Henry Cowell

1897 1965

Henry Cowell

Composer • Piano


Henry Cowell was an influential 20th century American composer whose revolutionary works and theoretical publications were essential to the development of modern music. He developed and advocated many new techniques such as transculturalism, expanded timbres and the systematised of modernist techniques.  His music derived inspiration from a vast array of disparate sources including folk music from Asia, the Middle East and America, which led John Cage to call him ‘the open sesame for new music in America’.  

Cowell lived an unusual life, to say the least. To a large degree, Cowell’s ability to absorb an incredible amount of musical information as a child can be attributed to his unconventional and difficult upbringing. Both of Cowell’s parents where self-described “philosophical anarchists”. Harry and Clarissa, both in search of purpose, moved to San Francisco, where they lived at the time of their son Henry’s birth. There, they met each other and founded a philosophical-anarchist letter. Henry was born in Menlo Park, where Stanford University was being erected, in a little cottage built by the Cowells. One important element of their anarchist beliefs that would greatly effect Henry included their rejection of public schools. Due to his parents’ political leanings, Cowell received little formal education and was almost entirely homeschooled. However he did manage to pick up playing the violin and had occasional access to an upright piano, on which he had already begun to write short pieces by his early teens.  

Cowell showed an early interest and talent for music and began violin lessons at the age of five. His father pressured him, hoping he would become a famous prodigy, but the violin was physically uncomfortable for him and he had frequent disagreements with his teacher.

His parents divorced and after the devastating earthquake in 1906, he fled San Francisco with his mother. Following the divorce he spent several years travelling around the mid-west and working as a farmhand to support his ailing mother.

They went to Kansas to stay with her family, and also for a time in Des Moines, Iowa with her son, Clarence, from a previous marriage. Eventually they made it to New York, where Clarissa dreamed of becoming a fiction writer. The two lived in abject poverty, suffering from starvation, however Cowell gained a great deal from the cultural resources of the big city. The intervention of a social-services agency forced them to move to her sister’s home in Kansas. There, Cowell made use of a decrepit piano in his free time, although free time proved very scarce as Clarissa’s sister did not believe in education and forced the two to work tirelessly on the farm. Eventually, Henry was able to attend the local school, though he suffered from juvenile chorea.

Back in Menlo Park in 1910, Henry was bullied so horribly at school that his mother resorted to home schooling. Their lives took a turn for the worse when his mother’s health began to dwindle, along with her income. Henry became an assistant janitor and the breadwinner of the family.

Despite his low level of formal education, Cowell was able to become an expert in a variety of fields through his own life experience and by reading. For example, for a time he supported himself by collecting and selling local plants and flowers in California, teaching himself botany in the process. When the boy was finally discovered by Stanford University psychologist Lewis Terman, he was an undisputed prodigy with a knack for language, science and of course music. Terman became an important mentor for Cowell. While he was astounded by his range of knowledge and vocabulary, he noted that his arithmetic and spelling were terrible.

Easily recognizing Cowell’s potential, Terman took the boy under his wing, fostering his knowledge and introducing him to more influential people throughout California.   One of these encounters was with Charles Seeger, the father of folk singers Pete, Peggy and Mike Seeger and the head of the music school at the University of California in Berkeley. Seeger exposed Cowell to a whole world of new compositional techniques from Europe. While studying in Berkeley, Cowell had already begun to assemble his own unique palette of compositional techniques.

Seeger arranged for Cowell to study harmony, counterpoint and piano with E.G. Stricklen, Wallace Sabin and Uda Waldrop, respectively. He also met weekly with Cowell to discuss contemporary music. Seeger described Cowell as ‘the first brilliant talent of my teaching experience’. Together, the two created the rhythm-harmony quartets (1917-19) and a draft ofNew Musical Resources (published in 1930), a book which greatly influenced multiple generations of composers worldwide. Later, friendships with John O. Varian and his sons led to Cowell’s quest to find for a rational framework for modernism.

Cowell had been composing since 1907, but it was in 1913 that he began keeping a record of all his pieces and that his creativity really blossomed. After he lost his mother to cancer in 1916, Cowell was supported by a fund through the mid-1920s, organized by Terman and a Stanford English professor.

In 1918, Cowell served in the army ambulance corps camp in Pennsylvania. There, after helping form a band, his interest in wind music developed. Cowell then studied under a student of Franck, R. Huntington Woodman, in New York.

After serving in the military during World War I, he finally began to work on a theoretical treatise that would systematically describe his new rhythmic and harmonic concepts, in addition to potential changes in musical notation and different techniques. With the help of his friend Samuel Seward, an English professor at Stanford, at the urging of Seeger, Cowell finished his manifesto, called New Musical Resources in 1919, although it was not published until 1930. 

