Antheil: A Jazz Symphony

A Jazz Symphony (1925, original version)

BORN:  July 8, 1900. Trenton, New Jersey
DIED:  February 12, 1959. New York City

COMPOSED: 1925. Antheil published a revised, shortened version of this work in 1955. This performance, however, uses his original score from 1925

WORLD PREMIERE:  April 10, 1927. The composer was soloist, with Allie Ross and W.C. Handy’s Orchestra, at Carnegie Hall, New York. The world premiere of this staged version was on October 11, 2014, with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the New World Symphony, with Peter Dugan, Kiva Dawson, and Erin Moore, at the New World Center, Miami Beach

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—June 2000, as part of the American Mavericks Festival. Michael Tilson Thomas conducted. MOST RECENT—September 2013, Michael Tilson Thomas conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 3 saxophones (soprano, alto, tenor), 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, xylophone, glockenspiel, steamboat whistle, drum set, 2 banjos (second optionally doubling guitar), 3 pianos (one in a solo role), and strings

DURATION: About 12 mins

THE BACKSTORY “You are all a lost generation,” Gertrude Stein remarked to Ernest Hemingway, who then used her statement as a motto to close his 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises. Later, in the posthumously published memoir A Moveable Feast, he explained that Stein had not invented the term “Lost Generation” but had merely adopted it after a garage proprietor used the words to scold an employee who showed insufficient diligence in repairing the ignition of her Model T Ford. Notwithstanding its grease-stained origins, the phrase lingered as a descriptor for the artistically creative types, especially Americans, who spent time in Europe during the 1920s, particularly in Paris. It is mostly applied to writers—Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Pound, and Dos Passos among them—who, having made it through the World War I years, found the City of Light financially affordable, intellectually stimulating, and far enough from home that oats could be sown wildly with minimal chance of lasting effect.

The term is less often applied to American expatriate composers of that decade, but many of them similarly fled the United States for Europe. Most were intent on drinking from the fountain of the Great European Musical Tradition as transmitted by an up-to-date teacher. For Americans that usually meant Nadia Boulanger, chief acolyte of the ways of Stravinsky, who in 1921 welcomed into her studio both Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson, two of the first in a succession of fledgling American composers that would soon include Roy Harris, Elliott Carter, Walter Piston, and innumerable others.

Of all the American composers in Europe at that time, George Antheil is probably the one who meshed most closely with the Lost Generation literary world. Following study with Ernest Bloch in New York he headed off to Berlin (where he crossed paths with Stravinsky, whom he admired), then to Paris (1923-27) and eventually Vienna (from 1928), though traveling back and forth between Europe and America a good deal before moving back to the United States definitively in 1933. He went to Europe not as a student but rather as a fully active composer, and the audacity of the works he produced there positioned him as the most conspicuous of all the avant-garde Americans abroad. In Paris he seems to have had rather little to do with the Americans inscribed at “the Boulangerie” (Thomson was an exception, at least for a while), instead spending his time with such literary lights as Joyce, Yeats, and Pound, the last of whom commissioned from him a pair of violin sonatas.

THE MUSIC It was during his time in Paris that Antheil composed his most famous composition, the Ballet mécanique. He wrote it in 1924 for a Dadaist art-film, but in 1926 he introduced it as a standalone concert piece, at least in part an ode to noise that included in its instrumentation parts for player pianos, siren, and airplane propellers. From the same period comes A Jazz Symphony, which inevitably made less of a splash. The genesis of A Jazz Symphony leads us to another famous figure of American music, Paul Whiteman, who played as a violist in the San Francisco Symphony before moving on to his career as a bandleader. In 1924, Whiteman had made musical history by organizing what he called the Experiment in Modern Music, a concert in New York designed to provide a forum for the cross-fertilization of jazz and classical concert music. The event provoked much interest, and it did give rise to one very notable work, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Whiteman decided to present a second Experiment in Modern Music at the end of 1925, and he asked Antheil to compose a piece. That piece would be a sort of piano concerto with jazz orchestra—the comparison with Rhapsody in Blue would be obvious—and its manuscript carried the heading “Americana for Paul Whiteman and his orchestra, Paris, 1925.” But Whiteman’s concert came and went, and Antheil’s work did not figure on the playlist, for reasons that remain unclear. Some scholars suspect that he finished it too late for performance materials to be prepared.

Some while later, Antheil received a cable out of the blue from Donald S. Friede. Though Antheil did not know him, Friede was at that time a bounder and wannabe book publisher in New York whose distinctions included being expelled by Harvard in about 1918, by Yale in 1919, and by Princeton in 1920—this last dismissal occurring just before his father died, leaving him a fortune amassed through representing the interests of the Ford Motor Company in Tsarist Russia. Having noted the attention the Ballet mécanique was getting in Europe, Friede proposed mounting an all-Antheil concert in New York that would showcase that piece along with other works the composer might choose. In his 1945 autobiography, Bad Boy of Music, Antheil stated that he also entertained an offer for a New York performance of the Ballet mécanique from the League of Composers, but that he chose Friede’s option “because I thought I could make more money with him.” He continued: “There was nothing wrong with Donald Friede’s managing my first concert in America except, perhaps, that he was a book publisher with a book publisher’s ideas about managing a concert. As a matter of fact, from a certain non-musical point of view, Donald Friede did a very excellent job with the ‘Ballet Mécanique’ concert on April 10, 1927. Thousands of persons arrived at Carnegie Hall on that night, well prepared to enjoy the proceedings—except, perhaps, the music critics who had most certainly been outraged by our attempting to make the public’s mind up for it in advance.”

