George Antheil

1900 1959

George Antheil

Composer

Biography

The American composer George Antheil was one of the leading proponents of the 20 th century avant-garde. He is known for his practice of deliberately inspiring riots at his own concerts which earned him the title of the “bad boy of music,” but he became much more conservative later in his career, writing in an almost exclusively neo-Romantic style.

Antheil was born in Trenton, New Jersey to a family of Lutheran immigrants from Germany. His parents, owners of a shoe store, were not well-off but were able to introduce their son to the piano at a young age, and eventually send him to Philadelphia at the age of 16 to study theory and composition with Constantin von Sternberg, and later with Ernest Bloch in New York City. However he was soon forced to return to Philadelphia in a state of near poverty, and was fortunate that he there came under the patronage of Mary Louise Curtis Bok, founder of the Curtis Institute of Music, who provided him with financial assistance for the next two decades, starting by sponsoring his move to Europe in 1922.

It was in Europe that Anthiel began his successful career as a concert pianist with a tour playingChopin, although he often began to incorporate his own pieces into the program. Antheil moved to Berlin, a decision which proved very fruitful for his career. Within the span of one year, 22-year-old Antheil was appointed as the conductor of the Berlin Opera and had his First Symphony premiere performed by the Berlin Philharmonic. However, the single most influential experience in Berlin for Antheil was his meeting withIgor Stravinsky . Antheil was a great admirer of the older composer, stating “Stravinsky’s music, hard, cold, unsentimental, enormously brilliant and virtuous, was now the favorite of my post-adolescence. In a different way it achieved the hard, cold, postwar flawlessness which I myself wanted to attain - but in an entirely different style, medium.”

In 1923 Antheil moved again, this time to Paris, the burgeoning epicenter of the avant-garde movement. It was there that he reached his greatest levels of fame and controversy. On 4 October, 1923 he performed several of his pieces for solo piano at Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, and was greeted with a full-scale riot. Partly this was due to Antheil’s aggressive piano playing, in which he would often slam his fists into the keys, but it was also largely a result of his deliberately provocative on-stage antics, such as removing a revolver from his pocket and placing it on the piano prior to performing.

Despite the often negative reactions to his music, Antheil was also forming a close group of friends and devoted admirers, which includes many of the foremost creative minds of the 20th century, and was being praised as a genius by many in Paris. Igor Stravinsky, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Erik Satie and Pablo Picasso were among the many influential public figures that Antheil counted as a friend, and several of them would come support him during his concerts and, occasionally, brawl with the rioters.

Many of Antheil’s works during this period, including his two violin sonatas commissioned by Ezra Pound and Olga Rudge, and his string quartet (1924) display contain sharply defined musical blocks with often jarring transitions, reminiscent of the Cubist movement in art and, more obviously, of Stravinsky’s music.

Antheil’s crowning achievement, and ironically the one the precipitated his decline in popularity, was his masterfulBallet Mécanique (1924). The piece, which was scored for eight grand pianos, player piano, several airplane propellers, anvils, a siren and various other percussion instruments.Ballet, which is a milestone in works for percussion ensemble, was well received in Paris at its 1926 premier. However, its American premiere, which occurred the following year in Carnegie Hall, was a disaster. Not only were the reviews negative, but the audience reaction was one of mild amusement, and they considered Antheil to not be a serious composer. He would have doubtless preferred a riot.

Even before the Carnegie Hall fiasco, Antheil had already begun moving away from the abrasive mechanistic style that had characterized his style up until that point. HisSymphonie en fa and Piano Concerto, both written in 1926, were works that even the composer himself would later admit to be neo-Classical. Two years later he moved to Vienna and wrote his operaTransatlantic, which was moderately successful when premiered in Frankfurt am Main in 1930. The piece, which was largely satirical in nature and bears a heavy jazz influence, took him even further away from the avant-garde world.

Having found himself forcibly shut out from many of the circles he had once been an integral part in, Antheil moved to Los Angeles in 1936, where he became a film composer. By this time his work had fully regressed to continuing in the tradition of Romantic composers such asBeethoven and Mahler, even sometimes writing in the Americana style of composers likeAaron Copland with The Plainsman (1936) and The Fighting Kentuckian (1949). At the same time, he often shunned his early work, expressing regret that he didn’t root it more firmly in the musical tradition.

Antheil was a prolific essayist his whole career, often contributing columns to magazines on topics as eclectic as World War II and romantic advice in addition to his autobiography,Bad Boy of Music (1947). Although he found his work eclipsed in his later years and he never again attained the fame he had in his 20s, he is still widely regarded as being hugely influential on the 20th century avant-garde, as well as being a masterful composer in the neo-Classical and neo-Romantic styles.

Header image courtesy of NJTV Other image courtesy of antheil.org

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