George Antheil

Paris was home to some of the great creative minds of the twentieth century. How I would have loved to have been there in the twenties. I would have interviewed each of them. But where would I have started? Gertrude Stein was “the mother of them all.”  She would be interesting. Picasso would be challenging even though some of the ideas he developed were still to come.  James Joyce was there, as were Hemingway, Pound, Eric Satie, Chagall, Apollinaire, and a composer named George Antheil.   George Antheil was an oddball musical prodigy, a man who shattered conventions. But, even with the controversy that surrounded him, George Antheil was a genius. During his short life, he worked, without concession, on what he thought music should be. Born in Trenton New Jersey on July 8th 1900 he studied in Philadelphia at the Conservatory.  He was also greatly influenced by Igor Stravinsky. Like so many, Antheil gravitated to Paris. He and his girlfriend, Boski Marcus, lived upstairs from Sylvia Beach’s bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, a fact that might be lost except for the fact that once when he was locked out of the apartment, he scaled the wall and climbed into the building while Sylvia watched with wonder. The photograph of that incident has been reproduced in books and articles ever since.   But Antheil was better known for his musical contributions and his feelings about modernist music. He was also famous for the riots that often ensued from his concerts. When he traveled to Europe his compositions such as Mechanisms, Airplane and Sonata Sauvage were followed by riots that only helped his growing notoriety. He wrote and preformed some of most convention shattering music of his time. Take, for example, his Ballet Mechanique. This work, written for percussion orchestra, two pianos, seven electric bells, three airplane propellers, gongs, a xylophone, rattles, a siren and sixteen synchronized player pianos, set the music world on its ears. Try to visualize the scene. While he played, he prominently displayed a pistol. The capacity audience at Theatre des Champs Elysees was made up of the Paris literati. Joyce was there with his black eye patch. So was Picasso.  T.S Eliot escorted someone who was said to be “Royalty.” It turned out to be Sylvia Beach’s concierge. In the balcony, Diaghilev and Pound screamed for people to stop murmuring. The audience yelled and a riot, staged by Pound and Eric Satie, ensued. They purposely cajoled the crowd with taunts. Chairs were thrown. Antheil fired his pistol. The airplane propellers roared and men’s toupees flew in all directions. The Ballet Mechanique ended with police escorting patrons to the station and ambulances carrying off the wounded. The next day the Paris newspapers heralded Antheil’s work “the most successful” concert ever mounted. People had not been passively dozing. When Antheil played, people reacted and that was exactly what the producers wanted to happen. George Antheil became even more famous after that.   In 1927 Antheil was given a chance to perform his ballet at New York’s Carnegie Hall. It again shattered all conventions and New Yorkers left in an uproar. Time changed the little composer who people called “The Bad Boy of Music” or “l’Enfant Terrible.” He moved from modernism to neo-classicism and neo-romanticism. By 1936 he was working in Hollywood writing scores for Hollywood films. During his last 20 years he produced symphonies and several operas in the new Antheil style.Just before WWII, Antheil was in Berlin as a guest of the German symphony. When he returned he wrote “The Shape of the War to Come.” Some people think that this book was the most accurate prediction of what was to happen. But the legacy of this fascinating composer was to live on with the playing of Antheil’s Ballet in many cities over the next 45 years. There is a CD, and multiple concerts in places like Maastricht, Boston, Victoria, San Francisco and Antwerp. On March 2, 2003 the Societe de Musique Contemporaine du Quebec, played the Ballet mecanique in its original form to rave reviews. George Antheil died at 59 in New York City but his memory lives on, as does the ripple he created in Paris during a time of Dada, Surealism, Modernism and Cubism. Here was a man dedicated to create something new. He dared to be different and he succeeded in his own way. I think back at those Paris days when salon woman, Nathalie Barney, put up the money and the “Antheil gang,” led by Ezra Pound and Eric Satie, set out to knock the music world on their ears.   I listen to the CD of the Ballet. It’s an awesome work that blasts the listener into the past in an exciting but brutal way.  You can hear, even today, how a man dared to reach for the “new.”   —Arnie Greenberg is a retired Professor and freelance writer. He taught in Montreal area schools for 37 years, 25 at Vanier College. His specialty is modern France with a special emphasis on Paris in the 1920s. Since his retirement, Arnie has been actively involved in a new venture. He operates a small tour company which organizes and takes tour groups to Europe each spring. It all started with “Hemingway’s Paris” and now incorporates the whole of France and parts of Spain!  
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