Antheil the Futurist

Serpent mécanique, by George Antheil. Performed by Guy Livingston, Stéphane Leach, and Philippe Keler.
Fazioli concert grand piano courtesy of Joël Perrot.
Böski and George Antheil (Berlin, 1929)
Guy Livingston performs the “Tango” from the opera Transatlantic.

Liner Notes for Antheil the Futurist

In 1920, a brash young composer from New Jersey named George Antheil decided to be the “most ultra” of the avant-garde, quarreled with his teachers, and transformed himself into a concert pianist. His cousin Robert Antheil remembered many years later:

Antheil the Futurist (CD cover)
The CD as released (order on Amazon.com)

“At that time George was getting ready for his trip to Europe and was practicing all day long. The keys on the piano were worn through the ivory and down into the wood. He attacked the piano fiercely. When his fingers got very sore he plunged them into two fish bowls full of salted water. The idea was to toughen the fingers for further stress. After eighty years I can still remember the phrase that he repeated time after time all day long: ‘dum dady ata dady ata dum dum dum’.”

Once he perfected his technique, George planned to conquer the concert halls of Europe. Profiting from the post-war situation, many North American artists were touring inflation-plagued Germany, Austria and Hungary, exchanging dollars for good reviews in famous halls and state operas. Thanks to an investment by his patron Mrs. Curtis Bok of more than $6000, Antheil traveled with his manager Martin H. Hanson to London for his debut, and then to Germany, where he set up headquarters in Berlin from July 1922 to June 1923.

“My July 1922 arrival in Berlin remains one of the greatest impressions of my entire life. Gone were the gay blue, red and green uniformed soldiers. Gone were the boisterous happy, prosperous, tumultuous days – Berlin was in grey slow-motion.

The summer passed uneventfully except in that I now spent long hours at my piano fighting it as a prize fighter punches his training bag.

Meanwhile all Berlin around me disintegrated into bankruptcy. The mark flew to pieces and money became the sign of a sign. My success in London earned me several additional concerts at the celebrated seaside resorts nearby, in Holland and Belgium, in Prague and Zurich. Success followed success […] it was not long before I discovered that I was earning money faster than I could spend it. One day I bought myself a whole stack of modern paintings – these consisted of two Marcoussis, one Braque, one Picasso, three Dungerts, two Bobermans, two Kubins, one Leger.

I indulged myself in other buying sprees, discovered three young painters, whom I believed had talent, and promptly became a patron of the arts. I subsidized all those painters, their wives and mistresses, visited them every day to see how they were getting along.

My apartment filled itself with celebrities and others of whom I occasionally lost track. My apparent wealth began now to attract attention. A whole ballet and its manager escaped from Russia – the manager attempted to prevail upon me to manipulate M.H. Hanson into booking them for America. “M.H.”, however, declined. The manager then pursued me. He then set his ballerinas upon me. Too many persons, however, were now after my financial favors to allow me to devote myself to anyone person exclusively. […]

I avoided these attractive and adventurous possibilities – not without several tugs at my heart. Once, however, and in a tentative mood, I bought myself a fine automatic revolver, and had my tailor fashion a most snug little silken holster to go right under my armpit – I had gotten the idea in reading about Chicago gangsters. Although I never went to Russia I now never went anywhere without being fully armed.


Meanwhile my concert season had begun. M. H. Hanson, feeling that the past three months in Berlin had given me the polish necessary to a budding world-shaking concert pianist, had “booked” me rather solidly from January 1923 onwards. I was to play a number of preliminary concerts in Munich, Dresden, Leipzig, Frankfurt and other fairly nearby but very critical cities.”

George Antheil

In addition to his adventures into Berlin nightlife, Antheil quickly met many key intellectuals, such as Herwarth Walden of the Galerie Der Sturm, the young critic Hans Heinz von Stuckenschmidt, who hailed him as a genius, and Böski Markus, a young Hungarian student who would become his wife. He became a member of the Novembergruppe, where he met Wladimir Vogel, Stefan Wolpe, Hanns Eisler and Kurt Weill, and absorbed the ideas of the Neue Sachlichkeit. And, to crown a period of exciting discoveries and new perspectives, he was lucky enough to catch the interest of his musical idol, Igor Stravinsky, whose daring rhythms and poly-harmonies had already inspired several of Antheil’s compositions. The budding composer began to write and publish manifestos.

