This present CD
does not display the revolutionary side of George Antheil. This
music would not cause riots in the Parisian salons or New
York’s Carnegie Hall. There is nothing
of the ‘bad boy’ in these five interesting pieces. They are
all from the last two decades of Antheil's life and reflect
a rapprochement with more conventional sounds. To understand
where this music fits into the opus it is necessary to give
a brief outline of the composer’s life, works and influences.
most famous or certainly most notorious composition is the Ballet
Méchanique. This work may be the
most important example of modernism from the 1920s. The composer
wrote in his autobiography that ‘he played in Paris
for the first time ... rioting broke out almost immediately.
I remember Man Ray punching somebody on the nose in the front
row. Marcel Duchamps was arguing loudly with somebody else in
the second row.’ Would that a performance of music by Jimmy
Macmillan caused such excitement in the Bridgewater Hall! But
in those days disturbances at concerts usually implied that
the composer was a genius!
The Ballet Méchanique was scored for an outré
ensemble that included a small aeroplane propeller, a large
aeroplane propeller, gongs, cymbal, woodblock, triangle small
and large electric bells etc. I listened to this work again
as a part of preparing my thoughts for this present review.
Of course a lot of water has gone under the bridge since its
first performance at that fateful night in Paris.
No longer seen as being extremely avant garde, it is quite obviously
a masterpiece of its time. A suitable reference
point for what all the music that was to follow.
George Antheil was
born in Trenton, New
Jersey on 8 July 1900 although he was of Polish descent. After studying
with Ernest Bloch at the Philadelphia Conservatory, his early
career was that of a concert pianist in Europe.
He wrote a number of works for inclusion in his recitals. Perhaps
the most famous of these are the Airplane
Sonata, the Sonata Sauvage and Mechanisms. At this time his work was regarded as being avant garde
and certainly considering the cultural context of the early
twenties it must have seemed ‘ahead of its time.’
Of course he fitted
well into European society at that time. He was friends with
virtually everyone that mattered. The list is impressive – James
Joyce, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali
and Ernest Hemingway. In the musical world he received support
from Eric Satie and Igor Stravinsky. At this time he lived in
Paris above the
Shakespeare & Co bookshop which had recently published Joyce’s
‘Ulysses’ to considerable controversy.
His entire catalogue
includes some three hundred compositions including six symphonies,
many chamber works, film scores and operas. Most of these have
not yet entered into the popular repertoire. But the reason
is not his dalliance with the extreme avant garde. One of the
strange things about Antheil, is the fact that as he got older
his style changed - and in a more conservative direction. In
the mid 1930s he left Germany
and returned to the United States.
There he adapted his music to a neo-romantic and loosely neo-classical
style. It is to this
part of his career that the works on this present CD belong.
I am not sure that
we can regard the Third Symphony as a masterpiece. For one thing
the form itself is a little loose. Perhaps it is easier to regard
it as a collection of four tone poems played end to end rather
than as a unified symphony. In fact the third movement, the
Golden Spike was successfully
excerpted from the symphony in 1945 by Hans Kindler and the
National Symphony Orchestra. Yet, on the other hand it is not
fair to condemn the work because it may lack a little cohesion.
It is quite definitely
an American work. However the composer assures us that it is
not backward-looking. Here we find no slaves singing across
the waters by the orange groves or cakewalks in Kentucky
or old time renditions of Moody and Sankey. This is modern America
- the land of opportunity, skyscrapers, steel, freeways and
broad horizons. The third movement perhaps epitomises the mood
of the work. The Golden Spike is not some kind of mythical
or legendary artifact - it is actually a symbol for the ‘American
Dream.’ Of course, it originates in the spike that was driven
into the track on the completion of the Trans-American Railway.
But perhaps Antheil's imagery is more Route 69 than Casey Jones!
There are four movements to this work - Allegro, Andante, The
Golden Spike and Back to Baltimore.
This last movement is the most interesting from a musical point
of view. Quite neo-classical in its form it refuses to jump
onto any kind of jazz or swing bandwagon. However it is full
of lively and powerful tunes that drive the music on relentlessly.
