Sophie Dunèr and I met many years ago in Paris, through our mutual interest in George Antheil’s wacky music. Here’s a video we recorded this winter in Berlin, at SOWIESO.
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:
“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.George Antheil
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.”
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.
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.
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
Aaron Copland Fund for Music
Pro Musica Viva – Maria Strecker-Daelen Stiftung
Composers Guild of New Jersey
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.
Sotto Voce with Fist: The Story of Antheil’s “Lost” Sonatas
Just as John Cage was probably the most notorious American composer of the post-war twentieth century, George Antheil was the most notorious of the pre-war era. Antheil’s succés de scandale was astonishing, making him the rival of Stravinsky and Satie. As with Cage, Antheil’s eagerness to foment revolution came from his daring instrumentation, surprising pronouncements, and anti-establishment attitudes. Works like the Ballet mécanique–scored for 16 mechanical pianos, airplane propellers, percussion, and siren–literally blew people away and caused riots in the concert halls.
An excellent pianist himself, Antheil had full mastery of the instrument and how to write for it. Freest as a soloist, he was unhampered by orchestration problems, or by conservative performers. Up to 1940, he performed all his piano music himself, experimenting with the juiciest, wildest and most radical ideas in the sonatas. Writing about Antheil’s performances in Berlin, critic H. H. Stuckenschmidt raved, “I had never heard playing like it. It was a mixture of frenzy and precision which went far beyond conventional virtuosity. A machine seemed to be playing the keys. Unbelievably difficult and complex rhythms were combined … Dynamics and tempos were taken to extremes. It was a stunning success.” This is the composer who carried a gun to concerts, and could wickedly write a note to the performer: “sotto voce (with fist).”
What were the musical antecedents for the young Antheil growing up in Trenton, New Jersey? According to his autobiography, his inspiration came from “the music of the future” that he heard one night in his sleep. No less importantly, the factories of industrial Trenton would have provided ear-splitting sounds of sufficient variety and loudness to excite any budding avant-garde composer.
During the 1920s, Antheil thrilled European audiences with these same cinematically spicy concoctions, mixing jazz and ragtime, sweetness, and explosive noise. Virgil Thomson recalled, “I envied George his freedom from academic involvements, the bravado of his music, and its brutal charm.” Nothing could describe better the Sonate Sauvage, a work radical in its structure and unexpected in its organization. Cross rhythms, pounding ostinati, clusters, accretion techniques, sudden juxtapositions of themes, styles and dynamics are all taken to extremes.
Like many composers, Antheil refused to acknowledge his debts to others. However it is easy enough to pinpoint some sources: Ornstein for clusters and power, Schoenberg for basic harmony, Chopin for the arpeggiated left hand, Liszt for virtuosity, and Debussy for chords. Milhaud and Stravinsky also play a major role. But Antheil’s most important influence is from the African-American, Ragtime, and Creole music of his youth, expressed in the Sonate Sauvage with powerful effect.
was everything to Antheil. Development was irrelevant. In the futurist sonatas,
particularly the Woman Sonata and the Sonate Sauvage, there is no development, no recapitulation,
and no exposition. Grinning from ear to ear, he hints at sonata-form (A, B, A’)
but always ducks out at the last moment. Themes are presented, dropped, and
re-presented on the basis of an overall metrical scheme which is deliberately
obscure. Events succeed each other on gut instinct, as if he were accompanying
a silent film, reacting instantly to the surprise of each cinematic cut.
Contrasts are stark and unsettling, and the toccatas that conclude virtually
every piano work are nightmarish in their compositional intensity. Yet
Antheil’s music is exuberant and joyous, saved from sheer mechanics by humor
and lighthearted parody—of himself, and of his favorite composers.
In the late 1930s Antheil headed for Hollywood, where his music took a decidedly traditional turn, to the point that he was referred to as the “Shostakovitch of Trenton.” During the forties and fifties this neo-romantic music enjoyed wide popularity, and his stirring and patriotic symphonies found acclaim across America. With the post-war sonatas, Antheil mellowed out and adopted sonata form and classical structure in three massive Prokofiev-inspired compositions. But he was still harboring peppery surprises, as the diabolic finale of the Third Sonata, premiered in 1949 by Winifred Young, amply illustrates.
The Fourth and Fifth Sonatas are more sober works, and were written for the pianist Frederick Marvin, who premiered them in New York at Carnegie Hall in 1948, and Town Hall in 1950. The central movement of each is based on a Prokofiev theme, which Antheil elaborates and elongates via a dazzling and tragic transformation. Stricken by the early death of his brother in Russia, Antheil may have intended to memorialize him in these works. Both have concluding toccatas which plunge the pianist into a maelstrom of prestissimo octaves and ostinati. Composer Frank J. Oteri writes, “The Fifth Sonata is a masterpiece. To my ears, it seems like the synthesis between the earlier and later music and makes the case for the unity of Antheil’s polystylistic vision perhaps better than any other piece.” Indeed, the Fifth is perhaps the summit of Antheil’s career as a sonata composer: it is an extraordinary summary of the power and creativity he brought to the piano. An intensely personal work, it is brutal and tender, grand and expressive, Antheil’s final masterpiece.
