Early in his teens, Antheil was already composing and studying piano with Constantine Von Sternberg in Philadelphia. Several compositional fragments from his teens survive, including The Sinking of the Titanic and various other juvenilia, notable more for their lurid titles than their musical value. He also studied composition with Ernst Bloch in New York, and was later to take lessons with Schnabel in Berlin. He was devoted to Stravinsky and was heavily influenced by the Russian's style, especially as typified in Petrouchka and Le Sacre. Indeed, Antheil was to be criticized heavily by his contemporaries for taking this influence too far.
To our postmodern ears the musical references to Stravinsky and occasionally Bartok or Poulenc seem like acknowledgments; quotes from his compositional idols. Transitions are sudden and occasionally brutal, a favorite and considered trick: Antheil was definitely an angry young man. The music seems calculated to showcase the extremes of the piano.
The Ballet Mécanique
For better or worse, this sensational piece is the most well-known of Antheil's works. Much of this fame has to do with the wild publicity that surrounded its first performances in Paris and New York. The Carnegie Hall premiere in particular was an over-hyped disaster that would haunt Antheil most of his life. In the photo, Antheil and his wife are shown with the producer of this ill-fated extravaganza.
For an insightful look into the genesis of this piece and its recent reconstruction using modern technologies, see Paul Lehrman's November article in Wired Magazine (available at www.antheil.org).
Stravinskys music, hard, cold, unsentimental, enormously brilliant and virtuous, was now the favorite of my postadolescence. In a different way it achieved the hard, cold, postwar flawlessness which I myself wanted to attain-but in an entirely different style, medium...
George Antheil; p. 29, autobiography: Bad Boy of Music.
I envied George his freedom from academic involvements, the bravado of his music, and its brutal charm. -p. 75
All were fascinated by Antheils cheerful lack of modesty. He was in fact the literary minds idea of a musical genius: bold, bumptious, and self-confident. -p. 78
Virgil Thomson: Autobiography, 1966, on meeting Antheil in Paris in the 1920's.
The Pianola Rolls (and some controversy)
Pianola roll artisan and manufacturer L. Douglas Henderson is not at all in favor of the current revival for midi pianos and percussion of the Ballet Mécanique.
In this excerpt from his website he shows his intense disagreement with the prevailing ideas on Antheils intentions.
"BALLET MÉCANIQUE was part of the "futurist" - or 'machine music' - movement, which played itself out between the Great War (W.W.I) and the Great Depression (the early 'Thirties). George Antheil was ahead of his time with the idea of synchronizing motion picture film to a piece written for Player-Piano music rolls -- but he understood little about the Pianola mechanism or its attributes and limitations. Thus, the original rolls never really performed as they should, burying the "superimposed rhythms" in a muddle of irregular chords ... and the Pleyel arrangers simply left out many technical passages (comprising hundreds of notes) in many places.
Unless you have witnessed BALLET MÉCANIQUE as a work for SOLO Pianola (forget the film!) you really haven't heard the Composer's intentions. The 30-minute piece was written for a Player-Piano only plus a motion picture projector - and performed in a Salon for a small audience. In later years, with Atheil's many revisions - usually for money and/or publicity - it turned into an orchestral muddle featuring multiple pianists, sometimes a "drowned-out" Pianola and a host of irritating sound effects, ranging from doorbells and automobile horns to aeroplane propellers (replaced by tape loops of jet engine recordings in the 1953 revision). The work is BALANCED, though ultra-dissonant since it imitates the SOUNDS OF HEAVY MACHINERY, and various patterns resurface to yield organization to the complicated music, which - at times - encompasses up to 31 keys of the piano! One can only experience the original BALLET MÉCANIQUE through the means of a single Player-Piano, performing with "steel-like" staccato striking and its inherent precisioned rhythm. Heard any other way, the Pianola becomes a trivialized effect ... and the multiple musicians blur the rhythms."
In the mid twenties, even before the New York premiere of Ballet Mécanique, Antheil was already making a fairly quick shift away from the aggressiveness of his early music. This seachange in his work may have been due to several influences: Antheil was studying Beethoven's music closely at the time, and expressed his wish to return to a more classical style. Also, Stravinsky himself was no longer writing in the idiom that had shocked Europe a decade earlier. In any case, Antheil now wrote the Symphonie en fa, the Second Piano Concerto, and the Suite for Orchestra, all of which typify his new approach. Supporters of his earlier style were dissapointed, particularly Ezra Pound, who urged him to reconsider this artistic re-direction.
Antheil's operas are Volpone, Transatlantic, Helen Retires,
and Venus in Africa (plus The Brothers, based on the Cain
and Abel story). Additionally, Antheil wrote a beautiful
and searching score to Yeats' drama Fighting the Waves.
This work was premiered to rave reviews in Dublin on August
13th, 1929, and has recently been recorded by the Ensemble
Moderne on the BMG label.
