Antheil and Berlin

Not just Paris!

George Antheil’s early avantgarde music, though it represents only perhaps ten percent of his overall musical output, remains nevertheless (and justly so) the most performed and widely appreciated. His daring mixture of jazz elements, barbaric percussive music, modernist juxtaposition of rhythms and tunes, appear to the 21st century listener as funny, interesting, and as lively as ever. Among wider audiences Antheil is known almost exclusively for the notorious parisian scandal of Ballet mécanique (1924-25). For this reason, and due also to his unique, tell-all autobiography Bad Boy of Music (1945), Antheil’s name is closely associated with Paris, where he lived from 1923 to 1928 and where a côterie of U.S. expatriates hailed him as the budding genius of American Music.

Among these, the whole literary crowd of the Left Bank, Ezra Pound in primis (he even wrote a pamphlet titled Antheil and the Treatise on Harmony, 1924), but also James Joyce, Jean Cocteau, Joan Miró, Nadia Boulanger, and Ernest Hemingway. His friendship (but also sometimes his enmity) with such great literary figures added greatly to his notoriety, and linked him forever with the French capital.

Moreover, Antheil’s autobiography was written while the US was at war with Germany. It is no surprise, therefore, that his German ancestry, his studies with German teachers, and his relation to the German cultural world have been overlooked. In fact, a large part of his “futuristic” piano music – most of it recorded here –was composed in Berlin during 1922-23.

Born Georg Carl Johann Antheil in Trenton, New Jersey into a family native of Ludwigswinkel, Rhineland, (but his mother was born in Western Prussia, now Poland) he had been raised in a fully German Lutheran milieu, and among his early teachers one finds names such as Weissert, Müller, Messerschmitt. Even when he moved to Philadelphia in 1919, to study under the more eminent Constantin von Sternberg, he remained always under the wings of a strict Mid-European teaching method, even when he turned to Ernest Bloch for a more modern approach to composition. During his late teens, Antheil had discovered impressionism, Stravinsky and the newest trends of the European avant-garde through printed scores, recordings, and also thanks to a mounting wave of concerts by foreign composers. Living in Trenton, halfway between Philadelphia (i.e. Stokowski’s orchestra) and New York, he heard Leo Ornstein, Alfredo Casella, Karol Szymanoski and Sergei Prokofiev (to name but a few) play or conduct their latest works.

And this changed Antheil’s taste and aims. He decided to be the “most ultra” of the avantgarde, quarrelled with his old teachers, and in order to be able to go over to Europe to “absorb” the new music, he ‘became’ a concert pianist to showcase his abilities. Profiting from the German political and economical post-war situation, many North American artists toured inflation-plagued Germany, Austria and Hungary exchanging dollars for good reviews in famous concert halls and state operas of “expendable” reknown. A performance at the Berlin Philharmonic (with full orchestra) could cost as little as $100. By May 1922, thanks to an investment by Mrs. Curtis Bok of more than $6,000, Antheil traveled with his manager Martin H. Hanson to London (where he made his debut) and then to Germany, where he set up quarters in Berlin from July 1922 to June 1923 (apart from touring: Frankfurt, Munich, Leipzig, Dresden, Vienna and Budapest). In a visit to the second Donaueschingen Summer Festival he quickly befriended other young German composers, such as Krenek, Hindemith and Weill.

Speaking German, flush with cash and always generous, Antheil quickly met many interesting people, such as Herwarth Walden of the Galerie Der Sturm (who had launched the Italian and Russian futurists in Germany), the young critic Hans Heinz von Stuckenschmidt, who would always hail him as a genius, and Elizabeth (Böski) Markus, a young Hungarian student who would become his wife. He became a member of the musical section of the Novembergruppe, where he met Vogel, Wolpe, Eisler and Weill, and absorbed the ideas of the Neue Sachlichkeit. And, to crown a period of exciting discoveries and new perspectives, he was lucky enough to catch the interest of his musical idol, Igor Stravinsky, who spent two weeks in Berlin at the end of October. Aside from some piano lessons with Arthur Schnabel, Antheil began to write and publish manifestos, and create new piano pieces in order to be noted not just for his piano abilities, but as a composer, his original aim.

Published in: on November 28, 2012 at 12:51 pm  Comments Off on Antheil and Berlin  
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