The Lost Sonatas of George Antheil

“Woman” piano sonata performed by Guy Livingston.

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.

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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.

“Woman” piano sonata, 2nd movement, performed by Guy Livingston.

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.

Repetition 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.

composing in Paris

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