Antheil Ballet Mécanique
While most people know about the riots at the Paris premiere of The Rite of Spring fewer recall those that greeted the first performance of Ballet Mécanique by that “Bad Boy of Music”, George Antheil.
With Ornstein and Cowell, Antheil formed the shock troops of the avant-garde in the 1920s. There were riots in Paris at the Théâtre Champs Elysées in June 1926 when Ballet Mécanique was premiered. There was also unrest for the repeat the following April in New York's Carnegie Hall. Having had its salutary and no doubt calculated effect the music fell into oblivion rather like Holbrooke’s Apollo and the Seaman symphony remembered if at all for reasons not directly to do with the music. This was until American conductor and musicologist Maurice Peress located the original scores of the Antheil and revived the 1927 concert in the very same Carnegie Hall on 12 July 1989.
So it’s a case of: Iconoclasts this way please. Antheil of the 1920s cocked a snook at the pretentious and the popular. Like many a revolutionary he in later years found the philosophic mind for symphonies (CPO) and film music but my how the earth heaved and burst open when he was young! A Jazz Symphony steamrollers genre after genre. Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue gets a bruising - or possibly a celebration - as does Stravinsky, Mexican mariachi bands and Broadway carousel whimsicality. In fact one only gets a proper handle on the Gershwin and on Stravinsky's Concerto for piano and wind orchestra, Ragtime and Sacre after you have heard this truly irreverent four movement Mills Bomb of a piece. The Second Violin Sonata (with drum!) is a thing of fracture and dissonance. Ragtime suddenly breaks anarchically free and once again kicking over the traces of conventionality. The First Quartet is in a single movement and bears the same refreshing influences and inclinations. Ballet Mécanique is the longest piece here and is in three movements full of ruthless pin-sharp rhythmic stuff. The orchestration is lavish in some respects: pianola, six pianists, three xylophones, four bass-drums, tam-tam, siren, eleven pitches of electric bells and three aeroplane propellers (here substituted by the recorded sound of vintage airplanes). In this work’s ruthlessly hammered minimalism we can see the genre lampooned by Holbrooke in Barrage and the Four Futurist Dances – all works predating the Ballet. The finale of the three movement Ballet is a landslide of furious and frenetic activity. You will understand the twenties more once you know this piece. This is extraordinary music from an extraordinary concert; tribute is due to Mr Peress for this grand enterprise.
This is a wonderful revival from the MusicMasters catalogue. Roll-on the plans to reissue their treasury of Lou Harrison recordings.
A conflagration of machine-age, ragtime, avant-garde and sentimentality supported by a fascinatingly indulgent liner-note.
Rob Barnett, Musicweb-international.com
George Antheil was, probably, his own worst enemy. Having taken Paris by storm, both as composer and virtuoso pianist, he failed, unlike Stravinsky, to moderate his language and adopt the neo–classical style which came into vogue during his stay. However, when Copland arrived in France, to study, he said that “… George had all Paris by the ear". It was probably Ezra Pound’s call that Antheil was "possibly the first American–born musician to be taken seriously" and regarding him as the great Messiah of a 'New Music' which coloured the composer’s attitude. From our historical position, the fact that he failed to move with the times is no longer seen as a problem. True, some still find it difficult to equate Antheil’s early works with the more sober works he wrote after his return to the USA, but a man has to eat, and with a wife and son to support he had to work. The later works are, certainly, more conventional than the pieces from his Paris years, but there are still many fine pieces to be found, both in his concert music and operas as well as his music for film. I particularly like his score for Edward Dmytryk’s The Sniper (1952) and Ben Hecht’s Angels Over Broadway (1940). I cannot help but mention that before returning permanently to America, Antheil wrote a detective story, Death In the Dark, which was edited and published T.S. Eliot. The plot concerns the murder of a concert agent!