Antheil’s childhood had given him a good background for living in Berlin. Born in Trenton, New Jersey, he was raised in a Lutheran household, speaking German at home. His parents were from Rhineland and Western Prussia, and baptized him Georg Karl Johann Antheil at his birth in 1900. At the age of 11, he made an extensive summer trip to Germany with his family. Back in the United States, he dropped out of high school to study with the eminent Constantin von Sternberg, remaining under the wing of a strict Germanic teaching method, even when he turned to Ernest Bloch for a more modern approach to composition. At ease with the language and the culture, he arrived in Germany in 1922 well-prepared to dazzle Europe with his daring compositions and bold pianism. Most of his “futuristic” piano music was composed in Berlin in just one year.

He had already established his own style in compositions that display a toccata-like percussive and anti-emotional music, and a clear parodic humor, as in Valse Profane with an Introduction of Fireworks. The waltz has a cubist structure and Satiesque instructions such as “over-sentimental exaggerated” and “with mock coyness”. Ostinato patterns and pedal points animate a structure which becomes more and more mosaic-like, a feature it has in common with the Golden Bird, after Brancusi, whose original title, The Chinese Magician, betrays its inspiration in Leo Ornstein’s A la chinoise (1916).

Antheil’s incessant retitling of his compositions is illustrated by the Four Hand Suite. Many of the fourteen movements appear in other manuscripts, such as One Violin Lesson for Two Pianists which is not only the Little Overture of the Three Little Pieces (1922) but a theme of his Piano Concerto No. 1. Antheil turned the 9th movement into the Habañera for Virgil Thomson (1925). Meanwhile Galop for Horatio Alger was re-arranged as the Presto of Symphony for Five Instruments (1923). The four-hand pieces are pure fun: playful, witty, and burlesque, and are related to his Kinderblätter suite, which he performed in 1923 in Berlin, though now lost. Antheil seems to have revised the Galop in 1939, re-working the refrain to quote “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf”, the 1933 Walt Disney hit.

In 1923 Antheil was impelled to find something more interesting, more daring, more futuristic. Composer Leo Ornstein had already enraged European audiences, and pianist Henry Cowell was touring Germany playing ƒƒƒƒ clusters and complex rhythms. It was time for Antheil to create a new and radical musical style. “The chief and most important effect of this postwar Berlin upon me was to houseclean out of me all of the remaining old poesy, false sentimentality, and overjuicy overidyllicism,” he declared.

The Airplane Sonata was the first of a new group of piano pieces written in a cold, mechanistic style: multimetric textures, an inflexible eighth-note pulse despite constantly changing meters, a propulsive, forward-driving energy. This new style merged ragtime with mechanical frenzy, as already attempted by the Italian futurists, and later to be adopted by many composers in the Twenties. The Airplane Sonata is constructed out of rhythmically-activated musical blocks: his notorious “time-space” components, with which he intended to revolutionize music. The two movements are organized around a repeated E which is not intended as a functional tonality, but is rather a Duchamp-like objet (sonore) trouvé. In contrast with Leo Ornstein’s Suicide in an Airplane, Antheil has a different feeling for the new technology: not terror but progress. In this sonata, and in the others composed around 1923, Antheil goes further into a new musical landscape. His techniques: inconsequential development, avoidance of sonata-form, juxtaposition of unrelated rhythms and materials, divorcing metric structures from melodic constructions, presenting two interlocking but independent ostinato patterns a minor second apart that start together but gradually go out of phase many years before Györgi Ligeti’s minimalism. This is precisely what Antheil himself described as a “fourth dimension” in music, a term he got from his pseudo-scientific understanding of current philosophical or pictorial theories. “We of the future find our sense of organization from Picasso rather than Beethoven or Stravinsky […] we should find our sense of forms and time-spaces molded by months and months of studying the sculptures of Brancusi or Lipchitz”, he declared in one of his Berlin manifestos.

