George Antheil is remembered by film music enthusiasts for his scores for
such films as The Plainsman (1938); Spectre of the Rose (1946);
Knock on any Door (1949); In a Lonely Place (1950);
and The Pride and the Passion (1957). He is also famous, or infamous,
as the composer of the 1925 Ballet Mécanique composed for an
orchestra consisting of percussion instruments, player pianos, electric buzzers,
and even an airplane propeller.
George Antheil was born in Trenton, New Jersey. He studied for a while with
Ernest Bloch (his studies ended prematurely when his cash ran out) before
moving to Paris where he entered a coterie that included James Joyce, Ezra
Pound, Ernest Hemingway, Man Ray, Satie, Picasso and many others. His Ballet
Mécanique caused one of those Parisian riots that we hear about
so often, but it preluded Antheil's withdrawal from things avante garde
in favour of more appealing and lucrative work in the musical-theatre and
film music communities back home in New York.
In 1940 he became a war correspondent (at other times he had been employed
as a lonely-hearts columnist and wrote articles on endocrinology). His Symphony
No. 4 was written during this period. Of it he commented that it was -
during a period when the entire future of the world hung in
the balance, its first movement undoubtedly reflects my tense and troubled
state of mind while writing it: I had no actual program in mind; but every
day, I was watching the news, from Stalingrad, from Africa, from the
the second movement is tragic - news of Lidice and the horrors
of Poland had just come in - while the third; the Scherzo is more like a
brutal joke of war. The fourth, written after the turn of the tide at Stalingrad
and our landings in Morocco, heralds victory.
The first movement is tense and troubled indeed, a powerful astringent and
gritty statement heightened by many changes of mood and tempo. At times its
many complex strands scream out as a brutal cacophony of war. The second
movement has a fearful, nervous lyricism and I was reminded very much in
places (as I was to a lesser degree in the opening movement) of the film
music of Bernard Herrmann. I wonder if he knew this symphony? This second
movement ends on a chill and harrowing note. The Scherzo is cold mechanical
and devilish; I was reminded of Vaughan Williams's 4th and
6th symphonies although the overall similarity in this symphony
leans more towards Shostakovich and Prokofiev. As Joshua Creek says in his
erudite booklet notes, of the closing Allegro non troppo, 'Antheil's work
as a film score composer is nowhere more evident than in the fourth movement.
One can practically envision it as a soundtrack to a newsreel. Grim march
rhythms are juxtaposed with triumphant tuttis. Dozens of tempo changes serve
to amplify the episodic effect...'
Antheil's 6th Symphony (premiered in February 1948), was inspired
by Eugène Delacroix's painting, 'Liberty Leading the People' (see
the cover design of this CD). This is another powerful symphony. A quirky
allusion to 'The Battle Cry of Freedom', in the flutes and upper woodwinds,
is heard early in the brusque and abrasive first movement, before a rather
Prokofievian moto perpetuo theme in scurrying eighth notes is introduced.
The second movement is a sombre reflective slow waltz that is rather Satie-like
while the Trio sounds vaguely Mahleresque. The concluding, scampering
rondo is at least a bit more cheerful and was described by Antheil as '
triumph of joy and optimism over despair.' Post war blues? But at least there
is some jazz and syncopation here to liven things a bit.
Antheil's Concert Overture, McKonkey's Ferry (1948)
was inspired by the image of George Washington's crossing of the Delaware
on Christmas Night 1776. Again the work's theme is victory and freedom. The
music is very evocative of the troops and gun carriages crossing the river.
There are telling little vignettes - perhaps a boy soldier proudly playing
his piccolo, for instance. But besides the swagger and bravado there is a
note or two of anxiety expressed by the strings, and brief tender passages
as though the troops might be thinking of home.
Not an easy album for there is much very red meat here, but this is a rewarding
experience for the adventurous music lover and the performances are first