The composer was a young man from Trenton, New Jersey. Among his supporters were Erik Satie, Darius Milhaud, and James Joyce. The recital broke up in a riot. To modernists in the audience such disturbances justified their artistic experimentation.
Bad Boy of Music
Born on July 8th, 1900, of German Lutheran immigrants, George Antheil studied with Constantin von Sternberg, Ernest Bloch, and Clark Smith at the Philadelphia Conservatory. There he was introduced to Mary Louise Curtis (of the powerful Curtis Publishing Company), founder of the Curtis Institute for Music. Although critical of ‘modern trends’ in music, she would act as his patron throughout much of his career.
In 1922, Antheil traveled to Europe to pursue a career as a solo pianist, performing many of his own works. The sensational debut of this unknown musician at London’s Wigmore Hall set the tone for an entire tour: his concerts baffled fellow musicians, angered critics, and insulted members of the audience. His built a reputation as the “bad boy of music.”
After a year in Berlin, he moved to Paris in 1923 where he joined the international avant-garde. He was close to Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, and other prominent artists who championed him for his musical modernism. As an American, unchained from centuries of stifling tradition, he was able to create a soundscape that reflected a brave new world of technology. Influenced by Igor Stravinsky whom he had met in Berlin, Antheil composed prolifically: a jazzy symphony, piano sonatas, and string quartets. In Antheil and the Treatise on Harmony (1924) Ezra Pound described his musical domain as “a world of steel bars, not of stone and ivy.”
George Antheil and his bohemian partner, Budapest-born Elizabeth “Boski” Markus, lived in a one-room apartment above Shakespeare & Company, the legendary English-language bookstore on Rue de l’Odéon which was owned by Sylvia Beach, the first publisher of Ulysses and the plaintiff in the book’s US obscenity trial. Sylvia introduced him to Joyce. It motivated Antheil to compose an (unfinished) opera based upon the “Cyclops” episode of Ulysses.
At the end of 1923 Antheil started the creation of a Ballet pour instrument mécaniques et percussion, more commonly called Ballet mécanique. Originally composed for a film by the avant-garde painter Fernand Léger, music and movie were never synchronized. The score called for sixteen mechanical pianolas, three xylophones, four bass drums, a tam-tam, two grand pianos, seven bells, a fire siren, and three airplane propellers.
Its premiere took place on June 19, 1926, at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris under the baton of French conductor Vladimir Golschmann (who would later become the longest serving music director of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra and died in New York City). The performance caused a riot which, to the composer and his friends, felt like a warm compliment.
Poetry of Light Bulbs
Futurism was the ﬁrst aesthetic movement inspired by the spectacle of industrialism. It all started on February 20, 1909, when Filippo Tommaso Marinetti published his “Manifesto of Futurism” in Le Figaro in which he called for an “anachronistic” contemporary culture to be replaced by an alternative one that was grounded in the ethic of speed and technology. Marinetti, known as the “caffeine of Europe,” was a master in attracting attention. His brash manifestos on subjects ranging from education to aphrodisiacs (a cocktail of pineapple juice, cocoa, red peppers, nutmeg, caviar, cloves, and eggs) proved a perfect mixture for publicity.
Artists embraced the new realities of electricity and mechanization. They advocated radical socio-cultural reform. Printed on vermilion posters, they plastered their massage on factory walls, in dance venues, and in public toilets. Theatres were retained for Futurist evenings on which music blared away, manifestos were read, poetry recited, and paintings displayed. The first such evening was held on January 12, 1910, in the tense political atmosphere of the Austrian-occupied city of Trieste. It ended in pandemonium.
On subsequent performances Futurist artists and members of the audience were reported exchanging blows. Rotten tomatoes and rancid spaghetti were slung towards the stage as Futurists set forth their extravagant ideals. Marinetti loved this kind of commotion. Champion of the grand tradition of “being booed,” he welcomed hostile responses to his crusade as symptoms of artistic vitality.
The urban experience was crucial to all Futurist manifestos. City life, it was argued, confronts man with modernity. Marinetti had insisted that Futurists should aim to “kill the moonlight” in the surge towards a future of technological advancement. The moon was synonymous with Romantic myth and had to be erased by the glare of man-made light bulbs.