One of the focuses of the book was the concept that Cowell would later call ‘secondal’ harmonies, which are based on the intervals of major and minor seconds rather than the usual use of thirds. Groups of these intervals came to be known as “tone clusters,” a term which Cowell himself coined, and often take the form of several adjacent notes being played simultaneously, a technique on the piano which often requires the use of one’s fist or even their entire forearm. Cowell’s use of these techniques while playing piano on several tours of Europe tended to sharply divide audiences and even cause riots, a scene not too different from what fellow American composer George Antheil, the proudly self-proclaimed “bad boy of music” was causing at almost the exact same time.

Cowell became an international advocate for ultramodernism and toured throughout the world in the 1920s. He was also the first American to be invited to the USSR. Although many critics derided Cowell as a charlatan who used controversial and bombastic techniques to mask his lack of substance, the praise and admiration from many of his fellow musicians was effusive. TheNew York Tribune wrote ‘Cowell displays new method of attacking piano’, his use of tone clusters and manipulations of the piano strings struck a chord with others: In 1923, the elder composer Béla Bartók asked permission from Cowell to use his tone clusters, and several years later Schoenberg invited him to perform for his own students in Berlin.

Cowell helped found several organizations such as the New Music Society of California and the Pan American Association of Composers. Through these groups he influenced composers such as Varèse, Ives and Riegger. While in New York he taught John Cage, Lou Harrison and even George Gershwin for a brief period. 

Eventually, Cowell’s interest in increasingly complicated compositional concepts gave way to a more general appreciation for traditional music from other parts of the world, including Asia and the Middle East, so much so that he refused to stick to a single style. After various studies in world music he wrote the 1933 article “Towards Neo-Primitivism” which advised using ‘materials common to the music of the peoples of the world’, and that by doing this a new type of music would evolve, ‘a new music particularly related to our century’. He became known in the early 1930s as the first exponent of the idea of world music, especially after he was able to study musicology in Berlin with the help of a Guggenheim Fellowship. His aim with pieces such as Ostinato Pianissimo  (1934) and String Quartet no. 4 (1936) was to seek inspiration from “those materials common to the music of the peoples of the world, [in order] to build a new music particularly related to our own century.” In doing so, he was effectively the first major composer to fuse non-Western ingredients with European Classical music.

Despite his professional success, Cowell had endured many difficulties in his personal life, including the death of his girlfriend, whose car was hit by a train, and Germany’s refusal to let a later girlfriend leave the country. His relationships with men were equally unsettling. Cowell suffered a major injustice when his career was interrupted by a prison sentence on the charge of homosexual conduct in Menlo Park. He was sentenced to 15 years in San Quentin prison, where he taught music to the inmates, composed and wrote a textbook that remains unpublished. He also conducted the prison band and formed a chamber orchestra. He was released on parole in 1940, into the custody of Percy and Ella Grainger. Eventually he received a pardon in 1942 from the California governor. Fortunately he was able to continue to compose and even publish music from prison, including his Amerind Suite (1939), which marked the beginning of heavier experimentation with indeterminacy. 

His post-prison life included teaching at Columbia University and the Peabody Conservatory. Some of his students included Dick Higgins, Philip Corner and Burt Bacharach. In the 1960s he made recordings of his piano works and received many orchestral commissions. 

Cowell’s catalogue includes 966 works, though others have been lost and some are reworked versions of the same music. His output contains many gems, but also many pieces he found insubstantial and never revised, resulting in an uneven quality of works. His works cover all styles; his ultramodern works include his String Quartet No. 1 (1916),Seven Paragraphs (1925) and Quartet Romantic(1917). Characteristics from these works include extreme chromaticism, rhythmic complexity and polymeter. He also wrote semi-improvised music, such as Ensemble (1924, rev. 1956) and works in elastic form, especially for Martha Graham.

Many of Cowell’s works incorporated unconventional playing techniques, with some of the most memorable examples in his piano pieces. Aeolian Harp (1923) includes instructions for the pianist to play the strings from the inside of the piano with scraping and strumming movements, while The Banshee (1925) goes even farther, graphically notating a piece which is entirely performed within a piano with the damper pedal held down.

His later works include many concertos for unusual instruments and many symphonies. During this time he also used the hymn and fugue combination, “something slow followed by something fast”. Many of these works are for keyboard, but also other instruments.

Cowell’s vocal music is characterized by warmth and lyricism. This collection includes the songsSt. Agnes Morning (c1914), The Pasture (1944) and Firelight and Lamp (1962).

His music was championed by conductors such as Stokowski, Richard Franko Goldman, Dorati and William Strickland. His influence is noticeable in the works of Nancarrow, Stockhausen, Cage and Harrison. As Goldman stated in 1966, Cowell ‘helped create and build a foundation for “modern” music in America’.

Header image courtesy Oxford University Press's Blog Other images courtesy Guy Livingston and Imogen Cunningham