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ClassicsOnline Home » ANTHEIL: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 6 / McKonkey's Ferry
By Geoffrey Norris
The Daily Telegraph (Australia)
George Carl Johann Antheil (1900 - 1959)
Symphony No.4 '1942' / Symphony No.6
McKonkey's Ferry (Washington at Trenton)
‘… even if Antheil isn't exactly the American
Shostakovich, I would see no real harm if the Russians suddenly began calling
Shostakovich the Russian Antheil.’
Louis Bancolli, New
York World Telegram, January 5, 1949
Georg Carl Johann Antheil was born on 8th July
1900 in Trenton, New Jersey, the son of William and Wihelmine Antheil, owners
of a small shoe store Antheil began his composition studies at the age of
sixteen with Constatin von Sternberg, a pupil of Liszt and later, with Ernest Bloch,
Studies with Bloch ended prematurely in 1921 when a lack of money sent young
Antheil to Philadelphia in search of a patron. He was directed to Mrs. Edward Bok,
who in 1924 would found the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Having
found a patron, he began to formulate his plan to tour Europe as a concert pianist
In 1923, Antheil moved to Paris where he entered into the
center of the artistic avant-garde. James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, Man
Ray, Uger, Satie, Picasso and many others were to become his friends and
colleagues. On 4th October 1934 Antheil made his public debut in Paris, at the
Champs Elysees Theatre, and as a result of the ensuing riot, achieved his goal
and was solidly established as the enfant terrible du jour.
In 1926, Antheil premiered the work that was to become
the zenith and nadir of his career, Ballet Mecanique. Notorious for its
orchestra of pianos, percussion, electric buzzers and airplane propellers, Ballet
was a summation of Antheil's involvement with 'futurism'. He realised that with
Ballet he had reached the end of an important period in his musical
development. The Piano Concerto of 1926 was one of his first large-scale
essays in his new 'neo-classic' style and when given its first performance in Paris
in 1927 it signaled the halt of Antheil's popularity. Later that same year, the
disastrous American premiere of Ballet Mecanique left him financially
and emotionally bankrupt. The deliberately sensationalist and provocative promotion
that preceded the concert alienated his audience, and marred his reputation in America
well into the 1940s.
Antheil returned briefly to Europe, where he began work on
his opera, Transatlantic. Despite an enthusiastic reception at the
opera's premiere in Frankfurt in 1930, the worldwide economic collapse forced
him to return to the States, where he found a new populist impulse had taken
root with composers, painters, writers and film-makers endeavouring to reach a
wider public. Antheil resonated with the new movement and became involved in
the musical-theatre and film music communities in New York The remainder of the
1930s were a difficult period for Antheil, who sought employment as a lonely-hearts
columnist, a contributor to Esquire magazine, an author of several articles on endocrinology
and later as a war correspondent. He would later write: 'here in early 1941, I
could at last label myself a complete failure.'
Following a move to Hollywood, Antheil experienced a
musical re-birth, resulting in the composition of his Symphony No.4
('1942'), inspired by his work as a war correspondent. By 1946, he had
reconciled his work as a film composer with his composition of 'serious' music and
completed The Plainsman and the Lady (1946), Spectre of the Rose
(1946), Sonatina for Violin and Piano (1945), Violin Concerto
(1946), Symphonies Nos 5 and 6 (both 1947-48), McKonkey's Ferry
(1948), Violin Sonata No.4 (1948), Piano Sonatas Nos 3 and 4
(1947 and 1948 respectively), The Fighting Kentuckian (1949), Knock
On Any Door (1949), and Tom Sawyer (1949). Stokowski's successful
premiere of Antheil's Symphony No.4 on 13th February 1944 helped to
re-establish him as an important artistic voice and the MCA Artist survey for
1947 listed him as one of the most performed American composers.
The last decade of Antheil's life was busy and reasonably
successful. A steady flow of film and television scores was accompanied by a renewed
interest in musical-theatre. His four late operas, Volpone (1949-1952), The
Brothers, Venus in Africa and The Wish (all 1954) succeeded
in synthesizing artistic discipline with a popular tunefulness, but despite
enthusiastic reviews have failed to find a place in the standard repertoire.
Antheil died in New York City on 12th February
1959 of a heart attack. His music was swiftly forgotten and what reputation
remained rested upon a single work: Ballet Micanique.