Antheil visited America in 1927 to display his musical wares to an unsuspecting American public and this is what it heard! He wrote the Jazz Symphony for Paul Whiteman’s second Experiment in Modern Music concert of December 1925 – the first, held on 12 February 1924, had introduced Rhapsody in Blue to the world. For some reason it wasn’t given in that show and the Carnegie Hall concert of 1927 was its premiere, when it was done by W.C. Handy’s Orchestra with the composer as piano soloist. Antheil revised the score of the Jazz Symphony in 1955 and made it a much less spectacular and exciting work. Hearing it in its original form is a revelation, for it is wild and exuberant, great fun and it’s easy to understand that it received an ovation when it was given in Carnegie Hall, at this concert. This is an excellent performance, hard-driven, up-front and in-yer-face, hysterical and brilliantly realised. It’s worth buying the disk for this piece alone.
Antheil’s two Violin Sonatas were written for Ezra Pound’s mistress, Olga Rudge. The second is fascinating for it contains a part for drum, supposedly written for Pound to play. As it stands, it starts as a wild ride for the two instruments, then the piano launches into an almost insane cadenza. After this the drum takes over the accompaniment for the rest of the work. As with most of the other music recorded on this disk, it’s a wild, typical 1920s piece, but the performance here is a bit too polite. I once turned pages for a performance of this work given by Thomas Halpern and Yvar Mikhashoff and they threw all caution to the wind, giving a marvellously showy and fantastically over-the-top performance – just what the work needs. All that kind of extrovert display is missing here. A real shame, given the music-making of the couplings.
The short 1st String Quartet is a very compelling work, cogently written, well laid out for the instruments, and it’s much more mainstream European music than the other works recorded here. The performance, by the Mendelssohn Quartet, is strong and forthright.
The Ballet Mécanique made Antheil’s name and confirmed his status as ‘The Bad Boy of Music’ - the title of his autobiography which is well worth a read. It caused a riot at its premiere in Paris and Aaron Copland wrote to Israel Citkowitz, “… the boy is a genius. Need I add that he has yet to write a work which shows it.” At Carnegie Hall, Copland, together with Colin McPhee, was one of the pianists in the performance of the Ballet where, again, it caused a riot. In 1952 Antheil revised the score, but all this did was to water down a fascinating score into a less-than-interesting one. Here it is, in all its 1920s gaudy splendour, colossal, noisy, outrageous, a tough listen – without a doubt – but a rewarding one. Anyone who heard, either in the hall, or on the radio, the weak performance given at the 2009 BBC Proms won’t know what’s hit them when they hear this! It’s fantastic!
Great performances, in general, brilliantly bright sound, good notes all go to making this indispensable to anyone interested in American music and the musical experiments of the 1920s.
There’s nothing like a good bit of civil disorder to fix the celebrity – or notoriety – of a piece of music. The French seem particularly fond of a good riot in the name of Art. These days, one finds oneself rather wishing that any Classical music event could cause that kind of reaction. Take just three of many such happenings from the early decades of the last Century; The Rite of Spring – premiered 29 May 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, now universally accepted as one of the most important pieces of music of the 20th Century. Walton’s Façade – first public performance 12 June 1923 at the Aeolian Hall prompting the famous review “Drivel they paid to hear” now accepted as one of the composer’s most popular works and Antheil’s Ballet Méchanique premiered at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées again in June 1926. This latter work has never had the chance to be judged or reassessed until now because in the original form recorded here it lay unperformed for sixty-two years. So regardless of any technical merits, this disc is a hugely important document of one of those fabled pieces of music that inhabits the history books but not the concert halls or recording studios. Great credit to Nimbus then for yet another valuable excavation from the vaults of the MusicMasters back catalogue to restore this 1990 recording.
The filling to this concert’s sandwich is provided by the 1923 Second Sonata for Violin, Piano and Drum and the 1924 String Quartet No.1. The inclusion of the drum in the sonata is rather entertaining – at the first performance of the work this part was played by the poet Ezra Pound – a close friend of Antheil – whose mistress Olga Rudge played the violin part. Having, in my one and only professional appearance as a percussionist managed to miss the triangle during the performance of the most famous Dvorak Slavonic Dance I can say this is no easy matter but my guess is Pound was a better poet than percussionist hence the simplicity of the part allotted. Again the performers here attack the work with gleeful ferocity in all its eight minute brevity and it is very hard not to feel that shock and outrage were the two responses Antheil most eagerly sought. Of course Jazz in the 1920s meant something a lot closer to Ragtime and syncopation than the added note harmony and super-complex rhythms that were to come within twenty or thirty years. For all its noise and clamour this is not complex music – just rowdy and attention-seeking. Without greater familiarity it is hard to sense any underlying structure, again the moment seems more important than the more long-term scheme – I might well be wrong – I just can’t hear it.
