It’s damn near impossible to hang a label on George Antheil’s music. Or, for that matter, it’s equally difficult to hang a label on the man himself. He kept changing his artistic and personal identity as often as he (hopefully) changed his underwear.
Do I like his music? More about that later. But Antheil himself did not care for much of it, initially raising Cain to get his work performed at any cost anywhere, then dismissing most of what he had written in the first half of his checkered career as unworthy.
When they first heard Antheil’s music, many critics called it naïve, coarse, boring… But Satie, Milhaud, Copland liked, even celebrated it. Leopold Stokowski and Antal Dorati programmed it. Yet I admit to be baffled by much of Antheil’s musical output, even when all of what is included in this CD is so beautifully played by the Duo Odeon in a neatly produced and packaged debut album.
I find what I just learned today about George Antheil, the man, utterly fascinating. Antheil’s life story reads like a tell-all page turner. But then there is the musician. As a young man he learned music and piano largely all on his own. He was notorious for turning all 88 keys of the average piano that fell under his control into instruments of perniciously percussive attack on the ears of his family, neighbors and, eventually, his audiences. He lusted to have opportunities to cause riots as large as the one that had greeted the premiere of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, and if nothing much happened he’d pout.
In 1923 he and his future wife moved to Paris and immediately fell in with the who’s who of the European Avant-garde, first in France, then in Berlin, then in the late thirties and one step ahead of the Nazis back to NYC, then on to California where Hollywood beckoned.
De Mille and other celluloid kings liked what he wrote, so he got hired to write incidental music for two dozen films. But he was dissatisfied with the low standards of Hollywood music-making so he took his checks and high-tailed it back home to NYC. Again, was life is colorful, varied, with a man ever eager to get all he could out of life. Antheil was the proud possessor of a powerfully-creative mind unfortunately paired up to a fatal flaw Olympian ego that more than once tripped him up
I gave the CD two careful listens. I find much too much of Antheil’s music blunt, derivatively sounding like warmed up Milhaud or Honegger, minus the French flair for wit and melody. There is an attractive muscularity and lots of testosterone-driven rhythms in Antheil’s Alpha Male music, but neither sweeping lyricism, nor much cantilena of the kind one can find by spades in the works of so many of his European contemporaries. All that I said with one major exception: the salon-flavored waltzes from Specter of the Rose, film music at its best.
For the earnest collector of modern music, this SONO LUMINUS DSL 92222 release is a must have. For the musically curious I recommend acquiring both it and a copy of Antheil’s 1945 auto-biography, The Bad Boy of Music.
And to SONO LUMINUS and the Duo Odeon, a salute for their serious explorations of forgotten corners of the repertory.
Rafael de Acha