There are few more remarkable stories than that of George Antheil's brief period in the spot-lit center of the Parisian stage during the 1920s. Subsequent history has much diminished Antheil's significance, reducing him to little more than a footnote in most accounts of the post Great War avant-garde, but in recent years a steady stream of recordings has strengthened his reputation as a resourceful and versatile composer, well worth exhumation.
Born in 1900, the son of a Trenton, New Jersey cobbler, Antheil studied composition with Sternberg and Bloch in the U.S. before the patronage of Mrs. Curtis Bok transported Antheil to Europe and into the fatally attractive orbit of Stravinsky. That inveterate trend-spotter Ezra Pound latched onto Antheil's futuristic works, calling him "possibly the first American-born musician to be taken seriously" in 1924. Even Aaron Copland recalled "when I arrived [in Europe] George had all Paris by the ear".
It was with a remarkable series of works that George made his debut: Airplane Sonata (1921): Symphony for 5 Instruments (1922): Sonata Sauvage and an attempt at 'musical cubism', the Jazz Sonata (1923). He also wrote two sonatas for Violin and Piano for Pound's companion and, later, Vivaldi scholar Olga Rudge, one of which included a drum part for Pound himself.
However Antheil's principal calling card from this period is his Ballet Mécanique, composed between 1923 and 1925 to accompany the film of the same name about Fernand Léger, though the two versions were never synchronized together as sound projection was not available for a further three years. Originally conceived for 16 mechanical pianos, which were intended to produce a level and density of sound that anticipated rock stadium amplification, once again Antheil was defeated by available technology – the piano couldn't hold sync and in the end the premiere took place with 4 pianos. What the composer intended was to create 'time windows' of contrasting but equally intense textural densities.
To achieve this the bulging wallet of Mrs. Bok was once again flattened in order to commission the direct punching of the piano rolls so as to achieve superhuman chords and rhythms, in a way that anticipated Conlon Nancarrow. Antheil orchestrated the music in 1952, but the raw energy of the earlier version speaks far louder.
In 1999 a synchronized version of the music and film of Ballet Mécanique was created and premiered by Paul D. Lehrman and has subsequently been presented at a variety of festivals.
Whether or not Antheil's claim that Ballet Mécanique directly influenced Prokofiev's Le Pas d'Acier and Honegger's Pacific 231 can be sustained is debatable. However it was fully in the epicenter of the mechanistic modernism of the age, and earned Antheil a decent riot at its premiere in the Salle Pleyel (though cynics alleged that the riot was stage-managed for the film director Marcel Lherbier to incorporate in his film L'Inhumaine).
A fascinating counterpoint to the achievements of this 'original American in Paris' is the very frank correspondence between George Antheil & his patron, Mrs. Curtis Bok, now in the library of the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. A wealthy patron of the arts, Mrs. Curtis Bok supported a number of musical enterprises, and Antheil had been drawn to her attention while a student of Ernst Bloch's in New York. In addition to a subsidy of $100 a month she responded generously to the many pleas for assistance with particular projects, contributing in a 12-year period the staggering sum of $40,000 over and above Antheil's own at-times-substantial earnings.
During George's Paris hey-day he and his Hungarian wife, Boski, lived above Sylvia Beach's famous Shakespeare & Co bookshop, bought works from Picasso, Miro, Derain, Braque, Léger, dined with Cocteau & Satie, numbered Diaghilev and Stravinsky among his regular first-nighters, and was himself discussed in the same breath. There seemed no limit to his influence and success. Of this phase of Antheil's life, Ned Rorem wrote "Gertrude Stein received him although she knew nothing of music; Virgil Thompson promoted him through both journalism and the organization of far-out concerts; James Joyce, a great Purcell fancier, discussed him as the prime mover of the new common machinery-in-art movement, and even seriously discussed collaborating with him on a 'proto-electronic' opera [which, as with Ballet Mécanique, fell foul of available technology]; while Hemingway owed to his influential relations the publication of In Our Time."
Ezra Pound regarded Antheil as the great Messiah of a 'New Music', as did another French Fascist, Benoist-Méchin, who met a grizzlier fate after the war than Pound. Pound published a book called Antheil & the Theory of Music which, like Pound's own composition, was laughably amateurish. This proved a fatal error for George who later wrote "From the first day I met him Ezra was never to have even the slightest idea of what I was really after in music … he merely wanted to use me as a whip with which to lash out at all those who disagreed with him … Couched in language calculated to antagonize everyone first by its ridiculous praise [of me], then by its vicious criticism of everybody else, [Ezra's flamboyant book] … sowed the most active distaste for the very mention of the name 'Antheil' among many contemporary critics, prejudiced them before they had even so much as heard a note of mine. Nobody could have been a tenth as good as Ezra made me."
But in blaming Pound Antheil is being more than a little disingenuous. Had this 'hype' been an isolated instance in George's career he might be excused; but a greater and far more disastrous example was to follow. As a result of the atmosphere that Pound's book had created in Paris Antheil resolved to capitalize on his international stature by returning to America.
