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This article by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on September 29, 1999. All rights reserved.
George Antheil’s Fresh Air
Born in Trenton in 1900, composer George Antheil’s
star was always a fickle one. That composer Carlton Wilkinson and
conductor and percussion specialist Daniel Spalding both find
living in Trenton today, in the twilight of the 20th century, is
a boon for the city’s long-neglected native son. The notorious
Boy" of early 20th-century music has never had it so good in his
The combined resources and enthusiasm of the pair — and their
friends, colleagues, and family — will yield another George
Festival, the biggest and most ambitious to date, presented by Trenton
Avant Garde. The concert takes place in the scintillating silver
of Trenton’s War Memorial — a 1929 Art Deco confection where
would doubtless feel right at home — on Sunday, October 3, at
The name is pronounced ANN-tile, and the program, performed by the
Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra, directed by Spalding, aims
to offer an overview of the neglected Trenton prodigy’s work.
the program is Antheil’s rarely performed "Ballet Mecanique,"
together with his "Symphony for Five Instruments" (1923),
"Serenade for Strings" (1948), and "Concerto for Chamber
"I don’t know why I do this. But I do do it," says Wilkinson,
a founder of Trenton Avant Garde who has been presenting George
birthday concerts almost annually since 1993. "There’s just
about being a composer in Trenton — being one of one, it seemed
for years. Finding out that there was this composer before me who
wrestled with same issues — about how to make music, how to become
known — was important. And he made some wonderful mistakes."
Spalding moved to his home in West Trenton in the late 1980s to take
the directorship of the Trenton State College orchestra, a post he
held for five years. In 1991 he founded the Philadelphia Virtuosi,
a chamber string orchestra named for the urbane regional music center.
He is married to Gabriela Imreh, a Rumanian-born concert pianist.
Spalding’s first encounter with the music of Antheil
took place years back and was a bit like love at first sight. "I
found a recording when I was still in college," says Spalding,
who majored in percussion at Northwestern, Class of 1974. "I read
on the jacket that it was scored for percussion. It intrigued me right
away that there was this enormous percussion ensemble, and that the
piece was written so early in the century. This was a pioneering
Antheil composed "Ballet Mecanique" while he was living in
Paris, a brash young prodigy who had already dropped out of the
touring circuit. It was written to accompany artist Ferdinand Leger’s
experimental film of the same name; but the two were never
and performed together. Scored for percussion orchestra, the work
called for sirens, airplane propellers, a ringing telephone, and
pianos used for percussive effect.
"`Ballet Mecanique’ was considered among the most revolutionary
music of the day, alongside that of Varese and Stravinsky," says
Wilkinson. "With its emphasis on collage form, stark mechanical
rhythms, and relentless violence, it has remained influential,
young composers of each new generation with its wild creativity and
its fresh approach to structural issues."
Antheil’s first version, composed in 1924, employed four player
It was only performed once before being almost immediately revised
by Antheil for a combination of instruments that included 16 pianolas,
drums, xylophones, a tam-tam, electric bells, and three airplane
of varying sizes. This version has never been performed. A third
was created in 1926, was orchestrated for 10 pianos, as well as
electric bells, airplane propellers, a siren, and a lone pianola.
This was the version performed in Paris and in New York’s Carnegie
Hall in 1927.
In 1953, after establishing himself in Hollywood as a composer for
movies, Antheil revised his "Ballet Mecanique" once again
for four pianos, four xylophones, two electric bells, two propellers,
timpani, glockenspiel, and assorted percussion instruments. This will
be the version performed by Spalding and the Philadelphia Virtuosi
The obvious question for Spalding, and one that he is well-prepared
to answer, is how does a propeller sound?
"Here are the instructions right from Antheil," he says.
airplane propellers are not actual ones, only the sound of
Antheil offers instructions for two solutions, the first, a tape
loop soundtrack. The second solution: two motors or electric fans
are set upon a board, and leather pieces are attached to blades. A
board in inserted as the fans turn, producing the sound of high and
low airplane engines. The idea was to invoke thoroughly modern
travel; the noise, the ubiquitous 20th-century turbine engine.
At the 1927 Carnegie Hall performance of "Ballet
Mecanique," in which Spalding notes Aaron Copland was one of
the pianists, propeller fans were brought out for dramatic effect,
but blew all over the audience, furthering angering the hall full
of disgruntled listeners. Condemned by New York critics and his public
as a charlatan, Antheil emerged from his Carnegie debut with his
in a shambles.
Spalding’s Philadelphia Virtuosi is comprised primarily of strings,
with wind players added according to the demands of repertory.
of the key elements is that we don’t want to specialize in any
music," says Spalding. "This would be too inhibiting, and
not interesting enough." The group’s repertoire and recordings
include Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, and the baroque.
"In terms of repertory, this is the most ambitious instrumentation
we’ve ever done," Spalding says, adding that the performance will
feature 11 percussionists, four pianists, a wind octet, and string
orchestra. The ensemble, which has released two CDs, will record a
CD of Antheil works at the War Memorial during the week following
the concert, to be released next year on the Naxos label.
Spalding says that by delving into Antheil’s biography and
and listening to as much as his music as possible, "a few things
stand out for me. When he was young, he was bursting with creative
energy. but I think he has a touch of arrogance about him too. He
felt from the beginning that he was destined to become one of
great composers, and a leader of the avant garde. But he just never
seemed to recover from the Carnegie Hall concert, and the American
musical establishment never seemed to take him seriously again."
Born in a house on Second Street in Trenton in 1900, Antheil’s father
owned a shoe store. A music prodigy, he studied composition with
Bloch. Following a successful European concert tour in 1920, he left
the concert-pianist circuit and moved into an apartment above Sylvia
Beach’s bookstore in Paris where his friends included James Joyce,
Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, and Man Ray.
Antheil had a prodigious and diverse musical talent. He wrote over
300 compositions, including symphonies, chamber works, film music,
and operas. Over the years, his musical style underwent a
becoming more conservative.
Antheil’s 1927 Carnegie Hall concert that included the American
of "Ballet Mecanique" effectively destroyed his reputation
among American critics. He returned to Europe, working successfully
in Berlin in a style that progressed from modernism to neo-classicism,
until the advent of the war years.
Antheil composed six symphonies, the first of which was performed
by the Berlin Philharmonic in 1922. He also composed five ballets,
including "Capital of the World" for Martha Graham.
In 1936 he moved to California where he found steady work composing
movie scores that included "The Plainsman" by Cecil B. De
Mille, and John Huston’s "In a Lonely Place." Opera was a
significant component of Antheil’s output. These include
a big success at its 1930 Frankfurt debut, "Volpone" (1953),
and "The Wish" (1955).
"`Ballet mecanique’ is the most forward-looking composition that
he ever wrote and his most famous one," says Spalding. "From
that moment on, he became more and more conservative in his writing.
But he always had this flair for making each piece special."
— Nicole Plett
Memorial Ballroom, Trenton, 609-984-8400. The Philadelphia Virtuosi
Chamber Orchestra, directed by Daniel Spalding, performs Antheil’s
"Ballet Mecanique" and other works. $10 to $25. Sunday,
October 3, 7:30 p.m.
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