George Antheil’s Childhood in Trenton

by Guy Livingston
published in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, September 2001

“The main clues of a composer’s life are in his music, but it is not always so easy to read them” [George Antheil, p 172, original typescript to Bad Boy of Music]

George Antheil was an inventor. All his life he was constantly inventing ideas, writing books, creating astonishing music, coming up with get-rich-quick plans, copyrighting new and bizarre schemes. He wrote four books, two under his own name, one under a pseudonym, and one anonymously: A mystery, a set of forecasts for W.W.II, a book of endocrinological crime-solving, and an autobiography. He copyrighted a music notational system called SEE-Note, and he patented a torpedo-guidance system, whose functions uncannily foreshadowed the communications technology used in GSM cell phones today.
However all these inventions are obscured by one more astonishing than the rest: Antheil invented himself as the ultra-modern American celebrity musician. How could he do this? How could a barely-educated youth from the industrial Trenton suburbs who neither graduated High School nor conservatory end up as a succes de scandale in Paris at the age of 23? Antheil was a good composer with occasional flashes of genius. But he was not the best composer in America, nor the best composer in Europe. Yet his ideas were so radical, and his ability to lead the media so astounding, that he was constantly on the front pages of the world’s newspapers. Various American pianists (notably Gottschalk) had created frenzied cult followings. But Antheil invented the American avant-garde, with a bang.
Antheil’s family, a fascinating blend of German immigrant farmers and salesmen, was a major influence on his future, and their mix of support and antagonism did much to form the young composer’s conception of the world. Antheil’s professional life, from his European debut in 1922 to his years as a Hollywood composer, has been carefully documented, [1] but Antheil’s childhood in Trenton has not yet been studied. The recent acquisition by The New York Public Library of the original typescripts to Bad Boy of Music (BBM) enable us to examine this period for the first time. [2]

