Ruth Crawford Seeger's Worlds: Innovation and Tradition in Twentieth-Century American Music

By Mirchandani, Sharon | Notes, March 2008 | Go to article overview

Ruth Crawford Seeger's Worlds: Innovation and Tradition in Twentieth-Century American Music


Mirchandani, Sharon, Notes


Ruth Crawford Seeger's Worlds: Innovation and Tradition in Twentieth-Century American Music. Edited by Ray Allen and Ellie M. Hisama. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2007. [x, 308 p. ISBN-10: 15804612 ; ISBN-13: 9781580462129. $75.] Bibliographical references, music examples, discography, index.

Ruth Crawford Seeger's Worlds: Innovation and Tradition in Twentieth-Century American Music is a well-written, interdisciplinary collection of essays by leading scholars on Crawford Seeger from musicology, music theory, music education, folklore, history, American studies, and women's studies. The book explores the relationship between Crawford's high modernist compositions and her work in traditional American folk music, providing a rich, nuanced understanding of Crawford's life and music, and twentieth-century American musical life and aesthetics. The level of scholarship is impeccable with solid writing throughout, a foreword by American music scholar Carol Oja, notes for each chapter, useful music examples in over half of the chapters, a selected discography, brief biographies of contributors, and index. Because of its interdisciplinary approach, this collection will appeal to a wide array of readers.

The book's twelve chapters are organized into two parts: the first six address primarily Crawford's ultramodern music and the last six explore the legacy of her work in folk music. However, there are strong relationships drawn between both of these aspects of her career throughout both sections. This being the case, some redundancy might be expected, but there is actually quite little, and when similar material is written about, it is always with a fresh approach.

The first two chapters are written respectively by Crawford's outstanding biographer, Judith Tick, and theorist Joseph Straus, author of The Music of Ruth Crawford Seeger (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995). Tick's "Writing the Music of Ruth Crawford into Mainstream Music History" (chap. 1) orients the reader to the reception history of Crawford over the last seventy-five years by addressing the importance of publications and performances of her 1931 String Quartet, the impact of 1970s feminism on music scholarship, changes in analytical approaches to modernist music, and particularly the connection between Elliott Carter's and Crawford's music. Straus's "Ruth Crawford's Precompositional Strategies" (chap. 2), drawing somewhat from his masterful book on her music, shows his skill at clarifying what is often difficult theoretical material. He identifies and provides examples from her music of several of her approaches: ostinato, retrograde, rotation, and unique arrangements sometimes with partial serialization. He also briefly suggests reasons for these plans: the need for an organizing principle, her playfulness, and a dichotomy between mechanical and free melodies. This is followed by a detailed analysis of the fourth movement of the String Quartet of 1931.

Chapters 3 and 4 provide focused analyses of individual pieces. In "Linear Aggregates and Proportional Design in Ruth Crawford's Piano Study in Mixed Accents" (chap. 3) by Lyn Ellen Burkett, an interesting discussion of the expressive meaning of Crawford's structure in this piece and its relationship to Schoenberg's serialism highlights the original contributions of Crawford. After carefully analyzing the piano work's palindromes, interpolations, and aggregates, Burkett discusses how Crawford neutralizes the perception of dissonance and draws from art criticism to interpret the aggregates in terms of "reference," "deference," and "difference." Ellie Hisama's "In Pursuit of a Proletarian Music: Ruth Crawford's 'Sacco, Vanzetti' " (chap. 4) is an exploration of the context and musical structure of one of Crawford's two most explicitly politically-charged works, the 1932 song "Sacco, Vanzetti" which refers to the 1927 execution of Italian immigrant anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. …

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