Rush Hour is a cool new concert geared toward more casual fans of classical music - or even those who don’t normally consider attending one of our shows. Plus, who doesn’t appreciate a drink and live music after work?
A Brandenburg Afternoon will feature four performances and some quick lessons in between each.
As for details: Thursday (the 21st), 6:30 p.m. at Richmond CenterStage. Tickets, $20, here, and further info here.
Romeo: I just met you
Romeo: and this is crazy
Romeo: but marry me in three days
Romeo: and commit mutual suicide
Ruth Crawford Seeger is nowhere near as famous as her stepson Pete, her curator husband, Charles, or even her former maid, Elizabeth Cotten. However, she was one of the most astoundingly talented and contradictory figures of 20th century American music. An acclaimed member of the 1920s avant garde, she produced several brilliant and highly praised modernist compositions in the early 30s, then stopped completely until turning out just one more in 1953, a year before her death. Her compositional silence overlapped with her marriage and motherhood, making her at least on the surface a textbook example of restrictive gender roles stifling women’s artistic output. However, Ruth’s story was considerably more complicated than a Judith Shakespeare scenario. Her marriage to Charles Seeger coincided with and no doubt reinforced her radically populist ideological views, and she became a prolific folk musicologist, music educator, and champion of the American folk tradition in her decades away from producing original music. Her work in this field (and her work raising a family, for that matter) isn’t necessarily less valid or important than her work as a classical composer. Any evaluation of her life thus involves the same weighing of public vs. private life and highbrow vs. lowbrow art that Ruth must have engaged in throughout her adult career.
Ruth Crawford grew up as the relatively poor daughter of a Midwestern minister. At 20, her family fell into enough money to send to Chicago to attend a music conservatory for one year, with the aim of returning to open a piano studio for children. However, once exposed to formal theory and training, she (and her instructors) realized that she had a rare and genuine talent, even in the context of serious music students. As she noted in a 1923 letter compiled by Judith Tick,
“I had always imagined that Mr. Weidig’s class would be full of budding composers, possessors of more technique in writing, more talent, more ability, than I; it seems not.”
Obviously, Ruth also had a true gift for passive aggressive barbs and dry wit. In any case, she scrapped the original plan and stayed, despite her lack of funds, now aiming to become a legitimate composer. Soon, she had surrounded herself with a circle of experimental “ultra-modern” musicians and composers, who actively rejected traditional European musical forms and sonorities, and established herself as an outstanding practitioner of atonality and radical dissonance. Her music began to be published and occasionally played. Critics began to hail her as the leading woman composer of her generation; a limiting title, to be sure, but more indicative of social norms at the time than of the quality of her work.
In 1929, she accepted a scholarship to study for a year in New York with Charles Seeger, an expert in dissonant counterpoint, and her life path began to change direction. Seeger’s pedagogy complemented her own interests, and her compositions over the next few years grew sharply in complexity and critical acclaim. String Quartet, 1931, was enough on its own to put the lie to the idea that women could not compose as well as men, and to lodge Ruth Crawford firmly in the forefront of American modernism.
Skip to about 4:19 for the insane fourth movement.
Crawford was also becoming progressively more invested in the Leftist politics that Seeger espoused, as evidenced in works like “Sacco, Venzetti,” “Chinaman, Laundryman,” and “Three Songs to Poems of Carl Sandburg.” She married Seeger in 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression. The collapse of the national economy also meant a collapse of the patronage networks and ticket sales that had allowed the creation of a modernist music scene in the 20s, while widespread poverty raised questions for progressives like the Seegers about the ethics of producing “highbrow” classical art that could only be enjoyed and appreciated by elites. Charles and Ruth joined the Communist party, and began having children. Disillusioned, impoverished, and busy with infants and toddlers (and setting type for The Daily Worker), Ruth stopped composing modernist works.
Then things got really interesting. In 1936, Charles took a job with the WPA and moved the family to D.C. Suddenly, the Seegers found themselves surrounded by a vibrant, moving, homegrown and inherently populist folk music tradition. They also met John and Alan Lomax, a Texan father-son pair of folklorists/musicologists who were devoted to uncovering, preserving and promoting American cowboy songs, frontier ballads, and blues. The Lomaxes were in the process of recording their epic anthology for the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress, a journey in which they had discovered Leadbelly at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. The Seegers were sold. Ruth signed on as a music editor for the Lomaxes’ “Our Singing Country,” putting her classical training to use in meticulous transcriptions of traditional African American and “hillbilly” songs. She also turned her compositional skills away from ultra modernism and towards progressive nationalism with “Nineteen American Folk Tunes for Piano,” a collection aimed at translating the twang of banjos and guitars to piano and increasing children’s access to American folk melodies. For the next decade, she continued to transcribe folk music and advocate for its place in American culture. Her work here helped fuel the urban folk revival, which would explode years later in the 1960s. At the time, folk was generally viewed as a lowbrow art, far less valuable than classical composition, and not necessarily important for American history or collective identity. It was also hard to find. Through field recordings and rigorous transcriptions, Crawford Seeger argued strenuously for the significance of folk, and made its popular distribution a possibility.