Childhood and Family

George Antheil’s childhood was a fascinating combination of American suburban standbys and German traditions. His mother Wilhemine Huse Antheil was a "strict, fundamentalist, Lutheran," of the “hellfire and damnation” type, her family came possibly from Danzig (Gdansk). His father, Henry William Antheil, was a "kindly, outgoing" shoe salesman, owner of “Antheil's, A Friendly Family Shoe Store.” George’s uncle Will was a traveling shoe salesman, and also in vaudeville. He kept a joke book for handy reference, and often entertained George and his cousins with funny stories and songs.
The leader of the family was George’s very strongly Germanic grandmother (Henry’s mother), who lived a rural European life out on her farm near Trenton. The family spoke mostly German in those years, but apparently George was not gifted for languages, and years later, Heinsheimer would sardonically remark, “He insisted on writing the most abominable German, while I used mine as exercises in basic English. It is a pity that this correspondence has been lost to posterity.” Nonetheless, George's German was serviceable, and he was always at ease in the language whether he made mistakes or not.
George’s first sonic memories are shrouded in myth. He was born near the Trenton prison, and he claimed to have developed an interest in ragtime after two spinsters moved in next door and proceeded to play their piano all day, very loud. According to the published version of his autobiography these women were covering up for a particularly daring underground escape from the jail. Like most of the stories in the autobiography, it is excellent, funny, and totally fabricated. The jail was at least four blocks away, and such a mythical tunnel would have taken decades to dig. More probable, indeed certain, was that the young Antheil was influenced by the sounds of the machine shops and factories surrounding his neighborhood. Trenton was an aggressively industrial town, and the incessant rhythm of the factories and trains must have been a steady backdrop for every resident of the city.
However, until he was five years old, George spent most of his time living in a more peaceful environment north of Trenton (near Washington’s Crossing), where his grandparents had a rustic farmhouse on the banks of the Delaware river. Raised by a large family, including several teenage aunts and uncles, George was mostly cut off from the outside world, and lived, he said, as if in 19th-century Europe. Years later, his cousins would reminisce nostalgically about working hard to grow their own food, showering from a bucket, picking potatoes and apples, and playing baseball in the back yard. The work ethic was strong, and as a family of immigrants struggling to establish themselves in America, everyone, even the kids, was expected to do their share. George remembered hearing the Negro orchestras playing as the riverboats drifted down the Delaware River in the summer evenings. These memories are among the strongest in the typescript of his autobiography (BBM).
Circa 1906, George moved with his parents and his two-year old sister back to Trenton, where they lived in a newly-built house at 7 McKinley Avenue. His Aunt Millie lived nearby and owned a square piano which he loved, and for his 6th (or 3rd: the story varies) birthday he begged his parents for a real piano of his own. To his disgust, he received not a real, but rather a toy piano, and in a fit of anger (a sign of things to come) dramatically hauled the thing downstairs to the cellar and chopped it to bits with a hatchet. Though he received a sound spanking, this confirmed his lifelong policy, as he crowed in BBM, of “all or nothing!”
In the meantime, he adored his Uncle Will, who provided the music in the family. “Uncle was fanatically fond of organizing and appearing in minstrel shows: he knew all of their time-honored music by heart. Much of this was charming and heart-stopping music of Stephen Foster. Uncle Will also knew the other popular tunes of the day...He and dad would pick me up upon their shoulders and march around the kitchen, singing ‘I’ve got a girl in Baltimore, Hundred dollar carpet on the floor...’ ”
George’s interest in popular music, particularly ‘jazz’ (what we now refer to as ragtime), vaudeville, and spanish music (habañeras, ‘creole’ music, and latin rhythms) was precocious, prescient, and would extend throughout his whole life, culminating in such brilliant works as the Jazz Symphony, Capital of the World, and the score to the movie The Pride and the Passion, set in Spain.
Finally his family did acquire a piano, more for the use of his younger sister than for George. His sister would play the piano, and he would play the violin, but “as soon as the door was shut, he’d switch to piano.” He contrived permission to practice at least an hour per day, and seems to have taken lessons with his mother and then with a German composer name Karl Weissert, who had been a beau of his mother’s prior to her marriage.
During these days of his youth, played baseball, fished in the river, started a secret club with his friends, tapped into the neighbors’ phone lines as a prank, practiced the piano all the time, and dreamed of moving to Europe. His local ‘gang’ of buddies was not just about baseball and apple pie: this group of friends included George, avant-garde composer; Stanley Hart, future playwright and author; and Richard Crooks, future tenor at the Metropolitan Opera. Not bad for an obscure suburb of Trenton in the 1910s...