Friede was clearly interested in exploiting the event’s shock value, and the atmosphere was not elevated by what Antheil described as “the huge sensational visual curtain hung against the back wall of Carnegie Hall, an element I particularly regret because, more than anything else, it soaked out the profit from what I had intended to be the most profitable of all my concerts. This gigantic, rather tasteless curtain (representing a 1927 jazz-mad America) single-handedly accomplished two things: it sent me back to Europe broke—and gave an air of complete charlatanism to the whole proceedings.” The morning after the concert, The New York Times ran its coverage under a long headline: “ANTHEIL ART BURSTS ON STARTLED EARS / First Performance of Ballet Mécanique in This Country Draws Varied Response. / HISSES, CHEERS GREET HIM / Concatenation of Anvils, Bells, Horns, Buzzsaws Deafens Some, Pleases Others.” Nearly all the advance publicity had focused on the Ballet mécanique, and the press followed suit by practically ignoring the three other Antheil works on the program: his String Quartet; his Sonata for Piano, Violin, and Drum; and A Jazz Symphony.

A Jazz Symphony was played by W.C. Handy’s Orchestra. The Times announced on the morning of the concert: “As the orchestra’s regular leader has been indisposed, Allie Ross, a [African-American] conductor who organized the first symphony orchestra in Harlem, and who, during Handy’s indisposition, has been directing the rehearsals of the Jazz Symphony, will conduct the work tonight. Mr. Antheil will be at one of the pianos.” In his memoirs, Antheil said the piece was played by an orchestra whose personnel contained a great list of names later to become tremendously important in the popular-music world. Antheil continued:

The “Jazz Sinfonietta” was, after the finale of my First Symphony, my second attempt at symphonic synthesis of jazz; but its poor first reception that evening precluded further performance. Still, it is rather a historic work, after a fashion; it was certainly one of the first authentic attempts to synthesize one of our most difficult national mediums. . . . During the many rehearsals of this latter work I had gotten to know and admire many of the [African-American] orchestra men; so I now gave them box seats in foremost sections of Carnegie Hall, which on concert night they filled with their wives and relatives—one of the truly nice things I still remember about that otherwise most depressing concert. 

While it is true that the piece was not greeted warmly by the critics, Antheil noted in his autograph score that it did receive an ovation at the concert—and it’s easy to understand why. He considered Rhapsody in Blue “a very mediocre piece,” implying that his Jazz Symphony was concerned in capturing the spirit of authentic African-American jazz as opposed to the “sweet jazz” Gershwin had favored. Whether A Jazz Symphony actually lives up to that claim is debatable, but it is entertaining right from its start, where the syncopated theme has a perky Latin tinge. The solo piano then enters the fray playing figures of almost arbitrary dissonance—a kind of “kitten on the keys” effect—and then the piece proceeds through a series of episodes that seem sometimes connected in the style of a pastiche. Riffs here and there suggest Stravinsky, with even some passing reminiscence of Le Sacre du printemps; but more often than not the influence seems to be Stravinsky from an arm’s length—say, Stravinsky as filtered through Milhaud, whom Antheil considered “the best composer in France” and whose La Création du monde had been premiered only a few months after Antheil’s arrival in Paris in 1923.

As the work unfolds, portions display some striking machine-age propensities through obsessive repeated rhythms; A Jazz Symphony is, in fact, contemporary to Alexander Mosolov’s The Iron Foundry, one of the prime futurist scores celebrating the pounding sounds of a factory. A striking section involves the solo trumpet, which is instructed to “use all the tricks of the trade and ad lib here.” Surely he intended this expanse to emphasize the edgy style cultivated by the avant-garde phalanx of African-American jazz musicians.

Gershwin remarked: “I really can’t compare Antheil’s jazz with mine. He deals in polytonalities and dissonance . . .  [and] follows Stravinsky and the French. His music has moments of humor.” Probably he numbered among those moments of humor the bit near the end of A Jazz Symphony where two clarinets, an alto saxophone, and an oboe trade off glissando figures—hard to imagine as anything but a snide reference to the famous glissando that opens Rhapsody in Blue. Then, too, Antheil offers at some length an operetta-style waltz tune that is charming but banal, apparently presented in ironic comparison to the more adventurous jazz that stood as a competing force in popular music. The waltz returns at the end and it would seem to get the last word but for the fact that Antheil harmonizes its final note with a scorching dissonance.

James M. Keller

More About the Music
Recordings: Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the New World Symphony (with pianist Michael Linville) on an album titled New World Jazz (RCA Victor Red Seal)  |  For Antheil’s 1955 revision of this work, the NDR Radio Philharmonic, Eiji Oue conducting, with pianist Markus Becker (CPO)  

Reading: Bad Boy of Music, by George Antheil (Doubleday)  |  Making Music Modern: New York in the 1920s, by Carol J. Oja (Oxford University Press

(June 2017)