Antheil’s Orchestral Works in New Recording

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ANTHEIL: Archipelago. Symphony No. 3, “American.” Hot-Time Dance. Symphony No. 6, “After Delacroix.” Spectre of the Rose Waltz / BBC Philharmonic Orch.; John Storgårds, cond / Chandos CHAN 10982

This album of music by George Antheil covers his later (post-1920s) output, the earliest work here being the Archipelago rhumba of 1935 and the latest being his Sixth Symphony of 1949-50. As stated in the liner notes, Antheil during this period moved away from the audacious harmonies and renegade form of his earlier music towards a more tonal and formally conventional means of expression. But he was not alone in this: Aaron Copland did the same thing, in fact becoming even less edgy than his 1940 piece El Salón México starting with his popular ballets Rodeo and Billy the Kid. In a sense, both composers were led down this path by the very clever but tonal music of Morton Gould, a fine composer who is often overlooked but who had an enormous impact on American musical thought. Even Virgil Thomson moved away from the neoclassical rhythms and edgy harmonies of his two operas, Four Saints in Three Acts and The Mother of Us All, to more tonal and easily digestible music in his film scores.

The question, then, is not whether or not this music sounds like earlier Antheil, for it clearly does not, but whether or not it is good music in its own right. I say that it is. Once past the orchestral rhumba that opens the disc, we hear all sorts of interesting figures and unusual rhythms in his “American” symphony of 1939-41, which he revised in 1946. At this point Antheil may have indeed been more tonal, but he was no more predictable in his musical directions. A work like this clearly would have baffled more old-fashioned conductors like Bruno Walter, Klemperer or Toscanini, who actually did like Copland’s El Salón México and Roy Harris’ Third Symphony, but apparently its value also eluded that champion of new music and specifically American new music, Leopold Stokowski. The only part of the symphony that was performed in Antheil’s lifetime was the third movement, “The Golden Spike,” by (of all people) Hans Kindler with the National Symphony Orchestra in November 1945.

Antheil hoped to capture the feisty spirit of America, and particularly American pioneers in various fields, with this music—an America that has been all but erased by the sweeping wave of anti-nationalism and political correctness in our time. In this respect, I doubt that the music would find much sympathy if played in the concert hall today. The themes jump around, are juxtaposed, and in general exhibit an rough enthusiasm that used to be associated with what it meant to be an American but nowadays is blasted as jingoism, racism and sexism. One might think of it as a brilliant anomaly, a snapshot in time that has been deemed degenerate.

The afore-mentioned movement “The Golden Spike” was taken from Antheil’s unused score for Cecil B. de Mille’s 1939 film Union Pacific. Initially supportive of Antheil, de Mille, worried about public reaction, apparently “enlisted almost everyone in the studio’s music department to voice their collective disapproval of Antheil’s style,” and he was dropped from the project. Here, as in the first movement, the sheer energy of the music almost bursts at the seams. In this respect, it has ties to such earlier works as Ballet Mécanique, even if the rhythm is less ambiguous and the harmonic language more tonal. Nor does this almost manic energy let up in the last movement, “Back to Baltimore: Allegro.” I might point out by way of irony that this marvelously energetic and brashly American-sounding performance is being performed by a Finnish conductor who is Artistic Director of the Lapland Chamber Orchestra in addition to his duties as chief guest conductor of the BBC Philharmonic.

Hot-Time Dance, from 1948, is also known as American Dance Suite No. 1 or Election Dance. It is, as the title implies, built from the opening melody of A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight, but Antheil takes it almost immediately in a different direction, almost turning it into an American hora (though the liner notes call it “circus-like”). And once again, the music makes reference to an America now dead and gone. To quote Antheil:

On big election nights, we boys used to collect all the loose lumber in the neighborhood, stack it in a big pile on the back lots, burn it in a huge bonfire, while we danced around it. This is traditional, all over America.

Well, it was traditional. Nowadays the press would complain that it was cruel to cut down trees for lumber just to burn it and contributed to Climate Change.

The Sixth Symphony, subtitled “After Delacroix,” had a much happier fate than the Third. After the surprise success of his Fourth Symphony, Antheil was suddenly in demand again in concert halls (though, apparently, not in sufficient enough demand to have the Third Symphony performed), thus this work was premiered by no less an old-school conductor than Pierre Monteux with the San Francisco Symphony in February 1949. Even so, it met with mixed critical reaction; they liked its energy but didn’t care much for his juxtaposing themes in large blocks of sound or his “lapses into pomposity and bombast.” But once again, Antheil had pulled off a miraculously vital and unpredictable piece of music, one that typified his energetic enthusiasm as an American.

The music is admittedly quirky, and what surprised me when listening to it was that I didn’t feel it was different in any marked or substantial way from the doomed Third Symphony. Indeed, in the first movement, at the 7:50 mark, Antheil pulls off a Charles Ives moment, using harsh dissonances and a quote from The Battle Hymn of the Republic. The second movement, however, is particularly lyrical, almost gentle, a rare departure for the normally-fiery Antheil. The last movement is an all-speed-ahead rush to the finish line. One idiotic critic compared Antheil’s music to Shostakovich’s but complained that it lacked spirituality. Apparently, he had no clue what George Antheil was all about to begin with.

For a piece lasting less than five minutes, Antheil’s Spectre of the Rose Waltz had a strange and quirky history. It was part of the soundtrack he wrote for a 1946 Ben Hecht film of the same name. Though the film’s title was obviously inspired by the Diaghelev ballet, which used Berlioz’ orchestration of Weber’s piano piece Invitation to the Dance, the plot concerns a male ballet dancer suspected of murdering his first wife who seems intent on killing his second the same way. FYI, the full movie is (at this writing) available for free viewing on YouTube. Antheil’s music, by contrast, has absolutely nothing to do with Weber-Berlioz, but is a dark romantic piece based on Ravel’s La Valse.

All in all, then, this CD is a real ear-opener, one of the best so far in Chandos’ Antheil series.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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