Chicago Symphony conductor Frederick Stock took an interest in her music; and she studied with and eventually married Charles Seeger. Seeger was an amazingly open-minded and forward-looking musical thinker who had also been a mentor for Henry Cowell. He had a theory about what he called "dissonant counterpoint," which was basically all the rules of Renaissance polyphony turned inside out and upside-down. Seeger theorized that one could make a new kind of music from strictly substituting dissonant intervals where, in the past, composers had used consonant ones. Something of a composer manqué, Seeger never wrote the music that would illustrate his theories, but Crawford did, with a precocious genius that put her ahead of most composers of her generation. Already in her 20s--using Cowell's rhythmic theories, Seeger's counterpoint, and an atmosphere drawn from Scriabin--she was producing music remarkable for its sophistication.

Yet in 1932, after writing a couple dozen remarkable works, Crawford quit composing. Some have claimed that it was because Seeger discouraged her from composing, or because she began having children, including the future folksingers Michael and Peggy Seeger. (Pete Seeger was Charles Seeger's son from his first marriage.) But the culprit seems to be more that her leftist sympathies wouldn't allow her to go on composing elitist, modernist, dissonant, difficult-to-understand music during the socially-conscious Depression. Rather than change to a simpler style like Copland did, she began cataloging and arranging folk so she resume her composing career, completing only one more piece before her untimely death.

Given our recent political history, it is one of the supreme ironies of music history that nationalistic Americanism went hand-in-hand with Communism, or at least with sympathy for the workers, the proletariat, inspired by the writings of Karl Marx. Roy Harris, whose symphonies became less popular in his old age, actually dreamed of moving to the Soviet Union, where composers including Elie Seigmeister, David Diamond, and even Copland himself, were called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and questioned about their Communist associations. Transcripts show that the committee's file on Copland contained 97 errors, and that the investigation had been trumped up with no evidence of actual wrongdoing. For one example, the committee had connected Copland with a Communist Party leader named Gerhart Eisler, whereas Copland was actually a friend of the film composer, Hanns Eisler. Afterward, in 1953 Copland's "A Lincoln Portrait," a tone poem which accompanies quotations from Abraham Lincoln with the folksongs "Springfield Mountain" and "Camptown Races." was scheduled to be performed at President Eisenhower's inaugural concert, but abruptly canceled because an Illinois congressman, Fred E. Busbey, had protested Copland's Communist connections. Compounding the irony was that, around the world in the Soviet Union, the Communist government was imposing on its composers the same populist standards that American composers were embracing voluntarily. In 1929 the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians, or RAPM, became the official arbiter of what was musically acceptable and unacceptable within the Soviet Union. Many rising Soviet composers, including Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Khachaturian, Myaskovsky, and Popov, were publicly chewed out in the official newspaper Pravda for what was called their "decadent Western formalism," which ostensibly meant an over-concern with technical devices but was really an all-purpose insult meaning ideologically wrong-headed or incomprehensible to "the People."

What were these composers guilty of? Dissonant counterpoint, complex harmonies, and worst of all those decadent jazz improvisers, decreed that the purpose of art, to cite one official 1934 pronouncement, was "socialist realism," defined as "the truthful and historically concrete representation of reality in its revolutionary development." What this actually seemed to mean in terms of music was that Soviet symphonies should possess a lyrical melodicism, a heroic tone, and popular appeal based on the language of the 19th-century Russian classics.

Shostakovich was first accused of formalism in 1930, on the occasion of the premiere of his opera "The Nose." His music was excoriated in the official press, and he was forced to write defensive articles affirming that his music was aimed at the common people. Shostakovich redeemed himself in 1937 at the height of Stalin's Great Terror with his Fifth Symphony, which he termed "a Soviet artist's practical creative reply to just criticism." The piece returned to the heroic style of High Romanticism, even though it dared to take a tragic tone at the end.

