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George Antheil (1900 -1959)

Lifespan: 1900 - 1959

Related: experimental music - avant-garde music - Surrealism in cinema

Composer George Antheil was 23 years old in 1923 when he began work on what was to be his most famous - or most infamous - creation, Ballet pour instrument mécaniques et percussion, more commonly called Ballet mécanique. Antheil was a young American living in Paris, where he was friends with Igor Stravinsky, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, and other artistic lights of the era. In fact, he lived at the epicenter of it all, in a one-room apartment above Shakespeare & Company, the legendary English-language bookstore owned by Sylvia Beach, the first publisher of Joyce's Ulysses and the plaintiff in the book's US obscenity trial. -- Paul D. Lehrman via http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/7.11/ballet.html

Films: Ballet Mécanique (1924)


George Carl Johann Antheil (Trenton, New Jersey, June 8, 1900 – New York City, February 12, 1959) was an American avant-garde composer and pianist.

Antheil grew up in a family of Lutheran immigrants from Ludwigswinkel, Germany. Antheil was not Polish, as he claimed, nor Jewish, as others thought. [1] His father owned a local shoe store. [2]

Starting in 1916, Antheil studied piano under Constantine von Sternberg of Philadelphia and then Ernest Bloch of New York. Here, Antheil received formal instruction in composition. In 1922, Antheil was invited by agent Martin H. Hanson to replace the injured Leo Ornstein, playing Chopin on a European tour.

Reactions to his first performances were cool at best. His technique was loud, brazen, and percussive. Antheil suggested that ingrained in his mind were the din of machines from Trenton factories. Critics wrote that he hit the piano rather than played it, and indeed he often injured himself by doing so. His reputation was to good and bad extremes, though more often the latter, except among Parisians. Audiences in Budapest got so restless sometimes that Antheil would pull a pistol from his jacket and lay it on the piano to make people pay attention. [3]

Around the time of this tour, von Sternberg introduced the young Antheil to his patron of the next two decades: Mary Louise Curtis Bok, founder of the Curtis Institute of Music.[4] As critical as she was to his livelihood however, Antheil never acknowledges her in his autobiography. Rather, he briefly alludes to her, saying how unfortunate it was that a musician’s art should be interrupted by a constant need to ask for financial support.[5]

By 1923, Antheil had married Böski Markus (of Jewish Hungarian descent, met in Austria) and moved to Paris. There, he found many influential friends, including his idol Igor Stravinsky, James Joyce, and Ernest Hemingway, among others. These young artists would attend Antheil’s performances and yell support if the crowd was rude. In fact, the director Marcel L'Herbier filmed one incident in Paris, when Man Ray supposedly slapped a protester. The clip was taken for the movie, L'inhumaine.[6] Friends like Ezra Pound and Natalie Barney helped produce some original works, including the First String Quartet in 1926.[7] Pound’s mistress, Olga Rudge, performed Antheil’s violin sonatas.

Antheil’s best-known composition is Ballet Mécanique (1924). The “ballet” was about 30 minutes long, written for a 16-minute film of the same name by Dudley Murphy and Fernand Léger. Obviously, the soundtrack had to be scrapped, although the film credits still included Antheil. Nevertheless, Ballet Mécanique premiered as concert music in Paris in 1926. The onstage airplane propeller blew off toupees and hats, which caused some scuffles, but critics produced positive reviews anyway. Antheil became known as the “bad boy of music.” [8]--http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George Antheil


  1. Antheil: Ballet Mecanique (1924) - George Antheil [1 CD, Amazon US]
    1. Ballet Macanique 2. Serenade For String Orchestra, No. 1: Allegro 3. Serenade For String Orchestra, No. 1: Andante molto 4. Serenade For String Orchestra, No. 1: Vivo 5. Symphony For Five Instruments: Allegro 6. Symphony For Five Instruments: Lento 7. Symphony For Five Instruments: Presto 8. Concert For Chamber Orchestra
    George Antheil's reputation as the Bad Boy of Music (the title of his fascinating autobiography) was earned largely with his Ballet Mécanique, written to accompany an abstract silent film by the artist Fernand Leger. It was composed for player pianos and percussion, with harsh, driving rhythms, and it caused the kind of riots in Paris that were useful to a composer's reputation. Today, that reputation may keep Antheil from being taken seriously. But when you hear the Ballet (as rescored in 1953 for an early mono recording) today, it's a substantial and exciting piece of music, formally tight and not at all hard on 21st century ears. The remainder of this program shows more of Antheil's range. The Serenade is a lovely piece of Americana, with a particularly touching slow movement. The Symphony and Concert owe much to Stravinsky's "neoclassical" style; both hold up very well. Spalding drives the Ballet hard, and it sounds more frenetic than that old mono recording, but the music can take the heat. This and the remaining performances are splendidly played by the excellent chamber orchestra, and the recording is clear, well-balanced, and realistic in sound. Another Naxos winner. --Leslie Gerber for amazon.com [...]

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