Voyage to Europe

In 1911, his younger sister Ruth died suddenly, the piano was locked up, and the family prepared to go abroad to distract Wilhemina from her grief. Although the date (or even the reality) of this trip remains in doubt, it seems fairly certain from examination of the drafts of BBM that they did indeed voyage to Germany in 1911, passing through Manchester on July 1st, 1911, the date of the Moroccan (‘Agadir’) incident, which caused consternation on board. Their ship, the Norddeutcher Lloyd liner “Prinz Frederich Wilhelm” docked in Bremerhaven. Mother, father, and son stayed in hotels in Bromberg and Thorn. They planned, said George, to visit "Marienweder and the pine forests of mother's girlhood." This last detail is difficult to reconcile, as his mother’s birth certificate indicates that she was born in Trenton.
His parents went off to take the waters, leaving George near Rehof in the capable hands of his erstwhile Tante Kolinski, who treated him like one of the family. Hers was a family of peasants: they spoke German (and Polish?), and supposedly had a relative who took the impressionable 11-year old to see a slaughterhouse and a castle, not to mention teaching him marksmanship. His descriptions in the published version of BBM are unbelievably lurid. But in early typescripts he gives much a less exaggerated, and hence more credible version.
George’s trip must have been an eye-opener in many ways: he discovered travel, ocean liners, and Europe. Returning to Trenton, he gave his first newspaper interview, describing to an eager journalist his exotic trip. George was now ready to take on the world, and his single-minded purpose to become a composer was etched in stone. Around this time, he changed his name. Baptized Georg Carl Johann Antheil, he became simply George Antheil, composer.
At least seven compositions survive from 1912, the first year he began composing seriously. Though he was only twelve years old, they are programmatic, humorous works, full of mistakes, but also full of experiments. Typically his harmonic work is dull or predictable, but his rhythm already foreshadows the wild things to come: chordal ostinati, many repetitions, and the occasional attempt at a ragtimey, syncopated feel. These are by no means the work of a prodigy, but they are the works of a surprisingly curious and extremely hard-working kid. The effort in every unsteady barline and painstaking notehead is almost tangible. Meanwhile, the titles overflow with schmaltz: The Last of the Titanic, Du! Liebster, Baby Brother Song, Sonata on “The Dying Gladiator,” etc. His classmates gave especially high ratings to the Titanic, which they would act out with hysterical laughter. George reminisced later, “Dick White--the actor talent amongst us--even invented a long and involved pantomime to fit it which was, to say the least, hair-raising. For, and at the bitter end of it, Dick not only kissed a heartbroken wife and seven crying brats, but he also jumped into the sea with a soul-searing scream that trailed down suddenly to be muffled by a gurgle as his imaginary ocean engulfed him......”
Bob: “When he tackled the piano, he was a veritable maniac... The country place was bedlam from dawn until way after dark because George never left the piano. He would bang out the same phrase, sometimes for two or three days at a time, until he got it exactly the way the wanted it. When I looked at the piano keys, they were worn through the ivory facing and finger shaped 3/8 of an inch down through the wood! If genius is 99% hard work, I guess George was an example of it.”
His piano teacher Karl Weissert's apparent alcoholic suicide somewhere during this time (the date is not certain) set a terrible example and George’s family firmly banned him from becoming a composer, which only encouraged him.
With the onset of W.W.I, and his entry into High School, George was now starting to re-invent his life. No longer was he German: he had become ‘Polish’ and was going to be a great artist. His term papers from school are a bizarre mixture of fantasy and reality.

High School (very briefly)

He read avidly, guided by Stanley Hart, who was eager to peruse all the salacious material at the Trenton Public Library (there wasn’t much), but also reading Balzac, François Villon, Gustave Flaubert, the autobiography of Georges Sand, numerous Horatio Alger novels, and quite a bit about the Byzantines, Egyptians, and other ancient cultures, And he wrote poetry and science fiction of his own, in a Victorian, melodramatic style.
His father put him to work in the shoe store, hoping to distract him, and George was glad to have the money, despite the boring job. He spent it all on scores and would sing to himself, drumming on the shoe boxes in the back storeroom.
“George played so much and was so crazy about music that his mother sent him out to the country one summer,” where there was no piano. But “there was a music store called Barlow’s, and he convinced them to send out a piano. He did a little work on the farm, and even though the family didn’t have a pair of gloves to their name, George would put gloves on to protect his hands. He would play the same song over and over.” Hugh Ford quoted Antheil’s mother as saying: “George, music should soothe, not irritate. Yours is too discordant. It irritates me, your father, the neighbors, and it will irritate your audiences.” And that was just what Antheil was planning.
However, others in the family were more supportive, including his father, who scraped and saved to pay for piano lessons, and later for trips to study in New York and Philadelphia. Anna Neumann, his brother and new sister’s nanny, and a much more affectionate person (“she made that family,” recalls one cousin) than Antheil’s mother, was also enthusiastic about his music, as was Grandmother Huse, who would get into arguments with her daughter over George’s uncertain future. By 1916, he was meeting those outside the family who would help him become a famous figure. Chief among these new contacts was the Philadelphia teacher Constantin von Sternberg, a former pupil of Liszt, and a major influence on Antheil’s career, though they disagreed on everything.
In the winter of 1918, George flunked out of Trenton Central High School in the midst of his Senior year. Though he was an outstanding member of his class, and editor of school literary magazine, he was also a prankster, and irresponsible. His cousin Bob Antheil tells of his hanging a skeleton from the flagpole, and others have mentioned his writing of doggerel in the school newspaper. He wanted desperately to join the war, but was too young, and was rejected by the Royal Canadian Air Force (to his parents’ relief). He spent the Fall of 1918 working as a munitions inspector for the U.S. Army on the docks of Philadelphia.
Antheil now continued his music studies with renewed vigor, composing seriously and taking composition lessons with his hero Ernest Bloch in New York. His piano lesson notebooks show that he was studying Chopin, Bach, a Rheinberger fugue, Mozart sonatas, and Tchaikowsky. The only modern works on the list are a Cyril Scott sonata, and the Debussy Preludes, which Sternberg disliked but Antheil loved.
In the summer of 1920, Antheil moved away from home for good, and settled in a rambling house in Bernardsville (New Jersey) with Margaret Anderson, the pianist Allen Tanner, and Georgette LeBlanc Maeterlinck. This idyllic summer has been extensively and beautifully documented by Hugh Ford.[2] Doubtless his exposure to the ideas and mores of French bohemianism were a factor in Antheil's decision to move to Paris.
The next year must have passed in a blur. Antheil moved to Philadelphia, set up house with several roommates downtown (they furnished their flat with stolen porch furniture), had a few lessons with Alfredo Casella, taught part-time at the Curtis Settlement School, studied with George Boyle, acquired a patron (Mary Louise Bok) who would fund him intermittently for the next two decades, proposed marriage to a beautiful socialite girl named Anne Williams, was soundly rebuffed by both her parents (“my mother almost had kittens”) and practiced so hard, Henry remembers, that “he had banged through the keys.”
In May of 1922, Antheil sailed for Europe. He would not see his family again for five years, during which time he would become the celebrity of the American avant-garde.


