George Carl Johann Antheil (June 8, 1900 – February 12, 1959) was an American avant-garde composer and pianist who was known for the unusual sounds and instrumentation which he featured in his musical works as well as in film, television, and operatic scores. With associates such as Pablo Picasso, Salvadore Dali, Erik Satie, and Igor Stravinsky, George Antheil became one of the pioneers in searching for alternatives to the traditional tonal system to create fresh new sounds. Known as the "bad boy in music" because of his aesthetic antics, Antheil hoped to awaken his colleagues and audiences to a new reality. He did this by taking the responsibility to initiate a personal and artistic transformation in composers and listeners alike. Antheil's music made individuals look and appreciate all musical sounds in a wider context.
Antheil grew up in a family of Lutheran immigrants from Ludwigswinkel, Germany. Antheil was not Polish, as he claimed, nor Jewish, as others thought. His father owned a local shoe store.
His earliest musical training was on the viola at age five. In 1916, Antheil studied piano under Constantine von Sternberg of Philadelphia, and then Ernest Bloch of New York. Here, Antheil received formal instruction in composition. In 1922, Antheil was invited by agent Martin H. Hanson to replace the injured Leo Ornstein, playing Chopin on a European tour. His recitals often included his own ground-breaking pieces. He lived in Berlin in 1921-22 and his appointment to the Berlin Opera as a conductor was the first such appointment for an American with that esteemed company. His First Symphony was premiered by the Berlin Philharmonic in 1922.
Moving to Paris in 1923, he began to pursue a career as a professional composer. There he married Elizabeth Markus, the niece of the distinguished Viennese novelist.
Around this time, von Sternberg introduced the young Antheil to his patron of the next two decades: Mary Louise Curtis Bok, founder of the Curtis Institute of Music. As critical as she was to his livelihood however, Antheil never acknowledges her in his autobiography. He briefly alludes to her, saying how unfortunate it was that a musician’s art should be interrupted by a constant need to ask for financial support.
In Paris, he made friends with many influential artists, including his idol Igor Stravinsky, James Joyce, and Ernest Hemingway, among others. These young artists would attend Antheil’s performances and yell support if the crowd was rude. In fact, the director Marcel L'Herbier filmed one incident in Paris, when Man Ray supposedly slapped a protester. The clip was taken for the movie, L'inhumaine. Friends like Ezra Pound and Natalie Barney helped produce some original works, including the First String Quartet in 1926. Pound’s mistress, Olga Rudge, performed Antheil’s violin sonatas.
Apart from music, Antheil had many other pursuits. He was a war correspondent during World War II. He contributed—the prolific writer that he was—columns on endocrinology to Esquire magazine and on love advice to the Chicago Sun Syndicate. He also wrote books, including a popular autobiography, Bad Boy of Music (1945). His inventions included a patented torpedo guidance system and a broad-spectrum signal transmission system co-authored with actress Hedy Lamarr.
Antheil composed until he died of a heart attack in New York, 1959. His legacy included two accomplished students, Henry Brant and Benjamin Lees. His children were Peter and an illegitimate son, Chris Beaumont.
Large collections of Antheil works exist at the Music Division of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, Princeton University, Columbia University, UCLA, and Stanford University.
Reactions to his first performances were cool at best. His technique was loud, brazen, and percussive. Antheil suggested that ingrained in his mind were the din of machines from Trenton factories. Critics wrote that he hit the piano rather than played it, and indeed he often injured himself by doing so. His reputation was to good and bad extremes, though more often the latter, except among Parisians. Audiences in Budapest got so restless sometimes that Antheil would pull a pistol from his jacket and lay it on the piano to make people pay attention.
Antheil’s best-known composition is Ballet Mécanique (1924). The “ballet," about 30 minutes long, was originally conceived as the musical accompaniment to the film of the same name by Dudley Murphy and Fernand Léger. Eventually the film makers and composers chose to let their creations evolve separately, although the film credits still included Antheil. Nevertheless, Ballet Mécanique premiered as concert music in Paris, in 1926, with Vladimir Goldschmann conducting.
The piece was scored for eight pianos, a player piano, airplane propellers, anvils, bells, and buzzers. The on stage airplane propeller blew off toupees and hats, which caused some scuffles, but critics produced positive reviews anyway. Antheil became known as the “bad boy of music.”
As music journalist David Ewen observes, "Despite the title, Antheil had no intention of simulating machine noises or factory sounds for their own sake. Musically, he aimed at a composition of musical abstractions and sound materials based solely on rhythm, he called this device 'time-space,' comparing his sounds to the colors and shapes splashed on a canvas by a modernist painter. Programatically, his idea, as he said, 'was to warn the age in which I am living of the simultaneous beauty and danger of its unconscious mechanistic philosophy.'"
Antheil took Ballet Mécanique to Carnegie Hall in New York the following year. The Americans seemed less enthusiastic: They expressed mild amusement, but they would not accept Antheil as a “serious” composer. Antheil remained in France as a Guggenheim scholar for a few more years, during which time he wrote his opera Transatlantic, but the Depression brought him back to the U.S. in 1932. He went to Hollywood in 1936, and became an established film composer. He led a relatively tame career after that.
It is likely that Anthiel's most frequently heard composition was the theme he wrote for the 1957-1970 CBS television program The Twentieth Century, which was narrated by Walter Cronkite. The theme was heard in many American homes every Sunday night for 13 years at the opening and closing of the program.
Antheil's philosophic rationale for composing Ballet Mecanique (as described by Ewen) was echoed decades later by fellow American composer, George Rochberg (who also turned to a neo-Romantic style in his later years) in a speech delivered in 1971. Regarding the advance and predominance of scientific discovery, Rochberg opined, "…for in science today we see the remarkable phenomenon of an unquestioned, worldwide agreement to pursue knowledge to its absolute limits, regardless of its ultimate consequences for human existence. The horrible paradox in this almost four-century old play of man's constitutional inability to foresee consequences while in hot pursuit of what he calls 'truth,' is that each discovery of this truth has brought man closer to to his own extinction." Citing [[Lewis Mumford[[, Rochberg points to the sanctification of science by the scientist and the propensity for science to be its own arbiter of morality.
Contemporary music's relentless pursuit of innovation, originality, and formulaic truth, at the expense of the dramatic, poetic, and gestural aspects of music, could be said to be concomitant with the attitude of pure science which advocated the pursuit of knowledge as a "categorical imperative."
Antheil took Ballet Mécanique to Carnegie Hall in New York, the following year. The Americans seemed less enthusiastic: they expressed mild amusement, but they would not accept Antheil as a “serious” composer. Antheil remained in France as a Guggenheim scholar for a few more years, during which time he wrote his opera Transatlantic.
After his return to a more traditional compositional style in the 1940s, he wrote several important works including his Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Symphonies and his Violin Concerto, which was premiered by Werner Gebauer. His final composition, the cantata Cabeza de Vaca was premiered posthumously on CBS Television on June 10, 1962.
Though his credentials as an enfant terrible of modernism were well established by the 1930s, his later works hearken to an aesthetic closer to Mahler, Bruckner, and the late Romantic composers of the nineteenth century, composers, who in his earlier career, he had considered too anachronistic to be emulated in any significant fashion. "I began to realize that no young artist starts the world all over again for himself, but merely continues…the heritage of the past, pushing it if possible, on a little further." The anti-Romantic had become a neo-Romantic.
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