It is this last movement that makes me most feel that the work
lacks stylistic consistency. Yet having said this, it is quite
clear that this is a fine work that will stand against much
that has been composed over the last hundred years so. It has
an exuberance that excuses any minor defects in formal construction.
I have always been
a fan of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. So it came as a pleasant
surprise to discover and hear this attractive overture based
on the young lad’s exploits. If only I had known this work 35
years ago it would have added magic to my explorations of Mark
Twain’s great stories. As it is this overture is full of a kind
of ‘all American’ sound. Lots of interesting melodies and rhythms
topple over each other as this exuberant work unfolds it merry
and slightly mischievous way. One tune in particular asserts
itself in an almost Ivesian way. Great stuff – it should and
could be an encore at any orchestral concert. It shows the composer
at his approachable best.
The Hot-Time Dance is reputed to be the only surviving movement of the
American Dance Suite composed in 1948. This attractive ‘rhapsody’
was premiered in 1949 by the Boston Pops Orchestra. It is just
a romp from start to finish. Lots of slightly jazzy tunes and
rhythms underscore this tightly formed work. If ever there was
any doubt about Antheil's ability to write for orchestra, then
listen to this sparking score. Echoes of da Falla and Enescu
are probably coincidental.
For a good bit of
overture McKonkey’s Ferry
is hard to beat. The work is based on George Washington’s heroic
crossing of the Delaware
on Christmas Night 1776. This was composed in 1948 and is one
of a series of concert overtures on American historical or literary
themes. There are allusions to the Tom
Sawyer Overture and listeners who know the 6th
Symphony will see similarities in the use of ‘vigorous motor
rhythms.’ An attractive piece that has in places all the iciness
of that fateful day all those years ago.
The Capital of the World is the last work on this CD. It is a ballet based
on the depressing story by Ernest Hemingway about the life of
a young man called Paco who is determined to go to the big city,
Madrid and become
a bull fighter. There he meets a number of people who challenge
his view of the heroism of the toreadors. Unfortunately Paco
is killed in an accident in the kitchen of a hotel where he
is temporarily working.
The ballet was a
huge success. It is best summed up in the words of Virgil Thomson.
‘[I have] rarely heard music for dancing with so much real energy
in it. It is no mere accompaniment to dancing; it generates
physical activity on the stage, moves the dancers around. It
is colourful, too, bright and dark and full of contrasts that
Its tunes are broad and strong; its harmonic structure is clashingly
dissonant ... it is the most powerful American ballet score
with which I am acquainted.’
There is not a lot
to add to this. However I am amazed at the sheer power of this
score. The themes just seem to tumble over each other. I have
rarely heard such invention. If this was the only piece to have
been composed by George Antheil it would have entitled him to
a huge reputation. Do not spend much time looking for influences
and comparisons with other works of the period; it is really
quite eclectic whilst having a satisfying unity of its own.
However a nod to Bernstein or Khachaturian may be worth keeping
in mind. It was composed in 1952 and received its first performance
a year later. Interestingly, it was transmitted live on television.
As always with CPO
I cannot fault the presentation of this disc. There is an impressive
closely written ten-page essay by Eckhardt van der Hoogen. This
is extremely illuminating and essential bearing in mind that
there is comparatively little available to better understand
Antheil’s contribution to music. The disc itself has superb
sound quality that allows us to hear every nuance of these fascinating
works. Hugh Wolff and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra
are powerful advocates of this largely undiscovered music.
The cover picture
is by Californian post-impressionist Alfred Richard Mitchell
and is entitled ‘La Jolla Cove.’ It is a well chosen picture
that somehow seems to sum up the neo-classical and neo-romantic
mood of the music.
George Antheil is
one of the ‘great’ American composers. Of course he will never
compete with Copland, Barber and Bernstein in the public imagination.
Yet for sheer inventiveness, interest, musicality, variety and
often sheer fun he cannot be bettered.
I feel that with
the CPO symphonic cycle and Naxos contributions
on the ‘American Classics’ series we have the basis for a major
reappraisal. If I am honest, I enjoy George Antheil’s music
as much as that of the above-named composers. And that is, I
feel, saying something very positive about the composer. He
may not have been the promised genius,
but he is certainly a major composer and a master craftsman