But all this acts as a prelude to the main event, the work that all the fuss was about; the Ballet Méchanique heard here in its original scoring including pianola, multiple xylophonists, sirens, airplane propellers and eleven pitched electric bells. Has it been worth the wait, is it such a radical piece after all? Well yes and no – come on now the fence is much too comfortable a place to be sitting to leave it just yet. The really radical element is the use of the non-musical ‘instruments’ pre-echoing as it does the experiments with musique concrète in the 1950s. Indeed, you could go further and speculate that the structural use of silence presages John Cage. I love the idea that at the first performance the ‘propellers’ – which as Peress in the note drily notes were no more than big fans - blew into the audience causing extra mayhem – to which the public responded by making their own paper planes out of the programmes. Quite what the propellers were meant to add texturally to the proceedings I don’t know – even though they are allotted three specific pitches; small wooden, large wooden and metal. I wonder whether the effect is more gestural or theatrical. On this recording both the bells and the propellers are samples that are mixed into the resultant performance. Clearly this represents very accurately the exact instruction given in the score. But so ‘polite’ and ‘correct’ are the appearance of these by definition disruptive elements that I wonder if it is really what Antheil was after. From Peress’ description of the technical hurdles the composer faced it is clear that he was testing the technical boundaries of music. Originally he wanted sixteen pianos connected to a single set of pianola rolls with the pianola playing a part impossible for any human virtuoso to achieve. This is exactly what Conlon Nancarrow was to write for later. Today, the computer synchronisation of multiple parts would be a breeze. Antheil was tilting at windmills. The key to the ‘riot’ I’m sure is that Antheil’s concert manager - one Donald Friede – was a Broadway producer amongst other things. Without a doubt he would have subscribed to the “no publicity is bad publicity” adage – hence giving the press in the days before the concert headlines such as “Ballet Méchanique to din ears of New York – Makes Boiler Factory Seem as Quiet as Rural Churchyard”. I think that’s called sowing the wind ...! Certainly the abiding impression of the work is one of din. Yet in the midst of all the noise you can hear Antheil making a real effort at producing music – yes, music – that is original and striking and quite without precedent. At the time the music of Charles Ives was quite unknown and it is Antheil who throws into a big melting pot various music gestures and ideas (albeit only partially digested or even conceived) that other composers would pursue later. The mechanistic quality is strangely alienating and disturbing. I would point readers towards two excerpts on YouTube of the original Fernand Leger film entitled Ballet Méchanique for which the original music was conceived. Set against the strangely abstract disorientating images the music provides a compelling heart-beat for the film-maker’s vision. Again as Peress writes it creates a fusion of many of the artistic obsessions of the age; rag-time, futurism, the machine age to name but three. The performance, as far as I can judge is extraordinary – the multiple xylophonists – six – play with a unanimity that verges on the disconcertingly robotic. Likewise the phalanx of six pianists flanking the world’s “only professional concert pianolist” Rex Lawson. The greatest tribute one can pay to the ‘live’ pianists is it’s all but impossible to hear where the pianola ends and they begin – a kind of musical AI. Without a doubt this is music where a gauntlet has been thrown down. Returning to my riots – how curious that of the three one has become a timeless towering masterpiece, one an affectionate parody of a bygone age and one – the most superficially radical of the lot – is the one that wears its age with least grace. How often a work of art that most closely reflects the age of its creation becomes bound to that age and thereby dates. The composer Virgil Thomson was an oft-times acid-tongued critic (he wrote of Sibelius’s Symphony No.2 in 1940 that it was; “vulgar, self-indulgent and provincial beyond all description”.) however in 1925 he wrote the following appraisal of Antheil; “... for all his facility and ambition there was no power of growth ... the Ballet Méchanique written before he was twenty-five, remains his most original piece”. Possibly harsh but probably true.
Nick Barnard, Musicweb-international.com