antheil


Childhood in Trenton
Antheil takes Berlin and Paris by Storm
Travels in Europe and America
Music in Hollywood





 

Childhood in Trenton

George Antheil was born on June 8th, 1900 in Trenton, New Jersey. The son of a shoe salesman, he studied piano from an early age. At eleven, considered to be “too interested in music for his own good,” he was apparently sent to spend the summer of 1911 in Europe, probably in Bavaria, with his Aunt and Uncle Kolinski, farmers and music lovers, from whom he learned to speak fluent German.

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Antheil takes Berlin and Paris by Storm

“I had never heard piano playing like it. He was a mixture of frenzy and precision which went far beyond conventional virtuosity. A machine seemed to be playing the keys. Unbelievably difficult and complex rhythms were combined ... Dynamics and tempos were taken to extremes. It was a stunning success. Antheil took a bow.”
--H. H. Stuckenschmidt

Antheil was an instant sensation in Europe, and took up residence in Berlin, meeting his idol Stravinsky, and giving piano concerts (traveling with his personal Steinway) to wild acclaim. As a recitalist, he invariably concluded with several of his own works, becoming notorious for his syncopated rhythms and clashing dissonances. The Airplane Sonata, The Death of Machines, and many other motoric and driving solo works come from this period. In late 1922 or early 1923, the Berlin Philharmonic premiered his First Symphony under von Dornberg, a former German ace fighter pilot. The Berlin critics damned the symphony-“Berlin was not ready for my music.” Possibly Antheil’s music was not yet ready for Berlin.
Antheil moved onto Paris in 1923 in a whirlwind of recriminations, publicity, and scandals. On October 4th, 1923, he gave a wildly acclaimed concert at the Champs Elysées Theater in Paris, opening for the Ballets Suédois. This notorious concert was the springboard to Antheil’s instant fame in Paris.
In 1926, Antheil began to look towards a more neo-classical style, again following the lead of his ‘maitre’ Stravinsky (who was no longer even speaking to him). The second piano concerto was premiered the next year, to mixed reviews, while Antheil was in New York for the American premiere of Ballet Mécanique at Carnegie Hall. The critical failure of both of these events led in part to Antheil’s subsequent decision to give up the avant-garde altogether and to move back to the United States. The early mechanistic works, whether they had been performed or not, were abandoned in response to Antheil’s disillusionment with the Avant-Garde, and his disappointment with the worsening political scene in Europe.

The Ballet mécanique in a performance in Essen, Germany, August 2002

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Travels

The photo at right shows Antheil on vacation in Tunis in 1923. He made many trips to North Africa, and spent some time trying to notate the local musics. In general, however, these trips were primarily for vacation from his Parisian workload.
During the 1930’s Antheil traveled around a great deal with his wife Boski. They tried living in New York, New Mexico, and even moved briefly back to France. Antheil kept up a lively correspondence with friends in Paris, especially Sylvia Beach and Joyce, with whom he was writing an opera based on the story of Cain and Abel. George and Boski vacationed with Hemingway at least twice during this period. Meanwhile, Antheil was writing for Esquire Magazine, who had astonished him with the amount of money they were willing to pay for what he considered drivel. Indeed it was drivel, but the money was far better than anything Antheil could get from composing, especially during the depression, and so he took it happily enough.





 

Music in Hollywood

In the late 1930's he finally settled in California where he became a successful movie composer. Aside from composing film scores, ballet, and neo-classical symphonies, he also put his astonishing talents to work designing a patent for torpedo guidance, assisted by the actress Hedy Lamarr (former wife of Fritz Mandl, arms dealer to the Nazis in the 30’s). This torpedo system used punched paper rolls inspired by player piano technology to shift radio communications quickly and synchronously between a large number of bandwidths, thereby defeating enemy attempts to jam communications. This principle is now used in cellular telephone communications.
George Antheil died suddenly in 1959, of a heart attack. He was only 58 years old.

George and Böski Antheil, 1950s

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Antheil
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.

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