Ruth Crawford Seeger: A Composer's Search for American Music

By Clarkson, Austin | Canadian University Music Review, January 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

Ruth Crawford Seeger: A Composer's Search for American Music


Clarkson, Austin, Canadian University Music Review


Judith Tick. Ruth Crawford Seeger: A Composer's Search for American Music. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. xiv, 457 pp. ISBN 0-195-06509-3 (paperback).1

By 2001, when the centenary of the birth of Ruth Crawford Seeger was celebrated far and wide, her presence in the front rank of twentieth-century composers was assured. A large part of the increased understanding and knowledge of the composer was the work of Judith Tick, whose editions of the music and superb biography have done so much to form our knowledge and understanding of Crawford's life and creative gifts.

Tick had a remarkably challenging task, for in a dictionary of musical biography there could really be two entries, one for Ruth Crawford and the other for Ruth Seeger. The career divides so readily down the middle that to keep both halves in focus, as Tick has done, is a major achievement. Ruth Crawford was endowed with exceptional gifts as a performer, composer, teacher, and writer, and was already a ranking avant-garde composer before she met Charles Seeger in 1929. She was his student, then collaborated with him in writing a book, before they were married in 1932. As Ruth Seeger she took on several more occupations - wife, mother (three children from Charles's first marriage and four of their own), piano teacher (to keep the family above the poverty line), folklorist, and author (several editions of folksongs). Ruth's indomitable spirit led her to believe that she could do it all if she only could work hard enough. She worked beyond hard, but the anticipated return to composing concert music was foreclosed when cancer struck her swiftly down in 1953. The need and desire to be Ruth Crawford was a haunting pressure through her life as Ruth Seeger. That she created a life as Ruth Crawford Seeger must be counted as one more of her accomplishments.

Charles Seeger was a polymath with a handful of careers in his own right-composer, theorist, comparative musicologist, teacher, philosopher, folklorist, and administrator. But he did not have the knack of turning his abundant gifts into a living for his large family. Though recognition was long delayed, he lived to glimpse it by the time he died in 1979 aged 93. That Ruth and Charles found each other was more than a domestic romance, for their professional lives took shape in ways that were products of their combined talents and interests. Her gifts as a composer and his intellectual gifts combined in their writing a book on dissonant counterpoint. Their work together as folklorists resulted in editions of folksongs for the general reader that are still models of scholarly precision and sensitive arrangements. In addition to publications their collaboration extended to the next generation, with three of their children taking up the cause of the folksong revival and bringing traditional musics into the classrooms, living rooms, and concert spaces of the nation.

Tick weaves a life story with many layers and facets. Combining biography with intellectual, musical, and cultural history demands a sophisticated command of resources. Monographs on such composers often take a documentary approach, with extensive verbatim quotations from the composer's memoirs and interviews with friends, relatives, and colleagues. Passages of connecting commentary are penned by the compiler-author. Tick opts for the more challenging method of maintaining a single voice throughout. Quotations of phrases and sentences are folded smoothly into the text, with block quotations seldom more than ten lines long. Her voice ranges as needed from the incisive to the sympathetic, the descriptive to the critical. She is a helpful and assured guide, and the book is a continual pleasure to read.

With such a wealth of documentation to draw on, Tick sketches in the historical background often with a pregnant anecdote rather than with straight description. When Crawford goes to Berlin on a Guggenheim Fellowship in September of 1930, Tick sets the scene of the waning Weimar Republic with a short paragraph that begins: "Germany's political life mirrored the economic chaos. …

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