In Giacomo Balla’s 1909 iconic oil painting “Lampada ad arco” (held at New Yorks Museum of Modern Art), the moon is subsumed by artificial street light. Tiny vectors of red, blue and yellow spring forth from the source of electrical illumination. The future was a light switch.
Music and Mayhem
A confrontational lot, Futurists raised noisiness to an unprecedented level. Tumult was their trademark. On October 11th, 1910, musicologist Francesco Balilla Pratella formulated his “Manifesto of Futurist Musicians” in which he accused conservatories of repressing modern tendencies as their curriculum celebrated a dead culture. It was the mission of Futurism to encourage the performance of innovative contemporary compositions.
Luigi Russolo was a painter and self-taught musician. In 1913 he published his manifesto “L’arte dei rumori” (The Art of Noises) which was dedicated to Pratella. In a machine age, the author demanded from the composer to be observant of the thumping of gas pipes, the palpitation of valves, the movement of pistons, or the jolting of trams. Music is the orchestration of the crashing down of blinds, the slamming of doors, and the shuffling of crowds. It responds to the din from railways, iron foundries, spinning wheels, printing works, and power stations.
Contemporary composition and instrumentation had to adopt the urban soundscape. Between 1910 and 1930 Luigi (with his brother Antonio) built a group of twenty-seven experimental noise instruments named “intonarumori.” The first clatter concert was held in the presence of F.T. Marinetti in June 1913 at the Teatro Storchi in Modena. It was such an uproarious evening that the performance had to be halted.
The staging of this new music may have been obstructed, but the concept that drove its composition inspired followers. Nikolai Foregger’s Moscow Orchestra of Noises produced music aided by bottles, metal sheets, sirens, whistles, and various types of machinery. When Igor Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) premiered in 1913 at the newly opened Théàtre des Champs Élysées, the crowd rioted in response to the harsh dissonances and raw rhythms of its score. This was mayhem, not music.
The Ballet mécanique marked the height of Antheil’s career as an avant-garde artist. The Paris performance attracted wide attention and the riotous scenes leading to police intervention confirmed to art activists that Antheil was indeed the genius they had been celebrating. Encouraged by the Parisian stamp of approval, Antheil began organizing a repeat concert at Carnegie Hall. The 1927 performance was a disaster. It left him financially and emotionally bankrupt.
As Europe’s socio-political situation was changing rapidly and the Great Depression hit France hard, Antheil’s reputation was destroyed as quickly as it had risen. In 1933 he returned to America, settled in Hollywood, and reinvented himself as a neo-classical composer of (rather tame) film music. Antheil died in his Manhattan apartment in February 1959. By then his vanguard work of experimental sound art was long forgotten and ignored, although there were reminders of his early spectaculars. His presence was felt in a passage of Arthur Honegger’s orchestral Pacific 231 which suggests the sound of a steam locomotive; in the percussion scores of John Cage; in electro-acoustic music and graphic scores; and in the sound design of films and computer games.
Recognition came late for George Antheil and for considerable time he was considered a mere footnote in musical modernism. It all changed in 1976 when, at the Holland Festival, his Ballet mécanique was relaunched by Dutch conductor Reinbert de Leeuw. In 1989 Maurice Peress, an American conductor who had worked closely with both Leonard Bernstein and Duke Ellington, produced a revival (and only recording) in New York, recreating by digital means the Carnegie Hall performance of 1927.
Both occasions confirmed the composer’s ground-breaking extension of the musical vocabulary and guaranteed that his name was secured in the annals of the international avant-garde.
Illustrations, from above: Una serata futurista a Milano, 1911 (a stage act involving Marinetti, Russolo, Carrà, Pratella, and the artist himself) by Umberto Boccioni; Manuscript of the first version of Antheil’s Ballet mécanique (New York Public Library); Lampada ad arco [Street Light], 1909 by Giacomo Balla (Museum of Modern Art, New York); Luigi Russolo and his assistant Ugo Piatti with their ‘intonarumori’ (noise machines) in Milan, January 1913; Antheil with some of the machinery used in the disastrous 1927 Carnegie Hall concert (Baltimore Sun, April 17th, 1927); and cover of the recording of George Antheil’s Ballet mécanique.