RUTH CRAWFORD (SEEGER) (1901 - 1953)
A remarkable pioneering figure of the American modernist movement, Ruth Crawford was born in East Liverpool, Ohio in 1901. The daughter and granddaughter of ministers, the young Ruth lived in various locations before settling in Jacksonville, Florida, where she received a serious musical education and started to teach piano. In 1921 she came to the rich cultural climate of Chicago to pursue compositional studies at the American Conservatory. Her composition teacher, the German-born composer and violinist Adolf Weidig, encouraged her non-traditional explorations. Another extremely influential mentor was her piano teacher, the charismatic Djane Lavoie Herz, a woman of wide knowledge and interests, who had been a student of Artur Schnabel and Alexander Scriabin. The Herzes held regular soirées, attended by prominent intellectuals and musicians, including Henry Cowell and Dane Rudhyar, who were to take a special interest in Crawford. The Herzes also introduced her to Theosophy and non-Western thought. Another Chicago friend, Alfred Frankenstein, later a prominent critic, introduced her to recent European music, and was responsible for her meeting the celebrated poet Carl Sandburg, who became a close friend and inspired her own passion for writing poetry. She was to set many of Sandburg’s poems in her compositions.
In 1929 Ruth Crawford moved to New York, having already had well-received performances in Chicago and New York, and publication of her Piano Preludes in Cowell’s New Music Edition. The indomitable Cowell persuaded a skeptical Charles Seeger, Cowell’s former teacher and a composer and ethnomusicologist of keen intellect and originality, to accept her as a pupil. The same year she was named the first woman to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship in composition. She spent 1930-31 abroad, primarily in Berlin, travelled extensively, and was received warmly and respectfully by such notables as Alban Berg, Béla Bartók, Josef Matthias Hauer, Arthur Honegger, Albert Roussel, and Nadia Boulanger.
Upon returning to America, Ruth Crawford and Seeger married and established their home in New York. Mike was born in 1933, with Peggy, Barbara, and Penelope to follow. (The well-known folk-singer Pete Seeger, Charles’s son by his first marriage, was twelve at the time of Ruth and Charles’s marriage.) Life was difficult for the Seegers during the Depression; their intense concern with society’s plight drew them to leftist causes, such as the Composers’ Collective, which they helped organize. Deeply committed to music of the people, the Seegers also worked on settings of American folk-music for the collections of John and Alan Lomax.
In 1935 the family moved to Silver Spring, Maryland. With the responsibilities of raising a big family, composing became impossible during this period of her life, but she energetically pursued musical projects that could be accomplished in more manageable units of time. She and Charles transcribed thousands of field recordings in the American folk-song archive of the Library of Congress; she was active as a piano teacher and taught music in several nursery schools, and she wrote her own folk-song books for children, which are still popular. (Their children Mike and Peggy were to become noted folk musicians.) Except for her one symphonic work, the short folk-inspired Rissolty, Rossolty, commissioned and broadcast by CBS in 1941, she completed no compositions from 1933 to the early 1950s. In 1952 she wrote the Suite for Wind Quintet for a competition (which she won), but shortly after, her health took a devastating turn. In the summer of 1953 cancer was diagnosed, and her life was tragically cut short later that year. Ruth Crawford Seeger’s compositional career is strikingly divided into two phases, separated by her studies beginning in 1929 with Charles Seeger. Her earliest mature compositions, dating from about 1924, show strong influences of post-Romanticism and impressionism, and, in the restless, ambiguous harmonies and mystical aura, particularly the music of Scriabin. Slow movements are often dark and brooding, and fast movements are filled with exuberant themes, developed in an improvisatory spirit.