Part of this revival included Crawford Seeger’s immediate acquaintances. Most obviously, her stepson Pete became an iconic folk singer, both on his own and as a member of The Weavers (whose first major hit, incidentally, was a cover of Leadbelly’s “Goodnight, Irene”). Her son Mike and daughter Peggy also became noted folk singers and educators. Woody Guthrie was a family friend. The Seegers’ housekeeper, Elizabeth Cotten, became a major figure in the folk revival after Mike and Pete began recording her songs on guitar.
Elizabeth Cotten playing “Freight Train,” a song she wrote at age 12, on Pete Seeger’s “Rainbow Quest”
So Ruth Crawford Seeger was hardly sitting idle in the years after the publication of String Quartet. But her work was not directly attached to her own artistic voice, at least not in an easily visibly way. Obviously, her tastes shaped the body of folk music that she helped preserve and present to the public. At the end of the day, though, she was presenting a collective cultural good, not the singular product of her own mind. Towards the end of her life, she began to reconsider this orientation. At 50, she stepped away from her work with folk music to compose “Suite for Wind Quintet,” a return to her minimalist, atonal compositions of the 1930s. The piece was critically acclaimed, and Ruth began to write to friends about potentially composing again in earnest. The next year, though, she was diagnosed with cancer. She died in 1953 at just 52 years old.
Suite for Wind Quintet, 1952
Folk matriarch. Lost modernist genius. Ruth Crawford Seeger: full of contradictions, well-versed in compromise, and insanely fascinating.
You know, for a long time I was sure that Grieg was the most ridiculously grim composer I’d ever seen, but I think Hans von Bülow really takes the prize. Then again if I managed to marry Liszt’s daughter only to get cuckolded by Wagner, I’d probably be pretty dour as well.
I’m sorry. Sometimes I can’t help myself.
And, of course, this weekend’s concert will also showcase Beethoven’s 7th. It may not have an operatic story line based in relatively recent juicy history, but its second movement, the Allegretto, is without exaggeration one of the most beautiful pieces of music of all time. Like Adams, Beethoven builds a simple rhythm structure into a dense, emotional, and dream-like peak. Its prevailing mood of tension, anticipation, and large-scale human drama have also made it a popular choice for movie soundtracks. Below, Beethoven’s 7th in Tarsem Singh’s The Fall (2006), Boris Karloff vehicle The Black Cat (1934), Tom Hooper’s Academy Award-winning The King’s Speech (2010), and (amazingly) Nic Cage’s apocalyptic visions in Knowing (2009).
This weekend’s Masterworks concert leads into Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony with a piece by American Minimalist composer John Adams, whose pulsing, repetitive rhythms occupy a space somewhere between Beethoven and an analog version of Kraftwerk. Listen. “The Chairman Dances,” excerpted from Adams’s 1987 opera “Nixon in China,” focuses on an imagined dream sequence of Mao Tse-tung’s real life wife during the Nixons’ 1976 visit to the People’s Republic of China. In this fantasy of a fantasy, “Madame Mao” crashes a formal presidential banquet in a clingy cheongsam and invites Mao (present only as a gigantic propaganda portrait) to abandon state procedures and dance with her. She succeeds; Mao descends from his portrait, essentially stepping away from himself as a mythic figure to be present as a human, at least for the duration of the dance. The opera as a whole similarly plays on the idea that modern political icons have a dual existence as mythological archetypes and sympathetic, fully human people. Madame Mao, for instance, is at once the larger than life villainess of the Gang of Four and the Cultural Revolution, a vindictive woman who craved power and used it to brutally cut down political and personal rivals, and an aging former actress whose looks and exclusive claim to her husband’s affections had long deteriorated. Adams’s lush layering of small, repeated melodic fragments manages to imbue the story with a sense of both large-scale pomp and more personal emotion. We can’t know for sure what the real Madame Mao would have thought of her portrayal, as she was imprisoned for counterrevolutionary activities at the time of its premiere. As a meditation on political theater, though, the piece is surprisingly moving.
Sergei Rachmaninoff reads.