88 Keys to Freedom: Segues Through the History of American Piano Music

The self-styled “Bad Boy of Music” (the title of his 1945 autobiography), George Antheil sparked riotous clamor with the first performances of his piano works in 1923. The French (this author has been told by a French producer), enjoy the fun that Americans, even summertime expatriates and students, bring to music festivals, and Antheil certainly did not disappoint. On June 19, 1926, he premiered his Ballet mécanique (originally called Message from Mars) for 8 pianos, player piano, drums, xylophones, electric bells, a siren and two aircraft propellers, and once again astonished the scandal-loving Parisian public. (Antheil later compared this piece to what Rachmaninoff‘s C-Sharp Minor Prelude became to that pianist-composer: “to put it plainly, my nightmare”.)

Like the Ballet, Antheil’s Sonatina (“Death of the Machines”) (1922) opposes the physical danger and spiritual debilitation posed by the worship of machines (the first modern war was still reverberating in the world’s consciousness). This stance would indicate that Antheil was pro-Dada, which was anti-authoritarian and depicted functionaries as having mechanical hearts; and that he was anti-Futurist, whose supporters were pro-machine and energetic power. The Sonatina propels itself through four short movements in ever-increasing accelerandos. Each movement has a unique machine-like behavior in its gestures realized in stark, sharp, “ultra-modern” harmonies only vaguely related to any key center; the time signatures and accents change frequently in the manner of Stravinsky‘s Rite of Spring.

Perhaps as an inevitable expression of the sentiments in the two works above, Antheil soon became pro-Surrealist with his appreciation of Max Ernst‘s masterpiece La Femme 100 Têtes (1932-1933). These 100 preludes segue through mental bardos where specific (read: habitual) emotions don’t tell the whole story, even though the composer indicates playing modes such as Faintly energetic, Sad, Nostalgic, Brilliant/fast/tricky, A machine, Cruel/quick. No. XLV is a Percussion Dance with tone clusters and a compelling Spanish beat.

That Antheil could compose a delicate, albeit “…cold and rather dry”, textured piece is not only shown by his Sonatina (1932) (and dedicated to Aaron Copland), but by the “Can-can” from Dreams (1934-1935), the myriad and quirky Valentine Waltzes (1949), the Berceuse for Thomas Montgomery Newman (in antique Spanish style) (1955), and the Ben Hecht Valses (1943), the last three pieces Antheil wrote he returned to New York.

Like his contemporaries Gershwin and Copland, Antheil also had something to offer to the emergent orchestral concert jazz scores of the 1920s. His joy-filled, goofy and “hep” score A Jazz Symphony (1925), premiered in New York City in 1927, unfolds in one movement. Beginning with a kind of Afro-Cuban groove, the piece continues to alternate between “big city” music and a kind of dissonant dance, almost a ragtime stomp. Time signatures change quickly, there are asymmetrical combinations of duple and triple meter, plus Harlem stride piano solos with tone cluster chords. The concluding section goes suddenly wild—a crazy sliding and swooping waltz with sentimental harmonies and dissonances.

Dane Rudhyar, an author, philosopher and astrologer-theorist who analyzed massive historical cycles, created musical works filled with cosmic landscapes and spiritual quests.

The Tetragrams for piano (1924) describe a soul’s journey toward enlightenment: “Adolescence”, “Solitude”, “Emergence / The Quest”, “Crucifixion”, “Rebirth”. The piece begins with tender chromatic arpeggios surrounded by rich but subdued harmonies that have a song-like and searching quality. Steadily rolling chords signal a more assured progression, with previous twirling figures now spun out into positive declarations. Large gestures cover the entire range of the keyboard confidently and the composition concludes with large declarations of intent and will. Stars for piano (1926) is a delicate composition that opens with a undulating arpeggiated figure against which single, high (yet pointedly articulated) dissonant tones sing out—we can easily imagine internally massive fireballs appearing as pearls in the sky. Gurgling figures begin to flash across the heavenly texture, and the music returns to the transparent beauty of the nighttime sky.

The Paeans for piano, Op 73 (1927) are a set of three laudatory, triumphant thanksgiving hymns, originally written as sketches for larger orchestral works, replete with dense polytonal harmonies, the passionate roar of low chords, Middle Eastern melismatic themes, and climbing figures that lead the listener into a soulful wandering. The Granites for piano (1929) are in fact unremittingly dense and solid as Gibraltar: dissonant intervals descend like a brass call, massive chordal statements span the full range of the keyboard, chords pull away from a center resonance, and accents punctuate like periods to a sentence. .

Rudhyar’s later Transmutation for piano (1976) is described by the composer as a “tone ritual in seven movements … meant to evoke some of the main phases of a process of inner, psychic, and emotional transformation … the overcoming of the ego and the ghosts of the personal past”.

