There are few more remarkable stories than that of George Antheil's brief period in the spotlit centre of the Parisian stage during the 20s. Subsequent history has much diminished Antheil's signficance, reducing him to little more than a footnote in most accounts of the post Great War avantgarde, but in recent years a steady stream of recordings has strengthened his reputation as a resourceful and versatile composer, well worth exhumation.
It was a remarkable series of works that he created during that decade: 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 1923-5 to accompany the film of the same name about Fernand Léger, tho the two versions were never synchronised 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 couldnt hold sync and in the end the premiere took place with 4 piano. What the composer intended was to create 'time windows' of contrasting but equally intense textural densities.
During George's Paris hey-day he and his wife 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.
Ezra Pound regarded Antheil as the great Messiah of a 'New Music', as did another 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.
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 capitalise 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 antagonised musical opinion that Antheil's reputation in America never recovered.
Altho 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 programme planning which entirely failed to support the enfant terrible reputation he had been so assiduously created 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 singular - to say the least.
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 2 German opera houses, even receiving a belated US 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 US with his wife George turned out an amusing detective story Death In the Dark - about the murder of a concert agent (sic!) - which 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 Ben The Front Page Hecht & MacArthur (independent producer/writers) 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 US 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.
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 necoclassical period as a stepping stone to a more expressive harmonic idiom, closer to Shostakovich. For this critical opinion never forgave him.
I don't believe that the total neglect into which Antheil has fallen is justified, and in preparing the programme spoke on the telephone at some length to a number of people who knew him in order to deternine Antheil's significance.
Perhaps the best quote is Virgil Thomson's.
"You can't categorise 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 couldnt 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."
||The Original American in Paris - part 1|
|Brief biography by Antheil's son Chris Beaumont|
|Antheil disc+ bibli- ography|
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