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Antheil, George (actually, Georg Cari Johann)

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Antheil, George (actually, Georg Cari Johann), remarkable American composer; b. Trenton, N.J., July 8, 1900; d. N.Y., Feb. 12, 1959. He began piano lessons at age 6. After studying theory and composition with Constantin Sternberg in Philadelphia (1916–19), he pursued composition lessons with Bloch in N.Y. (1919–21). Defying the dictates of flickering musical conservatism, Antheil wrote piano pieces under such provocative titles as Airplane Sonata, Sonata Sauvage, Jazz Sonata, and Mechanisms . In 1922 he went to Europe and toured successfully as a pianist, giving a number of concerts featuring his own compositions. While living in Berlin (1922–23), he met Stravinsky, who had already greatly influenced him. There he also met Elizabeth (Böski) Markus (1902–78), a niece of the Austrian dramatist and novelist Arthur Schnitzler, and the daughter of a wealthy Jewish stockbroker in Budapest, to whom he was married from 1925 until his death. In June 1923 he went to Paris and entered the circle of Joyce, Pound, Yeats, Satie, and the violinist Olga Rudge, with whom he performed his 3 violin sonatas. Antheil was the subject of a monograph by Ezra Pound entitled Antheil and the Treatise on Harmony with Supplementary Notes (Paris, 1924; 2 nd ed., Chicago, 1927), which, however, had little bearing on Antheil and even less on harmony. He also assisted Pound in the composition of his operas Le Testament and Cavalcanti . Hailed as a genius, Antheil soon became the self-styled enfant terrible of modern music and the first U.S.-born composer to be known outside his country to develop a modernist style. He organized a series of important private concerts in Paris with his friend Virgil Thomson, and won extraordinary success with his Ballet mécanique for Pianola, Multiple Pianos, and Percussion, including electric bells, airplane propellers, and siren (Paris, June 19, 1926). Originally conceived as music to accompany a film by Dudley Murphy and Fernand Léger, the lack of ability in that era to synchronize the film and music resulted in their becoming independent pieces. A concert featuring this work was given at an all-Antheil event at Carnegie Hall in N.Y. on April 10, 1927, with Aaron Copland and Colin McPhee performing as 2 of the 8 live pianists. Also on the program was the premiere of the raw and impulsive Jazz Symphony (1925), performed by the W. C. Handy Orch. under Allie Ross, with the composer at the piano. The work is filled with style quotations from other music and disjunct non-sequiturs, used notably in Antheil’s Violin Sonata No. 2 with Drums (1923), and presaging the compositions of Charles Ives before the elder composer’s earlier scores were circulated or played. The circus-like press reports preceding the N.Y. concert led the audience to ridicule the event as a whole, and this collective memory haunted the composer’s career in America until the 1950s when the Ballet mécanique was revived to positive acclaim in a trimmed-down version by Antheil (N.Y., Feb. 21, 1954) for 4 Pianos and Percussion. Paul Lehrman reconstructed and arranged the score’s early version as originally conceived for 16 Pianolas, 2 Live Pianos, and Percussion (Lowell, Mass., Nov. 18, 1999). In the 1924–25 version and the 1999 revision, the obsessive repetition, lengthy measured silences within a single movement, the use of siren, doorbells, airplane propellers, and mechanistic modular construction within a piece of concert music were all unprecedented. Not until the repetitive music of Riley, Reich, and Glass, some 40 years later, did composers exceed Antheil’s own dramatic focus on single repeated phrases to direct microscopic attention to small units of musical detail.

Antheil composed several works in the neo-classical style of Stravinsky—his Piano Concerto No. 2 (Paris, March 12, 1927), Symphonie en fa (Paris, June 19, 1926), and Suite for Orchestra (Paris, March 12, 1927)—but then returned to his collage and modular construction techniques for the opera Transatlantic (Frankfurt am Main, May 25, 1930). The work, produced experimentally on a revolving multi-scene stage with film projections, was based on his own libretto concerning an American presidential election rocked by a sex scandal in which the liberal candidate overcomes the conservative party’s attempt to lure him into an untimely sexual affair as the election near s. In a denouement eerily presaging the Bill Clinton scandal by more than 60 years, the candidate survives in spite of his public humiliation to win the election, as voters cast their ballots in his favor based on his political agenda rather than against him for reasons of personal fallibility. From 1927 to 1933 Antheil lived variously in Vienna, Tunis, and Cagnes-sur-Mer, writing opera and stage works for productions in Vienna and Frankfurt am Main. He also wrote a mystery story, Death in the Dark (published by Faber under the pseudonym Stacey Bishop), while living in Rapallo in 1929. The manuscript, surely a collector’s item, was edited by friends who were living there temporarily: Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, W. B. Yeats, Gerhart Hauptmann, and Franz Werfel. For a Yeats play, Fighting the Waves, Antheil wrote stirring incidental music for Chorus and Chamber Orch., which was premiered at the Abbey Theatre (Dublin, Aug. 13, 1929). In 1932–33 he synthesized many elements of his early “mechanistic period” solo piano writing in the lengthy and formally radical suite La femme 100 têtes (posth. premiere, Berkeley, Calif., Nov. 20, 1970), after the “novel” of collages by Max Ernst.

