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 Americanmodernist movement, Ruth Crawford was born in EastLiverpool, Ohio in 1901. The daughter and granddaughterof ministers, the young Ruth lived in variouslocations before settling in Jacksonville, Florida, whereshe received a serious musical education and started toteach piano. In 1921 she came to the rich culturalclimate of Chicago to pursue compositional studies atthe American Conservatory. Her composition teacher,the German-born composer and violinist Adolf Weidig,encouraged her non-traditional explorations. Anotherextremely influential mentor was her piano teacher, thecharismatic Djane Lavoie Herz, a woman of wideknowledge and interests, who had been a student ofArtur Schnabel and Alexander Scriabin. The Herzesheld regular soirees, attended by prominent intellectualsand musicians, including Henry Cowell and DaneRudhyar, who were to take a special interest inCrawford. The Herzes also introduced her to Theosophyand non-Western thought. Another Chicago friend,Alfred Frankenstein, later a prominent critic, introducedher to recent European music, and was responsible forher meeting the celebrated poet Carl Sandburg, whobecame a close friend and inspired her own passion forwriting poetry. She was to set many of Sandburg'spoems in her compositions.
In 1929 Ruth Crawford moved to New York, havingalready had well-received performances in Chicago andNew York, and publication of her Piano Preludes inCowell's New Music Edition. The indomitable Cowellpersuaded a skeptical Charles Seeger, Cowell's formerteacher and a composer and ethnomusicologist of keenintellect and originality, to accept her as a pupil. Thesame year she was named the first woman to receive aGuggenheim Fellowship in composition. She spent1930-31 abroad, primarily in Berlin, travelledextensively, and was received warmly and respectfullyby such notables as Alban Berg, Bela Bartok, JosefMatthias Hauer, Arthur Honegger, Albert Roussel, andNadia Boulanger.
Upon returning to America, Ruth Crawford andSeeger married and established their home in NewYork. Mike was born in 1933, with Peggy, Barbara, andPenelope to follow. (The well-known folk-singer PeteSeeger, Charles's son by his first marriage, was twelveat the time of Ruth and Charles's marriage.) Life wasdifficult for the Seegers during the Depression; theirintense concern with society's plight drew them toleftist causes, such as the Composers' Collective, whichthey helped organize. Deeply committed to music of thepeople, the Seegers also worked on settings of Americanfolk-music for the collections of John and Alan Lomax.
In 1935 the family moved to Silver Spring,Maryland. With the responsibilities of raising a bigfamily, composing became impossible during thisperiod of her life, but she energetically pursued musicalprojects that could be accomplished in more manageableunits of time. She and Charles transcribed thousands offield recordings in the American folk-song archive ofthe Library of Congress; she was active as a pianoteacher and taught music in several nursery schools, andshe wrote her own folk-song books for children, whichare still popular. (Their children Mike and Peggy wereto become noted folk musicians.) Except for her onesymphonic work, the short folk-inspired Rissolty,Rossolty, commissioned and broadcast by CBS in 1941,she completed no compositions from 1933 to the early1950s. In 1952 she wrote the Suite for Wind Quintet fora competition (which she won), but shortly after, herhealth took a devastating turn. In the summer of 1953cancer was diagnosed, and her life was tragically cutshort later that year.
Ruth Crawford Seeger's compositional career isstrikingly divided into two phases, separated by herstudies beginning in 1929 with Charles Seeger. Herearliest mature compositions, dating from about 1924,show strong influences of post-Romanticism andimpressionism, and, in the restless, ambiguousharmonies and mystical aura, particularly the music ofScriabin. 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, theSonata for Violin and Piano (1925-26) has a dramatichistory. Although it had been received extremelyfavourably, the composer mysteriously burned the work,along with many of her poems, in the early 1930s,perhaps because Charles had been highly critical of herearly work. Years later, her former student Vivian Finefound that she had a copy of the Sonata and \repremiered"it in 1982.
The Suite for Five Wind Instruments and Piano wascomposed in 1927 and extensively revised in 1929under Charles Seeger's guidance. First heard in a privateconcert of her music presented by her New York patronBlanche Walton in 1930, the Suite languished for manyyears, considered problematic for its two versions, andwas first performed publicly only in 1975.
As the composer began to work with Charles Seegerher music became much more concentrated. Eachmovement is restricted to a single idea developedintensively. The structures become more sharply etched,the musical lines more controlled in their dissonance,the conceptions more daring. This was the period of herwork with such experimental techniques as serialism,tone-clusters, Sprechstimme, rhythmic independence ofparts, numerical orderings, and spatial separation ofperforming factions.
The four Diaphonic Suites, composed in 1930 forsolo or duo wind/string combinations, and the PianoStudy in Mixed Accents (1930) were compositionaletudes, intended to perfect the technique of"dissonating" long melodic lines - that is, propelling theharmonic tension, without respite, from first to last note.
Her long-range control of dissonance and mastery ofform reached perfection in Three Songs (1930, 1932).
This bold, original work is performed by two groupsindependent of each other: a "concertante" of voice,oboe, percussion, piano, and an "ostinato" of thirteenplayers, seated as far as possible from the soloists.
While the songs can also be performed in a versionwithout the ostinato, its presence adds a rich and oftenbizarre dimension, befitting Sandburg's evocativepoems.
Crawford Seeger's last work before the hiatus in hercomposing was Two Ricercari: Sacco, Vanzetti andChinaman, Laundryman (1932), composed for aComposers' Collective concert. The texts deal with themiseries of exploited immigrants and the notoriousSacco-Vanzetti trial of 1921 (in which two Italian-Americans were executed for the murder of a guardduring a robbery, for which it was widely believed theywere innocent). To project the impassioned text, shecombined singing with Sprechstimme (a cross betweensinging and speaking, where only a relative vocalcontour is indicated, not specific pitches).
Other major works by Crawford Seeger are NinePiano Preludes (1924-28), Suite for Small Orchestra(1926), Suite for Piano and Strings (l929), Five Songs(1929), Three Chants for chorus (1930), her greatmasterpiece String Quartet (1931), Rissolty, Rossoltyfor orchestra (c.1941), and Suite for Wind Quintet(1952). For decades Ruth Crawford Seeger was knownalmost exclusively through her later, more avant-gardecompositions. In recent years, more of her earlier workshave been published and performed, making possible are-evaluation and deeper appreciation of this uniquevoice in American music.Cheryl Seltzer
?® 2005 Continuum