Writing for the The New York Times, critic Anthony Tommasini described the plot of Antheil's opera Transatlantic (May 3, 1998) as follows:
"Given the story line of the virtually forgotten 1928 opera "Transatlantic," by the American composer George Antheil, the self-described "bad boy of music," one can readily understand why the Minnesota Opera put $1 million into an elaborate production of the work, which closed here last weekend, actually a co-production with the New York City Opera. This cynical satire is as up-to-date as the current headlines. Ajax, a corrupt American oil baron, recruits a compliant, photogenic young go-getter, Hector Jackson, to run for President. To keep Hector in line, Ajax directs a luxury-loving seductress, Helen, to ensnare him. But Helen falls for Hector. So to be safe, Ajax forces her to marry a notorious gigolo, Jason. Meanwhile, Leo, the campaign treasurer, who is also nuts for Helen, embezzles $1 million from Ajax's war chest to buy a diamond ring with which to woo her. Naturally, the passive, hedonistic, celebrity-struck American populace sweeps Hector into office."
Robert K. Schwarz writes in Opera News vol. 62 (Mar. 28 1998)
"George Antheil: you could hate him or love him, but you could not ignore him.
...Yes, folks, it's yet another political docu-opera, with a contemporary setting, telling a story as fresh as the headlines. A presidential campaign has sunk into a quagmire of corruption. A millionaire oil baron is buying electoral victory; by mounting his own candidate, he can be sure that the newly elected president will kowtow.
Clamoring for attention are an adulterous politician and a campaign treasurer turned embezzler, along with a generous garnish of hypocrisy, sex, suicide and murder. The public is apathetic and hedonistic, dancing blindly on the precipice. The message is simple: presidential elections are won or lost by corporate profit, not popular vote."
Michael Anthony writes in the American Record Guide vol. 61, no. 4 (July 1998):
"Transatlantic suggests that Antheil was a better composer than we might have thought, if we had thought about him at all. The wonderful moments-and there are many of them-in this big, bustling score have patches of Stravinsky-like neoclassicism and modernist polytonality along with an easy and fluid command of blues and jazz idioms-an easier command than composers such as Milhaud and Stravinsky had.
Surely if Antheil's work for the stage had been encouraged-if, for example, the Metropolitan Opera had picked up Transatlantic after the premiere in Germany-Antheil and Gershwin, whose Porgy and Bess was to come along five years later, might have pointed the way toward a native American opera style. But that, by and large, never happened. An additional early production also would have allowed Antheil to rework the score and take out some of the bugs."
Transatlantic was produced by the Minnesota Opera at the Ordway Music
Theater, directed by James Robinson, and designed by John
Conklin. A completely separate production was performed
in Flensburg, Germany, in 2002. Read the (pdf)
The original production of Transatlantic in Frankfurt, 1929
Ensconced in Hollywood, earning a precarious living off his film scores, writings, (and allegedly the proceeds from sales of the Picassos and Braques he had bought in Paris in the twenties), Antheil focussed on his new neo-classical work, rather than his earlier wild compositions, and though he wrote about them affectionately and humorously in his autobiography, the avant-garde material was mostly unperformed for the rest of his lifetime. Only a few works from this period (The Airplane Sonata, Ballet Mécanique, and several operas and ballet scores) were published and entered the repertoire. The rest remained, often in a sole pen or pencil copy, at the Antheil home in California. The new works were primarily symphonic, ballet, musical or film scores, and are in a an accessible and broadly american idiom.
His well-known film scores include Dementia, Once in a Blue
Moon (Paramount, 1935) and The Plainsman (Paramount, 1936).
On November 20th, 1970, Charles Amirkhanian asked Boski Antheil to have
the early works performed in a concert sponsored by KPFA at sold-out Hertz
Hall on the U.C. Berkeley campus, a concert which really launched the
revival of Antheil's music.
Subsequent concerts in the Netherlands by Reinbert de Leeuw and the Netherlands
Wind Ensemble in 1976, which were precipitated by Amirkhanian's work as
a broadcaster in Holland over Radio VPRO in 1973-74, became a springboard
for Dutch performances of not only Antheil, but also Henry Brant, Lou
Harrison and other composers of the American experimental tradition.
On Boski Antheil's death in 1978, Charles Amirkhanian became the executor
of the Antheil Estate. In 1991 the scores were acquired by the Music Division
of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.
In 1981, the first and only scholarly work on Antheils music was
written, as a doctoral thesis by Linda Whitesitt, then at the University
of Maryland (UMI Reseach Press). Her work is the definitive study and
covers the manuscripts, letters, and evolution of Antheils compositional
The Ballet mécanique in a performance in Essen, August 2002
Many questions exist about Antheils short and colorful career
as an avant-garde composer. Documenting his life and work are notoriously
difficult tasks... his autobiography is more fiction than fact,
and little scholarly work has been done. Was he really an inspired genius,
mixing the folk music of his ancestral Germany with the machinery of American
industry? Did he invent a new sense of time and rhythm, as Ezra Pound
claimed in his polemical 1923 book Antheil and the Treatise on Harmony?