Antheil transformed his earlier Second Sonata, Street Sonata (1919/21) into a piano concerto, and re-purposed two earlier pieces, Snakes and Negroes as movements of the new Sonata Sauvage, finished in January 1923. Capitalizing on the almost unplayable nature of the 2nd movement, he had a pianola roll punched with an even more complex version, entitled Mécanique N.1, or Serpent mécanique, here recorded in a six-hand arrangement (there is no known manuscript). The player-piano was for Antheil both a source of inspiration and the ideal medium to realize his frenetic rhythms.

The Third Piano Sonata: “Death of Machines” was premiered in Dresden on January 22nd and its four movements are light years from the exaltation of progress, so dear to the Italian and Russian futurists of a decade before. The precise opening stumbles immediately…the machines are imperfect, vulnerable, dying.

The Jazz Sonata bearsthe indication “As rapidly as it is possible to execute cleanly and with even touch and dynamics like a player piano.” This virtuoso benchmark for pianists should be considered a twentieth century response to Chopin’s Minute Waltz. Less mechanical, more jazzy, its frequency-hopping collage continually frustrates the listener’s expectations. Piece for Merle and (Little) Shimmy are in the same miniaturist style: off-kilter interpretations of popular dance forms.

Composed in the spring of 1923, the Sonata V (or Fifth Piano Sonata) follows the collage technique. It was dedicated to ethnomusicologist Georg Herzog, a friend who was working at the Berlin Phonogramm-Archiv where Antheil discovered the rhythms of the Javanese Gamelan. In addition to multiple parodies – even plagiarism – of Stravinsky, Antheil plays with popular music, quoting Denza’s Funiculì, Funiculà.

In 1923, George and Böski moved abruptly to Paris, where he was immediately hailed as a genius by the literary crowd of the Left Bank. James Joyce, Sylvia Beach, Ezra Pound, Man Ray, and Ernest Hemingway – all were fascinated by Antheil. His friendship (but also sometimes his enmity) with the major figures of the Lost Generation added greatly to his notoriety.

After five years living in France, marked by spectacular successes and scandalized press, new opportunities arrived from Germany. Through the intervention of Ernst Krenek, Universal Edition accepted Antheil’s forthcoming opera. Antheil readily moved to Vienna and then back to Berlin to prepare for the Frankfurt premiere. Abandoning his French Neoclassicism, he resuscitated his jazzy influences, cheerfully adapting himself to the publisher’s idea of American music. Manufactured by Antheil to capitalize on the German Operatic Renaissance and an ephemeral interest in overseas modernity, Transatlantic is an operatic supermarket of the Roaring Twenties, depicting a corrupt U.S. presidential election, complete with oil and sex scandals. The Overture and Tango illustrate the atmosphere of the opera – by turns sarcastic and romantic.

Swell Music and the Sonatina für Radio werecomposed in 1928. The latter was premiered by Antheil at a Berlin Radio broadcast on January 4th, 1929, the same day in which his stage music for Oedipus Rex debuted at the Berliner Stadtstheater. The fact that Antheil had been called in to substitute for Kurt Weill gives some idea of his stature in Germany at that moment.

But this was the end. Changing politics in Europe and economic hardships meant that he decided to go back home in 1933, never to return to Germany. Not quite surprisingly his scores became Entartete Musik by 1938.

Despite his two Berlin sojourns, history would link him forever with the French capital. His notorious Ballet mécanique, one of the wildest and loudest compositions of the twentieth century, connected him with Leger, Picabia, Picasso, the Dadaists, the Surrealists, and a host of other Parisian movements and artists, eclipsing his Berlin avant-gardism. Indeed, years later, writing his autobiography in 1945, he was at pains to minimize his German roots. It is no surprise, therefore, that his ancestry, his studies with German teachers, and his relation to the Berlin cultural scene have been overlooked. But the daring mixture of jazz elements, barbaric percussion, and modernist juxtapositions that he perfected in 1923 appear to the twenty-first century listener as funny, as interesting, and as lively as ever.

