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George Antheil and the “Ballet Mechanique”

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George Antheil (July 8, 1900 – February 12, 1959) was an American avant-garde composer, pianist, author and inventor whose modernist musical compositions explored the modern sounds – musical, industrial, mechanical – of the early 20th century. Born Georg Carl Johann Antheil, he grew up in a family of German immigrants in Trenton, New Jersey. His father owned a local shoe store in the city. Antheil was raised bilingually, writing music, prose, and poetry from an early age, and never formally graduated from high school or college. He was “so crazy about music”, that his mother sent him to the countryside where no pianos were available. Undeterred, George simply arranged for a local music store to deliver a piano.

Antheil started studying the piano at the age of six. In 1916 he traveled regularly to Philadelphia to study under Constantine von Sternberg, a former pupil of Franz Liszt. From Sternberg he received formal composition training in the European tradition, but his trips to the city also exposed him to conceptual art, including Dadaism. In 1919, he began to work with the more progressive Ernest Bloch in New York. Initially Bloch had been skeptical and had rejected him, describing Antheil’s compositions as “empty” and “pretentious”; however, the teacher was won over by Antheil’s enthusiasm and energy, and helped him financially as he attempted to complete an aborted first symphony. Antheil’s trips to New York also permitted him to meet important figures of the modernist movement, including the musicians Leo Ornstein and Paul Rosenfeld, the painter John Marin, photographer Alfred Stieglitz, and Margaret Anderson, editor of the The Little Review.

At age 19, Antheil was invited to spend the weekend with Anderson and a group of friends; he stayed six months, and the close-knit group, who included Georgette Leblanc, former companion of Maurice Maeterlinck, were to become influential in Antheil’s career. During this period Antheil worked on songs, a piano concerto and a work that came to be known as “the Mechanisms”. Around this time, Antheil was introduced to his patron for the next two decades, Mary Louise Curtis Bok, later the founder of the Curtis Institute of Music. Assured of Antheil’s genius and good character, Bok gave him a monthly stipend of $150, and arranged for him to study at the Philadelphia Settlement Music School.

Antheil continued his piano studies and the study of modernist compositions, such as those by Igor Stravinsky and members of the Les Six group of French composers. In 1921, he wrote his first in a series of technology-based works, the solo piano Second Sonata, “The Airplane”. He also worked on his first symphony, managing to attract Leopold Stokowski to premiere it. Before the performance could take place, Antheil sailed for Europe on May 30, 1922, at the age of 21, to to pursue his career by making his name as “a new ultra-modern pianist composer” and a “futurist terrible”. He opened his European career with a concert at Wigmore Hall. The concert featured works by Claude Debussy and Stravinsky, as well as his own compositions. Early works composed in Europe included the Sonata Sauvage (1922–3), a subsequent Third Sonata, “Death of Machines” (1923), and “Mechanisms” (c. 1923).

Antheil spent a year in Berlin, planning to work with Artur Schnabel, and gave concerts in Budapest, Vienna and at the Donaueschingen Festival. He met Boski Markus, a Hungarian and niece of the Austrian playwright Arthur Schnitzler whom he married in 1925. In the fall of 1922, Antheil took advantage of a chance meeting to introduce himself to his idol Stravinsky in Berlin. They established a warm intimacy and the more established composer encouraged Antheil to move to Paris. He went as far as arranging a concert to launch Antheil’s career in the French capital, but the younger man failed to show up, preferring to travel to Poland . Antheil finally arrived in Paris in June 1923, in time to attend the premiere of Stravinsky’s ballet Les Noces, but the relationship with Stravinsky did not survive for long. The breach devastated Antheil, and was not ultimately repaired until 1941, when Stravinsky sent the family tickets to a concert he was giving in Hollywood. In Paris, Antheil lived in a one bedroom apartment above Sylvia Beach’s bookshop Shakespeare and Company. She was very supportive, and introduced Antheil to her circle of friends and customers including Erik Satie, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Virgil Thompson and Ernest Hemingway. Joyce and Pound were soon talking of an opera collaboration. Pound introduced Antheil to Jean Cocteau who in turn helped launch Antheil into the musical salons of Paris, and commissioned him to write three violin sonatas for his companion, Olga Rudge.

Antheil was asked to make his Paris debut at the opening of the Ballets suédois, an important Paris social event. He programmed several recent compositions, including the “Airplane Sonata”, the “Sonata Sauvage” and “Mechanism”. In the audience were Erik Satie, Darius Milhaud, Man Ray, Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, and Francis Picabia. Antheil was delighted when Satie and Milhaud praised his music. Antheil’s best-known composition is Ballet Mécanique. The “ballet” was originally conceived to be accompanied by a film by experimental filmmakers Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy with cinematography by Man Ray. The official Paris première occurred in June 1926. On April 10, 1927, Antheil rented New York’s Carnegie Hall in order to present an entire concert devoted to his works including the American debut of Ballet Mécanique in a scaled-down version and engaged an African American orchestra to premiere his A Jazz Symphony. In the late 1920s, Antheil moved to Germany, where he worked as assistant musical director of the Stadttheater in Berlin, and wrote music for the ballet and theatre. In 1930, he premiered his first opera Transatlantic.

In 1933, the rise of the Nazi party made Antheil’s avant-garde music unwelcome in Germany, and at the height of the Depression, he returned to the United States and settled in New York City. He reentered American life with enthusiasm, organizing concerts, working on committees with Aaron Copland and Wallingford Riegger, and writing piano, ballet and film scores as well as an opera Helen Retires about Helen of Troy. Antheil went to Hollywood in 1936 and became a sought-after film composer, writing more than thirty scores for such directors as Cecil B. DeMille and Nicholas Ray, including The Scoundrel (1935) and The Plainsman (1936). The Antheils’ only child, a son, was born in 1937. He became increasingly dependent on more independent producers such as Ben Hecht to give him work, such as Angels Over Broadway (1940) and Specter of the Rose (1946). He also wrote the score for the independent film Dementia (1955) and In a Lonely Place (1950) starring Humphrey Bogart.

Besides writing scores for movies, he continued to compose other music, including music for the ballet and six symphonies; his later works were in a more romantic style and influenced by Prokofiev and Shostakovich, as well as American music including jazz, as evidenced in works such as Serenade No. 1, Piano Sonata No. 4, Songs of Experience, and Eight Fragments from Shelley, written in 1948. His 1953 opera Volpone was premiered in New York in 1953 to mixed reviews, while a visit to Spain in the 1950s influenced some of his last works, including the film score for The Pride and the Passion (1957). He also accepted a commission from the CBS Television network to compose a theme for their newsreel and documentary film series The Twentieth Century (1957–1966), narrated by Walter Cronkite. Antheil died in 1959 of a heart attack in the New York City borough of Manhattan.

My collection includes the following works by Antheil:
Ballet Mechanique (1926).
Concert for Chamber Orchestra (1933).
McKonkey’s Ferry (Washington at Trenton), A Concert Overture (1948).
Serenade for Str. Orch., No. 1 (1948).
Symphony for Five Instrument (1924).
Symphony No. 4, “1942” (1942).
Symphony No. 6 (1948).

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