Ruth Crawford (Seeger), who was a well-known composer in the “ultra-modernist” movement of the 1920s and 1930s (Cowell and others) and a supporter of all

American music styles, built her Prelude No. 2 (1924) from small, defined patterns that are varied, but the effect of her music is quite different from of the other pattern-based music of the time. In this Prelude, the same chord is repeated usually four times with silence in-between each statement, like someone fascinated with a sound, and then an arpeggio on another chord flies away as if something miraculous had been discovered in the previous sound. Crawford’s chords are the most part tonal but she re-voices them in stark intervals (a D major 7th chord is arranged F-sharp, C-sharp, D, A in ascending order) and makes slight chromatic changes to them. Another of her remarkable sounds is made by slightly overlapping arpeggios of unrelated chords. These original techniques make her music both freshly modern and still evocative of appealing emotions that are nonetheless not obvious. Her Piano Study in Mixed Accents, the other eight Preludes for piano, and the groundbreaking String Quartet (1931) are among her finest works.

Approximately a decade before Antheil, Rudhyar and Crawford, Futurist Leo Ornstein (1894-2002), was outraging audiences with his notorious “ultra-modern” works such as the Dwarf Suite (1913), Impressions de Notre Dame (1914), Wild Men’s Dance (1915), Poems of 1917 (1917), and A la chinoise (1918) in New York and London. These pieces and others featured polytonal and dissonant harmonic content, polyrhythms, and new keyboard timbres. Ornstein ceased his concertizing activity after 1920, and began writing somewhat more conservative compositions (Sonata, 1924; Some New York Scenes, 1971; Biography in Sonata Form, 1974; Valse diabolique (1978).

Strange as it may seem to include the sonorous, rugged yet noble Piano Sonata, Op. 1 (1928) by Roy Harris in this “bad boy” inner page, the composer himself admits he was determined to create this New York City-inspired work in order “to put this intoxication into a musical form which one musician could utter on one instrument — something of ringing steel — taut — swift — impatient of the wisdom of our yesterdays.” Like the composer’s sweeping Third Symphony (1937), which was then already considered a classic of American music, this Sonata opens with a Prelude that declaims in bold, resonate chords in fifths, rich modal harmonies (without the brittleness of Antheil or Ornstein) that could describe not only the grandness of city architecture but the expansiveness of many American landscapes. (In a similar manner, Margaret Bonds‘ song “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (1942) uses fifths in the piano accompaniment as a pictorial representation of the Egyptian pyramids.) The Andante Ostinato marked “misterioso” could easily depict these same places at night: intimate, quiet and serene yet with solid presences in the dark. Midway through this movement, the right hand begins to play, according to the composer: “a free scale line polytonal pastoral style of melody” over wandering chords in 11/4 (4 + 3 + 4). The concluding Scherzo is angular and ecstatic and more “bad boy” as it works itself toward a Coda that expands brilliantly upon the opening movement. The music becomes even more insistent, ending on an All-American polytonal chord that is a tapestry of chords (C7 w/E min/Amin), suggesting, with one sonority, the best of Gershwin, Ellington, and centuries of blues and modal folk music.

Harris’s take on traditional folk music can be heard in his harmonically-adventurous, modally raw and moving settings of several American Ballads (1942-1945) for piano: “The Streets of Laredo,” “Wayfaring Stranger,” “The Bird” (a combination of “The Bird’s Courting Song and Hop,” “Hop My Ladies”), “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” “Cod Liver Ile” (Cod Liver Oil with an Irish accent), and a very quietly lamenting version of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” His sense of atmosphere takes the listener directly to the places where one would imagine these songs were originally sung.

There is a sense of playful irony in much of the music of Paul Bowles (1910-1999). Although widely known as the author of mysterious works that explore psychological modes (The Sheltering Sky, The Delicate Prey and Other Stories, etc.), this ex-patriate American, who relocated to Tangier in 1948 and remained there for the rest of his life, was a prolific composer of songs, operas and instrumental pieces. His Sonatina for Piano (1932-1933) is similar to the humor and low-key pathos of his Music For A Farce (1938) for small orchestra.

Even a later work like Cross-Country for Two Pianos (1976) reminds one distinctly of Bowles’ delightful A Picnic Cantata (1954) scored for four women’s voices, two pianos and a percussion section including a milk bottle and a cigar box. The text rocks between jolly banalities (“we can’t go on a picnic without ketchup and a car”), surreal history (Henry Hat, whom the park is named after, was a “free spirit” who helped bring us “master masons of Chartres”), jazzy numbers about picnic tables, fizzing root beer, children in cowboy outfits, kites and clouds and milkweed, and a raucous waltz to the newspaper astrology columns to name a few quirky things. But Bowles also composed music with intense, complicated rhythms, rich timbral effects, which smacked of his own famously enigmatic inwardness. His Six Latin American Pieces (1937 – 1948) for piano—Huapango Nos. 1 and 2 (dances from Tamaulipas and Vera Cruz), Tierra Mojada (damp earth), El Bejuco (a village north of Acapulco), La Cuelga (birthday present), Orosí (an obsessive 3/8 pattern)—have much of the variety of his surreal dramatic zarzuela The Wind Remains (1943), with a text by Garcia Lorca.

From 88 Keys to Freedom: Segues Through the History of American Piano Music
by “Blue” Gene Tyranny
© 2003 NewMusicBox