Or was he merely a gifted imitator, who could spot new trends and mix
them with Stravinsky-esque harmonies for a cocktail that astounded his
A born showman, Antheil seems to have been incapable of sticking to one
career or life. Constantly on the move, staging his own death in North
Africa, designing torpedoes, writing crime novels, inspiring riots in
Paris, chasing after snake charmers and movie starlets, and alienating
his friends as fast as he made them, he wrote brilliant music as he lived:
loud; fast; and recklessly.
"Both Benjamin Lees and Ernest Gold have led peripatetic lives, at
least as young men, and both settled in sunny Southern Cal. Gold, of
known for his movie scores, most famously, I should think, that
for Exodus, whose title song became a monster pop
various arrangements. He was married for a time to Marni Nixon,
the singing voice of many movie stars, and is the father of rocker and
producer Andrew Gold. He has, on occasion, produced concert works. Benjamin
scored, I think, two animated shorts, but has followed the more usual
classical-composer route. People know him mainly for his concerti and
other orchestral works, although
he has built up a large and impressive body of work in just about every
"Both men, however, stood outside the post-Webernian serial mainstream
after World War II, their music showing more in common with pre-war Modernism.
Both men also studied with George Antheil -- Gold after composing his
concerto. It says much
for Antheil as a teacher that neither Lees nor Gold sounds like him or
like one another."
—Steven Schwarz, Classicalcdreview.com (January 2005)
The Piano Concerti
The Antheil First Piano Concerto, for which parts did not previously exist, was premiered March 5, 2001. The pianist was Michael Rische with the BBC Symphony, Grant Llewellyn conducting.
The Antheil Second Piano Concerto, performed only once (1976) since its premiere in 1927, was re-premiered on February 4th, 2001, in Utrecht, with the Dutch Radio Chamber Orchestra, Guy Livingston pianist, Ed Spanjaard, conductor.
About the Concerti
Musically speaking, the First Concerto itself is a brash and enthusiastic blend of
German/Polish folk music, Stravinsky, Bartok, and Antheilıs own dissonant brand
of pianistic virtuosity. Antheilıs predilection for Eastern European rhythms and
dual tonalities seems to have been precisely chosen and calibrated, even down to
his quotations from the ³Russian Dances² of Petrouchka. Fascinatingly enough,
there is not a trace of Antheilıs teacher and mentor, Ernest Bloch.
The concerto is held together more by recurring motifs than by thematic
development. At first it seems a glittering pastiche, almost a postmodern collage
of styles. But on closer inspection, the underlying forms become apparent. The
structure is solid and rigorous, the impact is carefully calculated, the piano
elegantly and powerfully complements the orchestra. His virtuosity at the
instrument is apparent in every phrase. However, the music seems typically
schizophrenic, almost as if it were written by several authors. Antheil fluctuates in
the piece between his own personal music, the ³dream music² best exemplified
by the Airplane Sonata and the music of his hero Stravinsky. Folk influences,
and the occasional jazzy or ragtime riff fill in the gaps between major themes.
Nothing is developed. The initial theme is stated three times, delineating the
overall structure of this solidly one-movement concerto, but each time without
variation. The cadenza features another original lyrical theme with an off-beat
ostinato that he does develop, and it appears in various tonalities (not traditional
harmonies, but rather polytonalities) throughout the work. Two clear motifs from
Petrouchka and references to Le Sacre might have surprised his contemporaries.
To our postmodern ears they seem like acknowledgments; quotes from his
compositional idols. Transitions are sudden and occasionally brutal, a favorite
and considered trick: Antheil was definitely an angry young man. The music
seems calculated to showcase the extremes of the piano.
Carelessly, Antheil labeled this (4 years later) also as Piano Concerto Number
One, and dedicated it to his new wife Böski Marcus. He completed it while on a trip
to her native Budapest. Originally Antheil himself was scheduled to be the pianist
for the 1927 premiere in Paris, but he traveled instead to New York for the
disastrous Carnegie Hall concert. In his absence, Boris Golschman performed the
work, under the baton of his brother Vladimir, who would continue to champion
Antheil for years. The Paris audience, accustomed to the chaos of Antheilıs
previous appearances, was disappointed by the neo-classicism of the concerto,
and Virgil Thomson, usually a staunch supporter, wrote a lukewarm review. Ezra
Pound was actually angry at Antheil for betraying his previous bad-boy style. In
any case, Antheilıs reputation had hit rock-bottom by late 1927. Along with many
other works from this period, the Second Concerto was never published, and not
performed subsequently, except for a reading in 1976, by the Dutch Radio
The Second Piano Concerto is more neo-classical in form, but contains the same
sudden juxtapositions and abrupt contrasts of mood. In three movements, Antheil
employs a more restrained but still exuberant style. The excesses of the Ballet
Mécanique are compensated for by an almost spare, baroque orchestration and
motifs that draw on Bach as much as on Stravinsky. The beautifully meditative
slow movement is followed by a virtuosic and compelling toccata.
notes by Guy Livingston
This famous photo of the ever-confident George Antheil was shot in about 1950...
Photo by William Claxton.