Liner notes by Mauro Piccinini

A personal note on the scores

The majority of George Antheil’s piano music was not published in his lifetime. At his death in 1959, he left a large number of hand-written manuscript scores to his wife Böski. The sheer volume of material, not to mention the disorder of the collection, made cataloging and publishing almost impossible. As a result, much of his music has not been performed in decades, and some of it has never been played at all.

aren’t you glad we didn’t choose this design for the cover?

His experimental piano music, composed primarily in Berlin, can be heard together for the first time on this recording thanks to new discoveries and scholarly research. The most amazing new find is that of Valse Profane with an Introduction of Fireworks. This piece was previously known only from a tortured manuscript, entire pages of which had been wildly scribbled out by Antheil. But unbeknownst to scholars and pianists, Antheil finished the piece, and gave the unperformed manuscript to Arthur Rubinstein sometime between October 1921 and March 1922. In October 1939, recognizing the Nazi threat, Rubinstein left with his family for the United States. His Parisian apartment in Avenue Foch was confiscated and his collection of books and scores transferred to the Reichssicherheitshauptamt in Berlin. In 1945 the library collection was moved to the USSR by the Soviet occupying forces, and there remained in storage, until 1959 when the materials were returned to Berlin in partial restitution of German cultural property. Years passed, and seventy-one scores of this library had to wait until 2003 before musicologists made the connection to Rubinstein. The collection was finally donated to the Juilliard Institute in New York, and is hosted in the Peter Jay Sharp Special Collection Library. This CD presents the newly discovered version, a world premiere.

Other manuscripts also have unusual stories. For example, Sonata Sauvage was published in the 1980s. In 2003, Guy Livingston recorded this version on his album “The Lost Sonatas of George Antheil” (Wergo CD 6661-2). A few years ago, a missing movement was discovered at the Sacher Foundation in Basel, and many missing indications were found in the original manuscript, so that the Sonata Sauvage on this album is almost entirely a new work. Other compositions reappeared by chance, such as Piece for Merle, which I bought at an auction in New York, or the pianola roll of Serpent mécanique, which the pianist Marc-André Hamelin found at an annual clearance sale at a New York library. This unique pianola roll is original, and bears an autographed dedication from Antheil to Jan Slivinsky. The world-premiere recording on this CD is arranged by Guy Livingston, and performed at one piano simultaneously by three hard-working pianists.  — MP

Profane Waltzers courtesy of Arthur Rubinstein Music Collection, The Juilliard School Library.

Footnotes/Credits

Thanks to…

Charles Amirkhanian, Antheil Family, George Boziwick, Sheila Brennan, Ulrike Bretz-Faust, Frank Brickle, Mme Bernadette Collette, David Flachs, Hélène Fontanges, Eelco Grimm, Jane Gottlieb, Marc-André Hamelin, James R. Hawkins II, Erik Hense, Sabine Hochhauser, Famille Jan, Famille Keler, Paul Lehrman, Renzo Robert Livingston, Pierre Malbos, Peggy Monastra, Frank J. Oteri, Famille Perrot, Mauro Piccinini, Robert Piencikowski, Roberta Roman, Cyril Roux, Rubinstein Family, Oliver Schneller, Marilyn Smith, Maria Sperling, and the Library of Congress, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, UC Santa Barbara Library, and Princeton University Library.

This CD was made possible with financial support from

Wergo Records

Aaron Copland Fund for Music

Pro Musica Viva – Maria Strecker-Daelen Stiftung

Composers Guild of New Jersey

Production

Fazioli Piano F278 tuned by Jean Michel Daudon.

Recorded in Paris, Spring 2013 on Neumann U87 microphones. DCS 904, Lovardin Technologies.

Recording, editing and artistic direction by Joël Perrot.