In 1940, Antheil had anonymously published a book under
the title The Shape of the War To Come, which came to the attention of
Manchester Boddy, an editor for the Los Angeles Daily News. Boddy
discovered the book's author, and being impressed with his accurate
predictions, offered Antheil a position as War Correspondent. Antheil's Symphony
No.4 was written during this period and came as a watershed for the
composer in his search for a musically-satisfying, American style'. The work's
genesis was, as described by the composer
'Written... during a period when the entire future of the
world hung in balance, its first movement undoubtedly reflects my tense and troubled
state of mind while writing it; I had no actual "program" in mind;
but every day, I was watching the news, from Stalingrad, from Africa, from the
Pacific… the second [movement] is tragic - news of Lidice and the horrors in
had just come in - while the third, the Scherzo,
is more like a brutal joke, the joke of war. The fourth, written after the turn
of the tide at Stalingrad and our landings in Morocco, heralds victory.'
Antheil's preoccupation with compositional craft is
evident from the very opening of the first movement. a dramatic, 'exotic'
sounding motif in unison brass is immediately echoed in the strings. This
opening theme will become a motto for the entire symphony, appearing in various
guises in each of the movements, Antheil counteracts any sense of academic
formula with his mercurial changes of mood and tempo: the first 31 measures
include no fewer than four changes of tempo, Following this brief introduction,
the first movement proper begins, with the main theme appearing in the piccolo
over a march-like ostinato in the double basses, A restatement of the
opening main theme, in combination with variants of the martial rhythm, gradually
diffuses the movement's tension, ending with a few triplets on woodblock
accompanied by contrabassoon and double basses.
The second movement opens with another martial theme,
this time in the violins, accompanied by a nervous passage of running sixteenths
in the cellos. Following this brief episode, a new theme appears in the
violins, broadly lyrical at first, but then fragmented over pizzicato quarter
notes in the lower strings. A brief return to the nervous energy of the opening
leads to a lyrical episode for strings and winds Antheil refers to this theme
as 'tragic' and it becomes the musical anchor for the movement. A free
development leads to a restatement of the introduction from the first movement.
The movement ends with an extremely condensed recapitulation.
The third movement is a freely constructed scherzo,
with a fugato taking the place of the traditional trio. The opening
theme is original to the movement but a familial similarity exists between it
and the other movements. The fugue theme is a version of the opening motto
theme and occupies the bulk of the movement's substance.
Antheil's work as a film score composer is nowhere more
evident than in the fourth movement. One can practically envision it as a sound
track to a newsreel. Grim march rhythms are juxtaposed with triumphant tuttis.
Dozens of tempo changes serve to amplify the episodic effect of this movement
but the listener's interest is sustained by Antheil's tremendous energy and vitality.
An extended variant of the opening movement's martial ostinato brings
the symphony to a festive conclusion.
In the notes provided for the San Francisco Symphony
premiere of the Symphony No.6 on 10th February 1948, Antheil mentions
that his inspiration for the first movement was sketched in response to a
reproduction he had seen of Eugene Delacroix's painting, Liberty Leading the
The first movement begins with a strident unison passage
in the lower voices of the orchestra. This is quickly taken up by the violins, violas,
clarinets and oboes. A quirky allusion to The Battle Cry of Freedom in
the flutes and upper woodwinds leads to the introduction of the first theme
proper a very Prokofievian moto perpetuo in scurrying eighth notes.
Antheil, ever the master of contrast, alternates quiet episodes with march-like
outbursts from the brass and upper winds throughout the movement. Gradually
building in momentum, the movement reaches a climax in yet a further explosion
of martial rhythms, Battle Cry of Freedom quotations and a very
militaristic version of the first theme. A breathless ten-bar recapitulation of
the first subject, in its final transformation as a gargantuan march, brings
the movement to its conclusion.
The second movement, Larghetto, begins softly, as
a slow waltz, reminiscent of Satie's Gymnopedies. The Trio is in
a slightly faster tempo, and sounds vaguely Mahleresque. The brief
recapitulation is accompanied with fragments from the opening movement's scurrying
eighth notes (greatly slowed down) as counterpoint and a six-bar horn solo
brings the movement to a calm conclusion.
The rondo that concludes the symphony (Allegro molto),
was described by Antheil as ‘... the triumph of joy and optimism over despair, war,
annihilation.’ In Antheil's hands, this rondo utilizes variants of
several themes from the first movement, propelled along with infectious syncopations
and jazzy motor rhythms. A breathless coda, based on the main theme of the first
movement, brings the symphony to an emphatic C minor conclusion.
During the late forties, Antheil was engaged in writing a
series of concert overtures for orchestra on American themes. McKonkey's Ferry
was composed in 1948 and was inspired by the image of George Washington's
crossing of the Delaware on Christmas night, 1776. The overture's opening shares
much in common with the vigorous motor rhythms of the finale of the Symphony
No 6 and continues that work's themes of victory and freedom.
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ANTHEIL: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 6 / McKonkey's Ferr...