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George Antheil

The library at school has been receiving large numbers of donated CDs, which I have been sifting through and finding all sorts of interesting things (see one previous CD review to come out of this process, Jordi Savall: Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe le Fils, March 1). One of the recordings I have been listening to regularly in my office and have brought home for a while is dedicated to some of the lost piano sonatas of George Antheil. Since I have been planning to write something about this disc on Ionarts for a while, imagine my surprise when this past Sunday morning, I heard NPR's Liane Hansen give a fascinating interview with Guy Livingston, the pianist/musicologist featured on it. (The recording was made in the Église de Saint-Marcel, a Lutheran church in Paris's 5th arrondissement, and Mr. Livingston spoke from a radio studio in that city, where he lives, lucky devil.)

Available at Amazon:
George Antheil, The Lost Sonatas (no. 3, 4, 5, Sonate sauvage, and Woman Sonata), Guy Livingston, piano
Antheil was born in Trenton, New Jersey, and was a virtuoso performer on the piano, as well as a daring and controversial composer in his early career. He is probably most famous for the strange Futurist piece known as the Ballet mécanique (Mechanical ballet), recorded in 1924 by the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, Percussion Ensemble (available from Amazon). This unusual score calls for 16 player pianos, percussion, airplane propellors, bells, and a siren, to create an effect that you will not soon forget. (It was originally intended to be a film collaboration with Fernand Léger.)

Other Resources:

Picture Gallery from the Antheil Estate

George Antheil: Composer, Pianist, Inventor

George Antheil's grave in Trenton

Paris Transatlantic (music magazine published by Guy Livingston)

60 Seconds for Piano (Guy Livingston's first recording, featured on NPR in May 2002)
Antheil did not (or was not able to) publish many of his piano sonatas before his death, but his widow, Böski, had kept boxes of manuscripts, which ended up in the New York Public Library. Livingston came into contact with the scores and did the excruciating work of transcribing Antheil's difficult handwriting for this remarkable recording. It was good work.

There are sonatas from two different periods of Antheil's compositional style, and for me it is the two short sonatas from 1923 that are the most fun. The Sonate sauvage is as percussive and dissonant as the Prokofiev piano sonatas that make such good listening (no. 2 and no. 7 are my personal favorites). Antheil titled the three movements in French, which give us some clue as to what he was trying to depict. The first movement is called A la nègre (In negro style), which I think makes it the Stravinskyesque companion piece to a work like Debussy's Golliwog's Cakewalk (see my post on February 25), that is, a grotesque conception of black life and humor. (In his notes for the CD, Livingston refers only to the influence of the "African-American, ragtime, and Creole music of his youth.") As Messiaen distorted the melodies of Gregorian chant through a modern harmonic lens, Antheil renders the rhythm and bounce of African-American music with a modernist vocabulary.

The second movement (Serpents) features a repeated-note motif that is devilishly difficult but that Livingston handles admirably. Ivoire (Ivory), the title of the third movement, may refer to a traditional form of African carving, and in a very short space, Antheil recaps some of the themes from the first movement for a satisfying finish. The other 1923 piece, Woman Sonata, is in three unbalanced movements: Woman (Languor) (5:02), Tree (Prestissimo) (0:27), and Flower (Moderato) (0:37). The substantial first movement is less about percussive effect (there are still some driving passages that could belong in a Stravinsky early ballet score) and more about gorgeous, dissonant harmonic structure. The ludicrously short second movement returns to that rhythmic style, with glissandi featured prominently, a device Antheil used to excess in his piano works. The third movement makes it clearer than ever that Antheil was listening to Stravinsky, for he imitates briefly the famous passage from Rite of Spring, in which there is a steady rhythmic pulse with dissonant short chords crashing in off the beat.

The three other sonatas are from the 1940s, and they are all longer than the earlier works. The Third Sonata, from 1947, seems to reflect Antheil's later career most clearly: "In the late 1930s," according to Livingston's notes, "Antheil headed for Hollywood, where his music took a decidedly traditional turn, to the point that he was referred to as the 'Shostakovitch of Trenton'. During the forties and fifties this neo-Romantic music enjoyed wide popularity, and his stirring and patriotic symphonies found acclaim across America." The first movement (Allegro) makes sly, dissonant references to Beethoven's Appassionata sonata (op. 57) and concludes on a minor triad. The second movement (Adagio), a somewhat dissonant distortion of a sappy Hollywood song that ends on a major triad, is overshadowed by the strange third movement (Diabolic "Cartoon"), where the Prokofiev side of Antheil's musical personality peeks through again.

In the Fourth Sonata (1948) and Fifth Sonata (1950), Antheil writes in three movements that recall more clearly the traditional form of a piano sonata, and there are no more descriptive titles. While these are beautiful pieces that show Antheil's mature voice (the last movement of the Fifth Sonata is a highlight), it is for the, by analogy, immature and brash pieces of the 1920s that you would buy this disc, I think. You will certainly enjoy hearing Guy Livingston, as technically sure and bold as his playing is, rollick along with this notorious bad boy of modern music, especially in those pieces from the era of his greatest daring.

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