About this Recording
8.559197 - SEEGER: Vocal, Chamber and Instrumental Works
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Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-1953)
Vocal and Chamber Music

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.

The earliest major work on this recording, the Sonata for Violin and Piano (1925-26) has a dramatic history. Although it had been received extremely favourably, the composer mysteriously burned the work, along with many of her poems, in the early 1930s, perhaps because Charles had been highly critical of her early work. Years later, her former student Vivian Fine found that she had a copy of the Sonata and “repremiered” it in 1982.

The Suite for Five Wind Instruments and Piano was composed in 1927 and extensively revised in 1929 under Charles Seeger’s guidance. First heard in a private concert of her music presented by her New York patron Blanche Walton in 1930, the Suite languished for many years, considered problematic for its two versions, and was first performed publicly only in 1975.

As the composer began to work with Charles Seeger her music became much more concentrated. Each movement is restricted to a single idea developed intensively. The structures become more sharply etched, the musical lines more controlled in their dissonance, the conceptions more daring. This was the period of her work with such experimental techniques as serialism, tone-clusters, Sprechstimme, rhythmic independence of parts, numerical orderings, and spatial separation of performing factions.

The four Diaphonic Suites, composed in 1930 for solo or duo wind/string combinations, and the Piano Study in Mixed Accents (1930) were compositional etudes, intended to perfect the technique of “dissonating” long melodic lines - that is, propelling the harmonic tension, without respite, from first to last note. Her long-range control of dissonance and mastery of form reached perfection in Three Songs (1930, 1932). This bold, original work is performed by two groups independent of each other: a “concertante” of voice, oboe, percussion, piano, and an “ostinato” of thirteen players, seated as far as possible from the soloists. While the songs can also be performed in a version without the ostinato, its presence adds a rich and often bizarre dimension, befitting Sandburg’s evocative poems.

Crawford Seeger’s last work before the hiatus in her composing was Two Ricercari: Sacco, Vanzetti and Chinaman, Laundryman (1932), composed for a Composers’ Collective concert. The texts deal with the miseries of exploited immigrants and the notorious Sacco-Vanzetti trial of 1921 (in which two Italian- Americans were executed for the murder of a guard during a robbery, for which it was widely believed they were innocent). To project the impassioned text, she combined singing with Sprechstimme (a cross between singing and speaking, where only a relative vocal contour is indicated, not specific pitches).

Other major works by Crawford Seeger are Nine Piano Preludes (1924-28), Suite for Small Orchestra (1926), Suite for Piano and Strings (l929), Five Songs (1929), Three Chants for chorus (1930), her great masterpiece String Quartet (1931), Rissolty, Rossolty for orchestra (c.1941), and Suite for Wind Quintet (1952). For decades Ruth Crawford Seeger was known almost exclusively through her later, more avant-garde compositions. In recent years, more of her earlier works have been published and performed, making possible a re-evaluation and deeper appreciation of this unique voice in American music.

Cheryl Seltzer
© 2005 Continuum

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