Although early in George Antheil’s autobiography, Bad Boy of Music (1945), the author tells of his friendship with Stravinsky (there’s a photograph of them in a street in Paris), his self-confidence must have taken a battering when he heard the put-down of ‘making a mountain out of an Antheil’.
But self-confidence was something American George Antheil (1900-59) never lacked: a World War One fighter-pilot, concert pianist (his immediate post-war recitals in Germany began with his placing a loaded revolver on the piano), a leading avant-garde composer in the 1920s – I recall vividly his 1926 Ballet méchanique almost sixty years ago at the Royal Festival Hall conducted by Hermann Scherchen (my piano teacher was one of the four pianists) with an absurdly loud aeroplane propeller. Antheil was also a newspaper agony-aunt, a correspondent during World War Two, co-inventor with the actress Hedy Lamarr of a torpedo device adopted by the US military, and a composer of a wide range of later music that has not retained a foothold in the repertory – although, as this excellent Chandos release demonstrates, it certainly deserves more than the occasional hearing.
Over the Plains (1945, this is its first recording) is an effective piece of Americana, very well orchestrated and showing a great deal of compositional invention, if none too elegantly put together, more especially in terms of tempo integration, coming across as an admixture of sub-Aaron Copland and sub-Roy Harris without the strong individuality of either of those two masters, but the work’s brevity makes it a non-starter for concert programming these days, finding its home as a CD track.
With America having found itself drawn into World War Two, a new four-movement Symphony subtitled ‘1942’, apparently non-programmatic, might not unreasonably be thought to reflect something of the times. And it does – in almost exactly the same way as did Shostakovich’s Fifth of 1937. According to Mervyn Cooke’s booklet note, Antheil’s Fourth was first heard in 1944, by the NBCSO under Stokowski, but I have seen a reference to a performance in Cleveland in the 42-43 season, the conductor unknown, possibly Rodziński.
Be that as it may, the influence of Shostakovich’s Fifth on Antheil’s Fourth is almost palpable at times – despite the composer’s somewhat inaccurate defence – and whether Shostakovich did influence Antheil (the Stokowski/Philadelphia recording of the Fifth, the first to be made in the West, had been issued in America in 1940), there is no doubt that Antheil, although highly gifted in many ways and always intensely musical, did not possess the inherent nobility of thought that distinguishes the Russian composer.
So, in the ‘1942’ Symphony, there is inconsistency of genuine symphonic invention – but it is never uninteresting; it is brilliantly orchestrated – at times, in the Finale, almost Ivesian, and is so full of ideas that, more than once, I was reminded of the late Basil Lam’s description of C. P. E. Bach’s music – “a too-easy style in which anything can happen.”
If Antheil felt he answered the charge of the Shostakovich connection in his Fourth Symphony, he would have been on less secure ground in the Fifth ‘Joyous’ Symphony, where – on at least two occasions – he virtually quotes from Shostakovich 5 note-for-note (II: c.4’20”-4’25”; III: 0’09” et seq).
One cannot, however, base a negative view of this work on the basis of one or two references; they are heard in passing and may be coincidental. Nonetheless, given the criticism Antheil’s music received at its first hearings, one cannot entirely dismiss such a view – in any event, the listener will find his attention distracted by their inclusion, and by Antheil’s lack of subtlety in including these phrases without consideration for the intelligence of his audience.
However, I am in no doubt that this is music worth hearing, and will find a ready receptivity from those keen to explore the byways of twentieth-century concert music. It certainly held my attention, although I wish Antheil’s undoubted invention had been more assiduously concentrated upon. In any event, these performances are well worth hearing. The 1958 Everest recording of the Fourth Symphony by the LSO under Sir Eugene Goossens (who never performed any music by Antheil when he was in charge of the Cincinnati Symphony from 1931 to 1945) yields nothing in terms in terms of musical insight to the current issue, but this Chandos release is so intelligently planned, so well performed, and so superlatively well-recorded that it deserves a recommendation in very enthusiastic terms.