Ruth Crawford Seeger: An American Original

By Zander, Autumn L. | American Music Teacher, October-November 2015 | Go to article overview

Ruth Crawford Seeger: An American Original


Zander, Autumn L., American Music Teacher


American composer, pedagogue, folk music archivist and editor Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-1953) was a true musical pioneer. From blazing new frontiers with her classical compositions exploring 20th century atonality and dissonant counterpoint to studying American folk music traditions, Crawford Seeger's meaningful musical endeavors shaped a distinctive career and subsequent generations. Her fervent desire to lead a life in the arts would guide her throughout all the seasons of her life.

The daughter of a Methodist minister and teacher, Crawford was studious girl with musical and academic pursuits far beyond small town Jacksonville, Florida. In a time when young women rarely finished high school, Crawford, through the generosity of a relative and hard work, attended the American Conservatory in Chicago. The worldly city of Chicago proved to be just the source of culture, intellectualism and energy that would allow her to blossom into an innovative and unique voice of the early 20th Century.

Discovery And The Chicago Years

During this time, Chicago teacher, mentor and friend Djane Lavoie Her/, was, without question, the musical and intellectual catalyst that would help Crawford discover her compositional voice. This French-Canadian pianist, who studied under Arthur Schnabel and Alexander Scriabin, fascinated Crawford with her confident, energetic and worldly perspectives. It was during her studies with Herz, beginning in 1924, that Crawford was introduced to the music of Scriabin. (1) His use of atonality, particularly his rejection of "absolute tonal stability" by creating chords outside the context of major and minor, irregular rhythms and irregular meters would later become the cornerstones of many of her compositions. (2) Her use of tritones, fifths and fourths in chordal structures can be traced back to Scriabin, and her Piano Prelude No. 1 composed in 1925, clearly illustrates these atonal and rhythmic complexities. (3)

Scriabin's impact on Crawford reached far beyond atonality, meter and rhythm. His belief in theosophy, teaching about God and the world based on mystical insight, was intriguing. And to the daughter of a Methodist minister, Scriabin's devotion, as well as Herz's, to theosophy was exotic, if not a bit taboo. This new spiritual perception not only shaped Crawford's intellect, but also her musical perspectives. Scriabin's signature mystic-chord etched a unique musical fingerprint in many of his compositions. This chord, based on a series of two perfect fourths, two augmented fourths and one diminished fourth, creates a distinctive sound color. (4)

With the influences of Scriabin in her practicing and composing, Crawford likewise began exploring her own versions of the mystic-chord in her Preludes for Piano. This most notably occurs in the Prelude No. 1 in measure 5. (5) Though, unlike Scriabin's six-note, mystic-chord, which specifically utilizes two perfect fourths, two augmented fourths and one diminished fourth, Crawford's own mystic-chord variants adhere to a series of fourths, but each instance differs on the exact qualities of the intervals. (6)

As Crawford's musical aesthetic began to evolve, her compositional style came to be described as "ultra-modern." (7) With the likes of Ralph Vaughn Williams and Serge Rachmaninoff securely composing tonal music harkening back to the "golden days" of late romanticism, Crawford was boldly charting a new path, both musically and personally. Even among her American musical peers, such as Aaron Copland and George Gershwin, she was still a musical anomaly. A young woman at a university in the 1920s was rare, but to be studying in the male dominated field of composition, let alone modern, atonal music and graduating summa cum laude in 1927 with a graduate degree, was nearly unheard of. (8) Nevertheless, she made deep, long-lasting friendships within the Chicago arts scene. It was here that she met other likeminded composers, musicians, artists and patrons that supported this new musical direction, many who frequented soirees hosted by Herz. …

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