Antheil died suddenly in his fifties, and his music, tarnished by his association with Hollywood and by his tell-all autobiography, was largely forgotten after his death. A series of feuds with his publishers meant that even the few works that had been published languished in obscurity during the sixties and seventies, a time when “futurism” seemed hopelessly rear-guard to the contemporary experimentalists and serialists. Of Antheil’s thirteen piano sonatas, only two were in printed circulation at the time of his death. The orchestral music, the large catalog of chamber music, and Antheil’s operas were similarly neglected.
In 1970 composer and radio host Charles Amirkhanian met Antheil’s wife Böski, and was astonished to find that she still had the original pencil manuscripts of almost every work of her late husband’s prolific career. Realizing the massive importance of this collection, Amirkhanian promoted further interest in Antheil with impressive concerts in California, Holland and Germany and became the executor of the Estate of George Antheil in 1978. Scholar Linda Whitesitt began a catalog of the music in 1981, and in 1991 The New York Public Library purchased the collection, and began the complex task of cataloging it.
When I first saw the collection, I found the magnitude of Antheil’s piano compositions astonishing on every level: hundreds of pages of music, most of it virtuosic, bold, brash, innovative, funny, and brilliantly ahead of its time. Working with the generous assistance of curator George Boziwick of the New York Public Library and invaluable advice from Antheil scholar Mauro Piccinini, I performed and presented the piano manuscripts in 6 concerts over 6 years in the Bruno Walter Auditorium.
The “lost” piano sonatas were never completely missing but they are not exactly “found” either. Over the years, historians and catalogers of George Antheil’s music have had to leap a frustrating set of hurdles, the result of Antheil’s memory, which was selective, his business sense, which was bad, and his handwriting, which was worse. Adding to the confusion, Antheil was a notorious revisionist of his own catalog, and some works changed title, dedication, and movements several times.
Preparation for the performance of all six of these unpublished sonatas is based on my research at Princeton University and The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. This CD is the first recording of three of these “missing” works, which illustrate so well Antheil’s wit and brilliance.
Notes by Guy Livingston
Paris is a moveable feastErnest Hemingway
It is hard not to be intrigued by the period between the two wars, in which Paris flourished, and artists thrived. Montparnasse became legendary for its café life, as expats and locals fought their fights, argued over cubism, fashion, and politics, and lived their love affairs dramatically in the public eye. Key american figures were Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, and George Antheil. From the French side, Kiki of Montparnasse, Erik Satie, and Jean Cocteau fueled the passions and artisitic explorations of a generation. Stravinsky, Picasso, and Diaghilev were their heros.
Guy Livingston lived in Paris for 25 years, and is creating this program (detais to be announced) based on artists and writers from the parisian avant-garde ‘entre les deux guerres’…
“George Antheil certainly has genius. I do not believe that he has arrived at the definitive formulation of his art. What he is presently giving us are rather his studies, his researches, which are very close to those of Picasso: without concession, as far as he can in a domain that is often arid. However, I have already been permitted to enjoy the absolutely new pathos of it, the uprooting rhythm, a joyful drunkenness of contradiction, a private discovery such as children sing to themselves— it drives out demons and fixes gods without asking them for their opinion.”Adrienne Monnier, poet and bookstore owner on the rue de l’Odéon, Paris, in the 1920’s
What is Dada?
On July 8, 1923, the Parisian Dadaists organized the most famous Dada event ever. Everybody who was anybody was on the program that night: a play by Tristan Tzara, films by Man Ray and Hans Richter, live music by George Antheil, Erik Satie, and Darius Milhaud. During the show, a riot broke out amongst the rival Dada factions, and the poet Paul Eluard was thrown off the stage, breaking his arm. The gendarmes were summoned, and the Dada Soirée was memorialized as one of the great Parisian art scandals of all time. Inspired by the extraordinary artists who participated that night, pianist Guy Livingston has re-created the music and rediscovered the films, bringing us back to 1923 for his updated one-man show, Dada at the Movies.
Join audiences from all over Europe, Canada, and the US, who have delighted in Guy’s whirlwind, virtuoso, and comic performance.
The stage is dark, except for a spotlight illuminating a bicycle wheel from below (homage to Marcel Duchamp), which turns slowly, casting an ominous shadow onto the ceiling. The films are accompanied by live piano music, performed by Guy Livingston, who frequently interrupts with Dada manifesti, poetry, and even the sale of Dada ice-cream (it’s made of tissue paper), but only for those who have the special Dada-dollars.