During 1927 elaborate preparations were put in hand by a promoter, Donald Friede, for a Carnegie Hall debut. But once again a naive and undiscerning 'enthusiasm' – to put it euphemistically – was responsible for a succession of errors of judgment which so entirely antagonized musical opinion that Antheil's reputation in America never recovered.
Although it is unquestionably true that Friede was to a considerable extent responsible – in his fascinating autobiography Mechanical Angel he admits as much – the fact remains that Antheil was himself a party to the arrangements and must share the blame for egregious actions like raising the expectations of the press by circulating accounts of the riots that had attended the Ballet Mécanique in Europe, and for the disastrous decision to open the Carnegie Hall concert with a neo-classical string quartet that entirely failed to support the enfant terrible reputation which had been so assiduously built up in advance.
This turn of affairs was a triple blow to the composer: firstly because it undermined his reputation everywhere the story became known: secondly because "it sent me back to Europe broke:" and thirdly because, disenchanted by the nature of the publicity, Mrs. Bok discontinued her monthly subsidy.
Humiliated and penniless, George and his wife returned to Europe. But worse was to come, for the tide of fashion that had swept Antheil to prominence had receded, and in its place another wave had brought forward new names. This was partly because his own musical idiom was now following his hero, Stravinsky, into neo-classicism. Antheil always strenuously insisted he embarked on what he called his neo-romantic idiom before being aware of Pulcinella. But the coincidence is too close for comfort.
Alas for George, his subsequent career never again scaled such dizzy heights. An opera, Transatlantic, premiered in Germany in the early 30s, experimented with multiple action on the stage, but fell foul of the penumbra of Nazism. (It was revived in the early 80s and entered the repertoire of at least two German opera houses, even receiving a belated U.S. premiere – but to tell the truth the naivety of its Jonny Spielt Auf style has not worn as well as his other music.)
Before returning permanently to the U.S. with his wife George turned out an amusing detective story Death In the Dark – about the murder of a concert agent (sic!) – that TS Eliot edited and published.
Perhaps inevitably, since the concert hall had all but closed its doors to him, Antheil migrated to Hollywood where he eked out a living. As his hilarious autobiography Bad Boy Of Music tells, he fell in with Ben Hecht & Charlie MacArthur (independent producer/writers whose biggest hit The Front Page is constantly recycled to this day) composing what is possibly his best film score for their The Spectre Of The Rose in which he allows himself an attenuated echo of his earlier style sauvage.
A man of wide interests, George published a pamphlet, The Shape of the War To Come, anonymously in 1940 projecting on the course of U.S. involvement. When his prognostications proved correct he was feted as a prophet and this reputation assisted him to get a job as a journalist with the Los Angeles Times when he found himself unable to compose, following the death of his brother in action. Antheil inspiration returned towards the end of the war ands he recounts composing much of his Tragic Symphony at his newsdesk.
The style of his later concert music may best be described as mid-century polytonal. He wrote a number of self-consciously 'American' symphonies which were premiered by Stokowski and others, but none etched themselves indelibly on the public ear. Antheil also wrote half a dozen post war operas, which are altogether in a different league. One in particular, Volpone seems to me a remarkably fine and dramatically effective piece to judge from a recording.
It would be perfectly accurate to describe Antheil as the first musical postmodernist because, unlike his mentor Stravinsky who never really abandoned modernism even during his neoclassical phase, Antheil really did turn his back completely on his youthful mechanistic style, and used his own neoclassical period as a stepping stone to a more expressive harmonic idiom, closer to Shostakovich. For this critical opinion never forgave him.
Antheil died in 1959, but a revival of interest in his works has been steadily gathering pace. The Californian composer Charles Amirkhanian has been a consistent advocate of his music, and the Dutch conductor-pianist Reinbert de Leeuw also energetically championed Antheil's cause with an Antheil Festival in 1981.
In my research while preparing the text of a drama-doc based on his life called The Original American in Paris which I wrote for BBC Radio 3 in 1988, I spoke to a number of people who had known him. Perhaps the best quote is Virgil Thomson's. "You can't categorize a guy like George. He was a literary man's idea of a musical genius; and he was a genius in a kind of way, I guess. He was an unusual case, you could say. I see no reason to modify what I wrote in my book. He had a terrific success – he was uniquely 'of his time' but his Time will come again I believe." Gunther Schuller said "He represented something Europe very much wanted to believe: about Steamships, the excitement of everything that was new and 'America'. Whatever you think of the later music Ballet Mécanique was absolutely sui generis. I think he didn't develop that style because he couldn't develop that style. That was it. Ppphwt! It came to him, just like that." On the reasons for his relative obscurity in later life Virgil Thomson said "George always had an unbounded belief in his own capacity – he blew his own trumpet a little too loudly, and that created a kindofa 'sales resistance' I guess you'd call it. It wasn't the music, it was something to do with him. But I still say he was an original, and I think when things have quieted down a bit we'll be ready for him again." ~ Maxwell Steer, 2002