The published version of BBM mythologized Antheil’s childhood: layers of invention obscured the complex realities that defined Antheil in real life. The strong work-ethic of his Lutheran mother, the shoe-selling skills of his father, and the vaudeville talents of his uncle all had their impact on the young George. In certain ways, Antheil, the all-American composer, had the all-American childhood: immigrant grandparents, a strict upbringing, a carefree suburban neighborhood, fishing expeditions on the river, early piano lessons, vacations on the farm, a good schooling, one supportive parent and one negative one, and then a sudden break to leave home and seek his fortune. After speaking with his family, and studying the original typescripts of BBM, a picture of Antheil emerges that shows his complex understanding of (and sometimes denial of) the contrasts between Old-World and New-World, tradition and modernity, artistry and salesmanship, substance and superficiality.

Why did he want to hide his past? Perhaps it was too personal, perhaps he felt that he had to live up to the myth of the genius avant-garde inventor-composer; the renaissance man of modern American music. Perhaps it was just more rewarding to escape the complexities of a childhood in small-town America. Studying his unpublished recollections, we can better see the man behind the myth. What his fictional, and over-sold reputation obscures is that George Antheil was a skilled composer, an outsider eager to talk about himself, a brilliant orchestrator, a workaholic with unlimited energy to compose day and night, and the inventor of himself and of two or three of the most astounding pieces of the century.

© 2001 Guy Livingston/Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (Mainz, Germany)


1.) Major works on Antheil:
Linda Whitesitt: Life and Music of George Antheil, 1900-1959. Thesis, Ann Arbor, 1983.
Mauro Piccinini: Il compositore perduto, Antheil a Parigi. Thesis, University of Trieste, 1999.
Hugh Ford: Four Lives in Paris, North Point Press, San Francisco, 1987.

2.) Acknowledgments
I am also indebted to genealogical expert Monica McGoldrick, and to George’s family: his son Peter Antheil, his nephew Art McTigue and cousins Henry Antheil and Lois Oelander for their wonderful reminiscences about George’s early escapades.

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Henry and George here are playing baseball in the yard beside the farm near Trenton, probably about 1912. Photo courtesy of the Henry Antheil family.