'Back to Baltimore': George Antheil's Symphonic Excursion from European Modernism to American Postmodernism

By Statham, Sabra | Musical Times, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

'Back to Baltimore': George Antheil's Symphonic Excursion from European Modernism to American Postmodernism


Statham, Sabra, Musical Times


In 1931, during a brief trip home to Trenton, NJ, George Antheil (1900-1959) began composing a Symphony no.2, an 'American' symphony. Sketching out the music for a first movement, he would fill it with the sounds of his homeland.1 Antheil, then aged 31, had been living in Europe for the past ten years and had enjoyed critical successes with his early modernist works: several sonatas for piano, the daring Ballet mécanique for mixed percussion ensemble, and a handful of orchestral movements. But in 1 931 he was in the midst of a creative lull. The symphony would not only come to embody his search for a new and accessible American sound, but it would set him on a creative trajectory that would propel him from young modernist to mature neo-Romantic. Consequently, the American' symphony has for scholars, a musical significance that extends beyond that of the individual piece, an ideal vehicle for elucidating Antheil's lesser-known middle period (1931-46) and eventual transition to a successful career as postmodernist film score composer. Unfortunately, the history behind the work is primarily undocumented, with most secondary references to the piece being inexact or incorrect. This situation arises primarily from Antheil's practice of renaming and re-editing his works over many years, which makes it difficult to correctly identify pieces by name.

Any discussion of the American' symphony then must start with careful study of the manuscript sources dating from 1931 to 1947. Extant sources combined with biographical texts and letters show that the writing of the American' symphony spanned nearly 15 years, and represent a period of study and experimentation that bridged Antheil's early European (1921- 31) and late American style periods (1947-59). During this middle period he struggled both personally and professionally to remain artistically relevant in a changing world. Contextualising the history of the symphony opens the door to a fresh understanding of his career and frames his movement away from the avant-garde in the late 1920s and eventually towards neoRomanticism in the late 1940s as representative of a more general cultural transition away from a European modernist aesthetic to an American postmodernist aesthetic. Ultimately this transition would bring Antheil to a professional and creative point where he would flourish as an opera and film score composer in the last ten years of his life.

Antheil's success in the early 1920s was closely tied to the artistic energy and aesthetic values of the Parisian avant-garde. Living and working with such European modernists and American expatriates as James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Jean Cocteau and Fernand Léger, Antheil attracted attention throughout Paris as a daring and inventive composer. His unconventional use of aggressive ostinato rhythms coupled with dissonant harmonies embodied to many the popular aesthetic of the day.

Antheil earned widespread international attention in 1923 when the young but influential German music critic H H Stuckenschmidt publicly proclaimed that he was the musical successor to Igor Stravinsky. Stuckenschmidt believed that Antheil had mastered the greatest compositional problems of the day, problems related to the predominantly narrative-based conceptions of form and tonality used in most premodernist works. Antheil had advanced Stravinsky's use of structural blocks and irregular metrical patterns derived from Slavic folk music with his own static block- for med structures which were linked by ostinato rhythms and repeated thematic elements. His early works set new parameters for using and experiencing musical time and space. Stuckenschmidt did not believe any of the other young composers included in his article - Auric, Milhaud, Poulenc and Hindemith - had been able to meet this challenge.2 Antheil's reputation was also strong among the young Americans who had travelled to France to study with Nadia Boulanger. Aaron Copland wrote 'one needn't be particularly astute to realize that he (Antheil) possesses the greatest gift of any young American now writing'. …

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