In 1933, with the rise of Hitler, Antheil found himself persona non grata and returned via Paris to N.Y., where his opera Helen Retires (1930–31; N.Y., Feb. 28, 1934), to an overlong libretto by John Erskine, met with failure. Until this time, Antheil was supported in part by patronage from the founder of the Curtis Inst., Mary Louise Curtis Bok, who subsequently dropped him on advice from Josef Hofmann. Antheil composed several scores for George Balanchine’s American Ballet. Having begun in 1934 to write film music for the Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur film studio in Astoria, N.Y., Antheil continued to work in movie scoring for the remainder of his life, dividing his time between composing as necessary for survival and writing serious concert music. With the migration to Southern Calif, of the entire film industry, Antheil relocated there and found himself once again in the midst of a larger-than-life scene: Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Weisler, Weill, Toch, Zeisl, and Adolph Weiss all had immigrated there. Antheil generously attempted to help numerous fellow classical composers obtain film work but few were able to find acceptance. In N.Y. and then in Hollywood, he also undertook numerous unusual occupations, including writing lovelorn columns for Esquire Magazine, running the short-lived Siegel-Antheil Gallery (which could not sell the work of Man Ray, Joan Miró, Salvador Dalí, and other prominent European painters who were yet to be accepted in Southern Calif.), producing a book on glandular criminology, and writing predictions on the progress of World War II for the Los Angeles Daily News and for an anonymously published book, The Shape of the War to Come . He also wrote a regular column, “On the Hollywood Front,” for the periodical Modern Music . In 1940 he met Hedy Lamarr, formerly married to the Austrian weapons manufacturer Fritz Mandel, with whom he patented a radio-guided torpedo intended to combat the German Luftwaffe by directing the missile with a variety of changing frequencies in order to avoid jamming by the enemy (Patent No. 2, 292, 387, June 10, 1941). While this invention, which was offered without charge to the U.S. Navy Dept, was deemed by government officials to be impractical, it is now recognized as the forerunner of spread spectrum technology—the basis for all current satellite communications. It would have been realized in the torpedo by means of a tape with pre-punched holes (like a pianola roll) to switch control frequencies during the trajectory of the weapon. Neither Lamarr nor Antheil ever received income from their work on this pioneering invention. Among Antheil’s most important later scores are the 4 th (1942; NBC Radio, Feb. 13, 1944), 5 th , Joyous (1947–48; Philadelphia, Dec. 21, 1948), and 6 th (1947–48; San Francisco, Feb. 10, 1949) syms., Violin Concerto (Dallas, Feb. 9, 1947), the ballet Capital of the World (1952; telecast, Dec. 6, 1953), the operas Volpone (1949–52; Los Angeles, Jan. 9, 1953), The Brothers (Denver, July 28, 1954), The Wish (1954; Louisville, April 2, 1955), and Venus in Africa (Denver, May 24, 1957), the 4 th Piano Sonata (N.Y., Nov. 21, 1948), Valentine Waltzes for Piano (1949), Songs of Experience for Soprano and Piano (1948), and Eight Fragments from Shelley for Chorus and Piano (1951), five movements of which were orchestrated and performed at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.

In contrast to his radical work of the 1920s, Antheil’s works from the early 1940s were stylistically related to those of Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Britten, all the while retaining harmonically the occasional “iron ring of modern civilization” from his more youthful music, in the service of a now neo-Romantic style. His abstract music of this period is characterized by explosive fast movements with biting harmonies and melodic patterns often reaching into extremely high instrumental registers, contrasted with poignant and lyrical andantes, all cast in conventional symphonic form. As a composer for films, Antheil was uncompromising in using his best symphonic writing. His important film scores include music for The Plainsman (1936), Angels over Broadway (1940), The Fighting Kentuckian (1949), Knock on Any Door (1949), In a Lonely Place (1950), Dementia (1950), Not as a Stranger (1955), and The Pride and the Passion (1957), most of which were orchestrated by his pupil Ernest Gold. Antheil also taught privately, numbering Henry Brant, Tom Scott, Benjamin Lees, and Ruth White among his students. He wrote scores for the weekly CBS Television series, “The Twentieth Century,” narrated by Walter Cronkite (1957–58) and was in N.Y. working on this project when he succumbed to a heart attack on Feb. 12, 1959. His cantata, Cabeza de Vaca (1955–56), orchestrated by Gold, was premiered on a telecast of the CBS program “Omnibus” (June 10, 1962) as a memorial tribute.

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