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Ruth Crawford Seeger - Guardian Review 2001

The composer Ruth Crawford Seeger set out to revolutionize music, then moved into politics. But the world wasn't ready for her songs about Italian anarchists and Chinese laundry workers.

-Charlotte Higgins on an American tragedy.


Ruth Crawford Seeger, who was born 100 years ago this week, saw beauty in small things. Amid Chicago's indifferent, hurried sprawl, she could find herself transfixed by a piece of scrap paper, which, "rustling along the sidewalk, created a perfect scherzo of rhythmic variety and subtlety".

When she made that observation at the age of 26, Crawford Seeger was already becoming a confident and daringly original composer. In her mid-30s she stopped writing. At the age of 52 she died.

So brief was Crawford Seeger's flowering as a composer that her complete works can be listed in a few lines of the Grove Dictionary of Music. Most of her pieces are small-scale; few last more than 10 minutes or so, and only a couple are for orchestra. But little by little she is starting to be recognised as a leading light of the American avant-garde; as a composer who, with her vigorous, complex but emotionally direct music, helped shape the course of American music.

As conductor Oliver Knussen writes in the introduction to his CD of her music, her work "speaks directly and eloquently of a unique expressive sensibility. It is, simply, wonderful."you can judge for yourself tonight when her music gets a rare outing during London's Hoxton New Music Days.

It is surprising that Crawford Seeger became a composer at all. It wasn't how things were meant to turn out. Her father was a Methodist minister of modest means who died when Crawford Seeger was young. She was a small town Florida girl, an accomplished pianist. After she graduated from high school, she and her ambitious mother decided that she would travel to Chicago to undertake further piano study and, ultimately, return home to teach.

But Chicago filled the 19-year-old's head with sounds, and not just of paper rustling on the pavement. A whole unknown world of music beckoned her - she heard the orchestral and symphonic repertory for the first time, and haunted the opera house. She turned to studying music theory and composition under the irascible tutelage of Adolf Weidig, whose father had been a pupil of Brahms. Weidig was a ruthless taskmaster, who reputedly brought a stock of clean handkerchiefs to his lessons to hand out to weeping pupils.

An even more important turning point was when Crawford Seeger decided to switch piano teachers and learn with the improbably named Djane Lavoie Herz. Lavoie Herz was a disciple of the mystically inclined Russian composer Scriabin; she was five-foot nothing and taught in a kaftan. She also ran a salon frequented by leaders of the American avant-garde including composer Henry Cowell, who would be Crawford Seeger's lifelong champion - writing about, programming and tirelessly promoting her music.

Soon Cowell recognised that Crawford Seeger had exhausted the possibilities of Chicago. The next stop had to be New York City. She found a home at the apartment of Blanche Walton, another salon hostess to whom musicians such as Edgard VarŠse and Leon Theremin paid court.

Cowell arranged for Crawford Seeger to start composition lessons with his own teacher, Charles Seeger, whom she would later marry. It wasn't love at first sight. Her first impression was of a man who was "tall, aristocratic, ultra-refined, a bit cold". According to professor David Nicholls of Southampton University, who has written about Crawford Seeger in his book American Experimental Music, "Charles Seeger had always felt that women composers were a complete waste of time - an opinion that he was pretty swiftly forced to overturn. He soon realised he had a formidably talented pupil on his hands."

The lessons, which started at the end 1929, were intense. Crawford Seeger's music reached a new level. Together they developed Charles Seeger's theories on what he called dissonant counterpoint. The key was "diaphony", which means "sounding apart"; all the parameters of this music, including pitch and rhythm, would be dissonant. It was a new, bold, American music that rejected the lush harmonies of late- and post-romantic European work; instead it had strongly independent parts and a bracing polyphonic texture.

The grammar of this experimental music was complex. But, says Nicholls, "Her technique was always put into the service of a higher emotional purpose. Her music is never an intellectual exercise with notes; it has a wonderful, visceral quality."

Crawford Seeger said that her teacher gave her "airplane views". She wrote to him later: "I felt that while you were there I could write symphonies. After a lesson I felt a new power flowing." But her confidence could be potently and destructively undermined. She was also capable of recording in her diary "a wild, mournful day. Work on my songs all morning with no zest, finally crying hard; no inspiration...I am sterile, dry. The song I am trying to write is called Joy."

Teacher and pupil acknowledged their passion for each other, as things can turn out, only when Seeger was driving his protege to Quebec to see her off across the Atlantic in 1930. She had won a Guggenheim fellowship to study in Europe for a year (despite the chairman of the awards wondering, of women composers, "Is there any such beast?"). In fact she didn't study - she wrote with a passion, producing some of the best work of her career: the Three Chants, the String Quartet and the Three Songs. She met Bartok and Berg; she found Hindemith "cocksure". She surprised her European friends by deciding not to study with Schoenberg. She felt sure of her own path by now, and would not be deflected. She resented the Viennese arrogance that implied that no good music could be written outside Austria and Germany.

Crawford Seeger returned to New York in 1931. According to Seeger, on hearing the news that she had been turned down by the Guggenheim for a further period of financial support, "the tears ran down and she said -'What's going to happen to me?' So I put my arm round her and told her what was going to happen to her was that we were going to get married and that we would have some lovely children." They did; they were happy. But avant-garde music began to look out of place in a US ravaged by the Great Depression. As Seeger said, "It became almost immoral to closet oneself in one's comfortable room and compose music for her own delight:"

The pair became increasingly politically motivated. Seeger wrote music criticism for the New York Daily Worker. Crawford Seeger produced political songs: Sacco, Vanzetti, about the fate of two Italian anarchists; and Chinaman, Laundryman, about the plight of immigrant workers. (Sample lyrics: "You paid with your life for your class! Sacrifice! That was real sacrifice!") The pieces were performed at a Workers' Music Olympiad; the conflict between the piano and vocal parts symbolised the class struggle. The mass song was now the acceptable musical form for proletariat consumption. One of her husband's contributions to the genre was entitled Lenin! Who's That Guy?

The couple were poverty-stricken. In 1935 Seeger made ends meet by doing casual farm work. That autumn, they were offered hope: Seeger was given a job in a government relief agency that trained and placed musicians among communities of displaced people.

For the first time, travelling around remote parts of the US, the pair began to hear contemporary American folk music -and they were, as Nicholls, says, "completely knocked out by it. Crawford Seeger threw herself into it heart and soul:' Over the next two decades, Crawford Seeger, abandoning art-music composition, became a passionate and meticulous transcriber of American folk music, producing numerous songbooks. She also became the matriarch of a family of formidable folk musicians, including her stepson Pete Seeger and her own children Mike and Peggy.

In 1948 she told the composer Varse that she "felt like a ghost" when her early compositions were mentioned. But then, for the first time in years, she began to write again - a Suite for Wind Quintet, completed in 1952. "She picked up some threads from her old work;' says Nicholls, "but she built on those ideas in an interesting way; she used the old methods more flexibly, more intuitively."

Towards the end of her life she wrote: "I am still not sure whether the road I have been following the last dozen years is a main road or a detour. I have begun to feel the past year or two that it is the latter... I have descended from the stratosphere, folded my wings and breathed good friendly dust... Whether I ever unfold the wings and make a start towards the stratosphere again is an interesting question, at least to me. If I do, I will probably pull the road up with me."

Alas, her wings remained firmly folded. She was diagnosed with intestinal cancer in February 1953. In November that year she died, her husband, for better or worse, at her side.

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