Saturday, 19 January 2019

George Antheil re-assessed : John Storgårds

To dismiss the music of George Antheil, without understanding its context, is unfair. John Storgårds makes a good case for Antheil with this recording, the second in his series for Chandos, with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra.  Antheil (1900-1969) moved to Paris in 1922, when it was the centre of the avant garde.  Everyone who could flocked to Paris, and its explosion of creative innovation, in art, literature, music, dance, cinema and social change. Antheil's Ballet mécanique remains an icon, its principles influencing the rest of his career.  Antheil's score, built around 16 synchronized player pianos, with sirens and aeroplane propellers for special effects, reflects in music concepts of modernity inspired by Futurism and mechanical activity.  Multiple processes happen independently, yet move together, as in a machine. Just as in the paintings of Ferdinand Léger, with whom Antheil worked, the passage of time is fragmented, frozen in motion, springing suddenly to life. Man Ray's cinematography operated like a kaleidoscope, fractured images forming and reforming in new patterns. It caused a sensation in Paris, but new York wasn't ready for it. After the rise of Hitler,  Antheil returned to the United States, where like so many other modernist exiles, he had to make a living writing for the movies. 

It's against this background that Antheil's music needs to be heard.  His symphonies no 3 "American" and no 6 "After Delacroix" are true symphonies, not film music, but show the influence of techniques used in Ballet mécanique and in cinema.  Antheil's Symphony no 3 "American" is a travelogue, a collage of impressions inspired by Antheil's travels across America.  The first movement opens with an expansive fanfare. If it is a portrait of New York City, its energy might reflect the buzz of urban life, brief snatches of melody rising beneath its vigorous zig zag patterns. The andante movement apparently describes New Orleans : quieter, and more nostalgic, with darker undercurrents and a subtle suggestion of brass bands, culminating in a Marcia for high winds.  The heart of the symphony, though, lies in the third movement, a scherzo with the title "The Golden Spike". This comes from a score for a film about the Union Pacific Railway which Antheil was working on for  Cecil B De Mille, but the producer, alarmed about the strong nature of Antheil's music, re-assigned the work to the studio music department.  After this, Antheil worked mainly for independents, like  Ben Hecht, and smaller companies where he could write what he wanted, and cult classics like Dementia also known as Daughter of Horror (please read my review of that here) "I've saved a few flops in my time", he said, with more than a trace of irony.  

George Antheil in Hollywood, 1946

The starting point for Antheil's Symphony no 6 "After Delacroix" is Delacroix's painting "Liberty Leading the People" which shows Liberty leading the revolution of 1830.  Marianne (the symbol of France) is bare breasted - exposed and in danger - but fearless.  Strong chords loom up,  followed by rushing rippling figures.  But Antheil isn't illustrating.  Explicit quotes from The Battle Cry of Freedom, indicate that his concerns were closer to home, while remembering his roots in the "revolution" of Paris in the 1920's.  The symphony was premiered by Pierre Monteux in 1949, but received with incomprehension.  It was mauled by critics for sounding like Shostakovich, a rather unpleasant slur in McCarthyite times, given that Antheil had been writing revolutionary music long before Shostakovich, who wasn't in any case a party apparatchik. Why do modern critics still repeat reactionary clichés without listening or knowing the composer ? The other two movements don't sound remotely like Shostakovich.   The larghetto is moody and opaque, a curving, almost penitential line gradually morphing into  waywardness then continuing at a steady pace.  The last movement moves swiftly, subtle shifts of tempo building up to a riotous finale that ends with an exuberant flourish. 

Antheil's "American" credentials are authentic. In Archipelago (1935) a rhumba, he experiments with Latin American forms, splicing them together in highly individual collage. In Hot-Time Dance (1948), he packs multiple changing moods into a four minute epigram.  Antheil's Spectre of the Rose Waltz comes from his music for the film Specter of the Rose, made by Ben 1946.  The movie is way too intellectual to have been a box office hit. It compresses Berlioz, Carl Maria von Weber, Stravinsky, Nijinsky and Diaghilev into a tightly scripted plot that blends expresssionist horror with scathing wit. (Please read more about it here)  Again, there is a subtext, in that Antheil knew Stravinsky in Paris and could poke fun, while respecting Stravinsky as a composer.  Antheil's Spectre of the Rose Waltz spins round like a waltz, romantic on the surface, but solidly structured.   Far less populist and popular than many composers around him, Antheil's reputation is undergoing reassessment.  He's much closer to Edgard Varèse, George Gershwin, Charles Ives and Elliott Carter than to Aaron Copland, and deserves being taken seriously.  Thanks to John Storgårds and other conductors like Ingo Metzmacher, who also has him in his repertoire, George Antheil's time is coming.  there's lots about Antheil (and about experimental cinema) on this site - please explore !

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