Prokofiev, who had been touring the U.S. and living in Western Europe, was lured back to the Soviet Union by promises of privileges, but in 1938 his passport was confiscated and he was allowed to leave the Soviet Union no more. Prokofiev wrote a cantata celebrating the 20th anniversary of the October Revolution, based on texts by Marx, Lenin, and Stalin, and even this was denied performance by the Committee for Artistic Affairs, Dmitri Shostakovich in the Soviet Union and Aaron Copland in the United States both started out writing music with complex harmonies and jazz influences. Both of them simplified their music into a melodic style based on 19th-century romanticism, and with folk song quotations meant to increase accessibility for the common people. Shostakovich made the change under massive official pressure; Copland made it as a matter of conscience, as the only way to keep music socially relevant in difficult times. 20th century music contains no deeper irony than this: that progressive politics, meaning the politics of the left, went hand in hand with musical conservatism, meaning a continuation of 19th century.

While these tensions peaked during the Depression and World War II years, they by no means ended there. The question for composers is still very much alive today. Do you pursue whatever new musical ideas occur to you if they mean leaving the audience behind? Does the composer have a social responsibility to make his music simple enough for mass audiences to grasp? Even if you include familiar tunes and style characteristics, can you be sure that audiences will follow along?
These issues all emerged again in the late 1960s, following two decades of unprecedented musical complexity represented by the 12-tone and Serialist movements. Minimalism emerged, in the music of Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass as an attempt to make music simple enough again for the average listener to follow. In works like Reich's "Music for Eighteen Musicians" of 1976, the musical process is not simplistic, but it is slowed down enough to allow listeners to follow every detail.

More explicitly, in the 1970s an international contingent of composers took to writing more accessible music based on folk songs and political songs in an attempt to include music as part of the class struggle. In America, the chief of these was Frederic Rzewski, who started out writing minimalist works with political texts. Echoing what Copland had said decades earlier, Rzewski wrote, "It seemed to me there was no reason why the most difficult and complex formal structures could not be expressed in a form which could be understood by a wide variety of listeners." He attempted to prove the point with a massive piano work called "The People United Can Never Be Defeated," a set of 36 variations on a Chilean revolutionary song by Sergio Ortega. This ambitious 1975 work calls on every musical technique from Bach to Stockhausen, with the theme always audible somewhere. Rzewski's aim was to raise the political consciousness, but it is arguable whether this is what actually happens. "The People United" is a magnificent work, but do those listening to it become more aware and sensitive to the plight of workers oppressed by capitalism? Do the oppressed workers themselves become interested in this elaborately complex piece of music and come to identify with it? From Copland to Shostakovich to Rzewski, the jury is still out on whether wordless concert music has any significant role to play in the ideologies of class struggle.

Still other composers cared little for politics, but returned voluntarily in the 1970s to a kind of 19th century orchestral rhetoric. When composer Jacob Druckman curated a new-music series for the New York Philharmonic in 1982, including accessible works by George Rochberg, Joseph Schwantner, Rzewski, John Adams, David Del Tredici, and others, he gave it the title "Since 1968: A New Romanticism?" And the term New Romanticism entered public consciousness. Suddenly, we returned to big OKs of Beethovenian heroism. The point here was not to write down to the masses out of any feeling of social obligation, but simply to write music that large numbers of people could enjoy, to make the composer once again feel like a relevant participant in society. One of the most important New Romantic composers, however, explicitly linked her musical aims to those of Aaron Copland, though with a telling twist. Where Copland had written a "Fanfare for the Common Man," Tower responded with a "Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman."

The question as to how far a musician should bend from his or her own inclinations to make his or her music accessible and popular is eternal on the side of accessibility. We think of a daring, innovative composer as someone who just goes off and writes what he wants without caring whether audiences will understand. But actually, some of our most independent musical minds have broken away from the professional status quo to write music that communicates directly and without musical jargon.

We will be exploring further aspects of musical accessibility on the American Mavericks series, including the relationship of pop music and jazz to composed music and the continuing viability of the orchestra.

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