for ABC’s Radio National. Broadcast date: February 24, 2015
Born in Trenton, New Jersey, composer George Antheil caused a riot in Paris with his ‘Ballet Mécanique’, but soon fell from favour and ended up writing movie scores in Hollywood. Guy Livingston takes a look at the rise, fall and rise again of one of the most radical composers of the 20th century.
Ballet Mécanique is one of the most radical compositions of the 20th century. The score calls for 16 player pianos, three xylophones, four bass drums, a tam-tam, two grand pianos, seven bells, a fire siren, and three airplane propellers. At its premiere in 1926 it caused a riot in Paris at the Theatre du Champs Elysées.
The composer was George Antheil, a boyish youngster born in 1900 in Trenton, New Jersey. After a typical American childhood of baseball games, working in his father’s shoe store and taking piano lessons from his aunt, he dropped out of high school, decided to become a concert pianist, found a patron, a teacher, and a manager, and within a year was on his way to Europe.
Many writers and painters saw him as the ideal model of the composer, unchained from centuries of stifling tradition, eager to create a new music for a new world of machines and radio and airplanes.
The sensational 1921 London debut of this unknown artist set the stage for an entire tour: his concerts angered critics and scandalised an avid public. Other musicians were baffled, dismissing him as a misguided genius or a publicity hound, but his instincts and ambition were on target, and his career took off.
After a year living the high life in Berlin, he moved to Paris, where he became the talk of the town. Influenced by Stravinsky and the futurists, he composed prolifically: a jazzy symphony, virtuoso piano sonatas, daring string quartets, and an unfinished opera with James Joyce (alas, only two pages survive). Ballet Mécanique marked the height of Antheil’s career. The music was revolutionary, unlike anything that had ever been heard before. The Paris performance was an immense success, and the arrival of the gendarmes confirmed in everyone’s minds that Antheil was indeed the genius they had been expecting.
Deciding to top this wild performance, Antheil immediately began organising a repeat concert for Carnegie Hall.
Under-rehearsed and over-hyped, the New York premiere was a complete disaster. The press hated it, the public walked out, the reaction was tepid. What was the fuss all about? The fiasco was total—the airplane propellers blew people’s hats off in the front row, and one quick-witted audience member raised a white handkerchief on the end of his cane, to widespread laughter. The performers were ill-prepared, and the music sounded amateurish. Antheil’s reputation was destroyed as quickly as it had risen, and within a few years he found himself forced to abandon his life in Europe and seek new work in Hollywood.
Berlin and Paris in the1920s had been ripe for the type of revolutionary futurism that Antheil’s music symbolised. Many writers and painters saw him as the ideal model of the composer, unchained from centuries of stifling tradition, eager to create a new music for a new world of machines and radio and airplanes.
However, the great depression and the rise of Nazism in Europe meant that most of these artists, not just Antheil, were about to be displaced (or worse) by history. At least Antheil had a home to return to. With war looming on the horizon, even his bohemian wife Boski was all too glad to emigrate to sunny California.
Once there, the Antheils made a new life for themselves. Boski started a short-lived but fabled art gallery, Antheil found work writing for the movies. They lived comfortably, and Antheil’s symphonies, orchestrated with bravado and humour, gained him a new following across the United States. Referred to often as the Shostakovich of Trenton, he had reinvented himself as a neo-classical composer. But he was never to regain the fame and notoriety of his Paris years. After his untimely death in 1959 of a heart attack, he was remembered only for the Carnegie Hall fiasco.
In the 1970s, a radio host named Charles Amirkhanian approached Antheil’s widow about performing some of the radical compositions from the 1920s. She reluctantly agreed, and the resulting concert in California was a sold-out success. Nonetheless, the revival of Antheil’s music was beset with misfortunes, mostly related to his own horrendous record-keeping. The scores were mixed up and poorly labeled; identifying them seemed an endless process. Little by little, however, his music gained ground, and found a new audience, and new performers.
The biggest revival associated with Antheil has been around Ballet Mécanique.
After meeting Amirkhanian, Dutch conductor Reinbert de Leeuw relaunched the piece in 1976 with a spellbinding performance at the Holland Festival and an LP that achieved cult status. Maurice Peress conducted a revival in New York in 2000, recreating the Carnegie Hall performance of 1927.
Unlike the original fiasco, this was an enormous success. Paul Lehrman recreated the original version as Antheil imagined it, with 16 synchronised pianos on stage. These substituted for the player pianos that were supposed to operate simultaneously. Using digital midi technology Lehrman solved the problems that had plagued Antheil 75 years earlier. Technological advances have also enabled synchronisation with Dudley Murphy and Fernand Leger’s film, which had been intended to accompany the music.
Other conductors who have championed Antheil’s symphonic works include Michael Tilson Thomas, Dennis Russell Davies, Theodore Kuchar, Hugh Wolf and Bill Eddins. Daniel Spaulding and the Philadelphia Virtuosi released a CD on the Naxos label which hit the top of the charts in the UK.
Antheil is also increasingly remembered as an inventor (along with his friend the actress Hedy Lamarr) of spread spectrum communications technology. Registered in 1941, their patent for a ‘secret communications system’ sketches out the principle of frequency hopping, which is used in most cell phones today. In November 2014, Antheil and Lamarr were inducted into the Consumer Electronics Hall of Fame for their invention.
Antheil lacked an intellectual vision, though he had plenty of driving force and boundless energy and charm. Like Mendelssohn or Britten, his best music was in his youth. If he’d died young like Mozart or Elvis, he might have been more famous or at least seen as a misunderstood genius.
Antheil will never be accepted by academia but perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. His firebrand manifestos and association with Hollywood will keep him out of music history textbooks, but his place as an avant-garde artist is assured.
Guy Livingston is a pianist and producer and considered one of the foremost performers of the work of George Antheil’s music today. Earshot is about people, places, stories and ideas, in all their diversity.