Tuesday, 24 March 2009
Symphonies and Babies: The Case of Ruth Crawford Seeger
Plumbago Books will shortly publish the latest volume in their ever inventive Poetics of Music series, a collection of Bayan Northcott’s writings called The Way We Listen Now. Chosen largely from his columns in the Independent and BBC Music Magazine, these pieces demonstrate how Northcott moves ‘with enviable ease across the chasm that separates critics from the criticized,’ in the words of Christopher Wintle. ‘Like Keller before him, [he] develops his ideas through an agglomeration of occasional pieces – features, reviews, talks, programme notes and so forth.’ This is a book, as we publishers like to say, that belongs on the shelf of everyone with an interest in music. The following extract from a piece on Ruth Crawford Seeger is typical of his engaging style:
Do we really progress? Reviewing a London concert in The World in 1892, Bernard Shaw recorded: ‘When E. M. Smyth’s heroically brassy overture to Antony and Cleopatra was finished, and the composer called to the platform, it was observed with stupefaction that all that tremendous noise had been made by a lady.’ Even in 1975, Time magazine was evidently capable of proclaiming ‘Men compose symphonies, women compose babies’.
Behind the social and professional prejudices that made for such suppression, feminists would doubtless detect a more atavistic male fear: that if women should actually succeed in composing both babies and symphonies, what then? How else to explain Mahler’s notorious insistence that his young bride, Alma, should renounce her own compositional aspirations and devote herself to his? Granted, he ultimately relented – chided for his view of women by Sigmund Freud, no less. And one might have thought such attitudes had become rarer in our ostensibly more liberated era. Or has that liberation brought problems of its own? Consider the case of Ruth Crawford Seeger.
Born in 1901, daughter of a Midwest Methodist minister and variously raised in small-town Ohio and Florida, she proved gifted enough to enter the American Conservatory in Chicago in 1920. There she received a traditional training while absorbing more modernist and mystical enthusiasms of her piano teacher Djane Herz, a direct link with Scriabin. But if such early Crawford scores as her Music for Small Orchestra (1926) contain their darkly numinous textures, they also show a leaning towards constructivist schemes and atonal harmony. In due course, this was to attract the attention of that ubiquitous impresario of radical American music, Henry Cowell, who found a patroness to bring her to New York. Soon such pieces as her fiercely rhetorical Suite No. 1 for Five Wind Instruments and Piano (1927) began to be heard among works of Charles Ives, Edgar Varèse, Carl Ruggles and Cowell himself in what was then known as the Ultra-Modern manner. In 1930-31 she became the first woman to receive a Guggenheim fellowship, travelling to Europe to consult Bartόk and Berg and drafting what were to remain her three terse masterpieces: the Three Chants (1930) for women’s chorus, the Three Songs to Poems by Carl Sandburg (1930-32) for contralto and three ensembles, and the extraordinary String Quartet (1931).
For, already, events were in train that would stop her in her tracks. In 1929, Cowell had arranged for her to take some lessons with his own teacher, Charles Seeger. A mind of commanding scope, Seeger had been a conductor and composer until most of his music was lost in a fire, and he was to end up as one of the founding fathers of ethnomusicology. But in the 1920s he was very much the theorist of the Ultra-Moderns, seeking through his concept of ‘dissonant counterpoint’, to establish the basis of an authentically American new music independent of European influence. Initially, Crawford was put through a strict course of permutational schemes and anti-tonal part-writing, which she developed in her four Diaphonic Suites (1930-31) for one or two instruments. Gradually lessons turned into a collaboration on Seeger’s projected treatise, and then into a romance. After Seeger had divorced his first wife, he and Crawford were married in 1932.
In 1936, Seeger was summoned to Washington to serve in the Federal Music Project as part of the New Deal enterprise to create an inclusive and optimistic all-American culture. To this Crawford was to contribute over the next 15 years by collecting, transcribing, editing, arranging and publishing hundreds of American folksongs, while simultaneously pioneering their use in basic musical education – not least, in that of her own children. In marrying Seeger, she had become stepmother of his son Pete, who in due course was to emerge as the leading light of the post-war folk- and protest-song revival. And two of her own four children by Seeger would also make their impact: Mike Seeger as an advocate of Deep South folk music, and Peggy Seeger with her husband, Ewan MacColl, as stars of the British folk revival. Indirectly, Crawford’s selfless work in traditional music was to exert a huge posthumous influence.
What of her own music? In 1938, she revised the String Quartet for publication, also arranging its slow movement for string orchestra. The following year she fulfilled a radio commission with a brief but joyous orchestral folksong fantasia entitled Rissolty, Rossolty – her sole tonal piece. But for the most part, she seems to have reasoned, as many creative women have to, that, with luck there would still be time enough for her more radical music in later life. In 1952 she at last got round to completing a new Suite for Wind Quintet full of implacable ostinatos and hard-edged invention. Might she have gone on to assimilate the still newer innovations of the post-war avant-garde? Alas, within months she was dead from cancer at 52.
It is tempting to imagine that, had time allowed, she could have come as close as any woman to balancing and fulfilling the demands of creativity and childbearing, of professional achievement and social commitment, of sustaining tradition and advancing the new. But it is not so simple. What of the role of Charles Seeger? In submitting Crawford’s already striking talent to a disciplined fine-tuning, he may have enabled her briefly to realize her most striking pieces; but, in marrying her, did he also subordinate that talent to his own desire for a renewed family life? In any case, how had Crawford managed to establish herself in a notoriously masculine and, in the era of Ives, Varèse and Ruggles, aggressively macho profession? Was it by denying her femininity in pursuing as hard and uncompromising a style as any of them? Back in 1953 when she died, such matters were difficult to determine, since, apart from the String Quartet (already an acknowledged influence on the teeming heterophonies of Elliott Carter’s mighty String Quartet No. 1, 1951), most of her exiguous catalogue remained unpublished and little known.
Only over the last couple of decades has the true quality and stature of her achievement become apparent with the publication of Judith Tick’s detailed and sympathetic biography; the appearance of studies by David Nicholls and Joseph N. Straus revealing the conceptual and technical ingenuities Crawford packed into a surviving catalogue of a mere 15 works; the belated edition of her pioneering monograph The Music of American Folk Song (originally intended as an appendix to Our Singing Country by John and Alan Lomax); and not least the recording of all her music under the devoted supervision of Oliver Knussen and others. By now, it is clear that the half-dozen best of her pieces stand with a handful of scores of Varèse and Ruggles as the essential classics of the Ultra-Modern era. Maybe she lacked a little of their visionary grandeur; but then she never had their chance to get her hands on a large orchestra – let alone to wax passionate and violent with it, as Shaw prophesized. Yet her achievement was arguably more various in its radicalism and more steely in its definition.
The full version of this piece may be found in The Way We Listen Now and Other Writings on Music by Bayan Northcott, edited by Christopher Wintle. Published by Plumbago Books and distributed by Boydell & Brewer, it will soon be available from all good booksellers in cloth and paperback. The book also includes drawings by Milein Cosman and Michael Daley and ranges far and wide across the musical horizon, from Bach to Judith Weir.