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Ruth Crawford Seeger’s modernist compositional work and tireless advocacy of folk music reveal how innovation and tradition have intertwined in surprising ways to shape the cultural landscape of twentieth-century America.


Ruth Crawford Seeger Portrait

Ruth Crawford Seeger

Article by Steven Schwartz

Summary for the Busy Executive: New heaven, new earth, new music.

About thirty years ago, I read a book called Silences, by Tillie Olsen. An autobiography of sorts, it recounted the author's decades-long writer's block. The block corresponded to Olsen's marriage and child-rearing and reached conclusions that echoed Virginia Woolf's "Room of One's Own." Ruth Crawford began as a bright light of the Twenties American avant-garde. She married Charles Seeger, her teacher, and bore and raised two children - Mike and Peggy. She wrote almost nothing until the youngest child left the house. She began to compose again but shortly died of cancer in 1953. Her catalogue is rather brief, and much of it - surprisingly - remains unpublished and thus to a great extent unknown. Until recently, only a few works were heard among the few willing to take a chance with "hard" music. Major comprehensive studies of American music - Wilfrid Mellers's Music in a New Found Land, for example - have omitted her. If not for the U.S. women's movement's search for ancestors and icons, Seeger might well have remained in oblivion.

As decades pass, musicologists take over history. They put what had been the daily jumble into something orderly. They construct the wide paths of influence: Debussy, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Hindemith, Bartok, Webern. Of course, as one lives one's life, one doesn't see paths, but a crowd, all apparently going in their own directions. Order comes at the price of richness. Good, perhaps even great composers, without heirs tend to get lost: Varese, Cowell, Brian, Bloch, Blackwood, Thomson, Hovhaness, Harrison, Ligeti, and so on. I'd put Ruth Crawford Seeger among these as well. Seeger poses the additional problem of reinventing herself with just about every piece. Some composers, like Mozart and Mendelssohn, find a groove early and stick with it. Others, like Varese, Cowell, and Seeger, characteristically re-imagine what music can be. It goes beyond a deepening or extension of a basic style; it really is a new way of proceeding.

Significantly, I think, Crawford began in the American Midwest, away from the considerable influences of the East Coast. Unlike many composers of her generation, she never studied with Boulanger or with a Boulanger disciple. Her influences, though Modern, were neither Stravinsky nor Schoenberg, but Scriabin and (after she moved to New York) Charles Seeger, particularly his theories of "free dissonance." As a result, one doesn't easily "place" her music. To complicate matters, she doesn't settle on any one language and tends to re-think not only her composing self, but something basic about music. The pieces on the CD don't sound as if the same person wrote them, although they share similar concerns. It's the kind of hard thought and holy horror of repetition that practically guarantees a low output. The most radical of her pieces come from the Twenties, the most conservative from the late Thirties on.

The total assurance of Music for Small Orchestra, apparently Crawford's first work for several instruments, strikes you first. Indeed, the piece reminded me of Copland's stuff just after he studied with Boulanger. Crawford, however, was mostly on her own. Some of the harmonic sounds come from late Scriabin, but the rhythmic and contrapuntal concerns owe little to anyone else. Crawford strives here for complete rhythmic independence of the instruments. Now, very little is easier than writing different rhythms for different parts, provided you can notate. The trick is to make these rhythms intelligible to the listener, a trick which Crawford pulls off. The first movement does this in slow tempo, the second in fast, largely because Crawford can create memorable musical gestures, if not, strictly speaking, melodies. In this early work, moreover, Crawford still relies on traditional phrasing and contrapuntal imitation, so the listener has that rock to hold on to.

The Three Chants (for years, only the second was available on record) Crawford wrote in Berlin. She had wanted to set parts of the Bhagavad-Gita but, unable to find a copy, made up her own set of sounds -a truly hierophantic language. She set it for the tonally-restricted women's chorus and proceeded to find as much color variety within the medium as possible. Her unisons, for example, consist of constantly shifting combinations of voices. She also experiments with bringing out solos and smaller groups against a background shimmer and then submerging them again.

At the climax of the third chant, she so subdivides her forces that eventually, all twelve tones of the chromatic scale are encompassed. Crudely, it's the sound you get when you plant one forearm on the white keys of the piano and the other on the black keys. However, that kind of simultaneous crush isn't how she arrives at the sound. In technique and general affect, the Three Chants prophesy things like Ligeti's Lux aeterna decades later.

The Piano Study in Mixed Accents does what it says. It's also very exciting music, with much of its power stemming from its quick pace, low register, and the fact that it's essentially one line of music doubled at octaves. Though brief, it manages to provide more than a few thrills.

For her Three Songs, Seeger chose texts by her friend Carl Sandburg, a poet prominent in his own time but almost completely ignored today, at least in universities. Again, Crawford takes a small ensemble and gives each instrument great rhythmic independence. She adds the complication of a voice against the texture. She succeeds in both the rhythmic independence (again, listener-comprehensible because the musical gestures are so memorable) and in clarifying the voice (also rhythmically independent) against the mass.

As Oliver Knussen points out in his note to the recording, Seeger's string quartet of 1931 was likely the only one of her works most people knew, thanks to the pioneering recording by the Kohon Quartet in their survey of American examples of the genre for the Vox label. This piece alone should have poked interest in the rest of her output - indeed, one of the most remarkable musical works this country has produced. The quartet sounds like almost no other written before it, and it would take until after World War II for composers to (independently) find this path again. Once more, Seeger plays with a color-restricted medium. In fact, Seeger plays it both ways: sharply differentiating the instruments and emphasizing ambiguities of timbre. I don't find anything like a melody or theme in any of it, but somehow it moves forward with great purpose and the air of steely logic. In short, I don't miss the absence of themes or melodies. The later Andante for Strings arranges the slow movement for string orchestra. The work gains a warmth largely missing from its original incarnation.

Seeger and her husband became prominent in the American political left of the Twenties and Thirties. Seeger's 2 Ricercare for voice and piano counts as probably her most extreme work musically (of the ones I've heard). It sets two incredibly bad poems by H. T. Tsiang, published in the Daily Worker. There is great politically-left poetry from that era, but Tsiang didn't write it. The poems are so bombastic and pedantic at the same time you begin to wonder how anyone could take them seriously. Seeger improves the poems tremendously both with her settings and with editing of the worst howlers Tsiang commits to print. Those familiar with the term "ricercare" may wonder why Seeger titled her pieces so, since the ricercare is, generally speaking, a composition with relies heavily on contrapuntal imitation. However, a secondary meaning of the term is the equivalent of "study" or "etude." As I say, Seeger takes the radical or (to use one of her favorite words) "stratospheric" part of her composing self to its furthest out. I believe it would surprise most new listeners to this work that Seeger wrote it in 1932. It would fit right in with the postwar avant-garde, like Stockhausen and Boulez.

Seeger, like many artists and writers on the left during the Twenties and Thirties, found herself between a rock and a hard place. Politically, she wanted to connect with "ordinary folk." However, she was clear-eyed enough to realize - along with Eisler and Weill in Europe and, most prominently, Copland, Blitzstein, and Cowell in the United States - that their avant-garde styles had failed to win genuinely popular support. The Average Joe unrepentantly preferred such bourgeois composers as Gershwin, Berlin, Kern, Ruby, and worse. This was a real dilemma for Seeger. She no longer saw the point of producing music as she had done. It wasn't until she moved with her husband to Washington, D.C., that she (and her stepson, Pete) discovered what's known today as "roots music." In rural Americans, she and others found the American archetype of the proletariat which was to lead the rest of the country to Socialism. The Depression had heightened rural hostility toward "the big banks," which hostility intellectuals took as embers to be fanned into sweeping social change. The work of the Lomaxes became very important and inspired both Ruth and Charles to collect songs as well. They published several collections. Both Ruth and Charles also arranged folk songs into concert works, just as Copland did.

Folk music seemed to provide the way out of Seeger's artistic problems. For her, the tunes would provide the raw material for her avant-garde techniques. The difference between her and Charles's approach to folk materials is tellingly illustrated in the juxtaposition of Ruth's Rissolty Rossolty and Charles's John Hardy. Charles provides a straightforward arrangement of the tune. He departs from convention in his cultivation of a deliberately rough sound, evoking mandolins, banjos, and guitars - in short, its surface. Ruth, on the other hand, juggles no less than three folk songs over the course of three minutes. She puts one against the other in various combinations, until, at the climax, she piles tune on tune several times, while maintaining a rhythmic verve and definite pulse. It's as if - unlike Ives, where three different bands coming from their own starting points and going their own way might suddenly meet - more and more fiddlers, each contributing their own line, joined in a single dance. Yet everything remains extremely clear. The end alone - breathtakingly witty, even poetic - is worth the price of admission. Above all, the piece lives up to the fun of its title.

The wind quintet Suite, written the year before Seeger's death, seems to sum up Seeger's compositional concerns: rhythmic energy and independence, contrast vs. blend. It does, however, lack the aggressiveness of the radical modern phase, while it incorporates many of the techniques. The rhythmic verve hearkens back to the Piano Study in Mixed Accents, but here there's an elegant casualness about it. The themes are more folk-influenced without being folky - the diatonicism and modalism of folk music, rather than actual tunes or attempts to write them. At this point, she fits in with other composers of her generation -Piston and Copland, for example - but she gets there her own way and without completely turning her back on what she had already done.

The performances are all first-rate. The account of the string quartet seems weaker, compared to the Kohon (which I imprinted on), although it may well be more accurate, and it's by no means terrible. Reinbert de Leeuw does superbly well at the piano. Woods and his New Londoners match the great Gregg Smith singers in the chants. Lucy Shelton, whom I slammed for unintelligible diction in her Knussen disc (DG 449 572-2), is clear as a bell in the Sandburg and Tsiang. She also triumphs over the texts, so that one feels the power rather than the purple. Knussen keeps exploring little-visited nooks of American music and coming back with gold. The Schoenberg Ensemble makes sense of difficult music and manages even to have fun in Rissolty Rossolty. I hope there's a volume 2.

Steve Schwartz

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