He rubbed shoulders with Igor Stravinsky, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and Leopold Stokowski. He kept an apartment above Sylvia Beach’s bookshop, Shakespeare and Company, in Paris. He achieved notoriety for music that inspired audiences to violence or intimidated them into stunned silence. He wrote mysteries and news articles and an advice column for the lovelorn. He composed Hollywood film scores. His treatise on endocrinology endeared him to one of the most glamorous actresses of his day, with whom he developed a scientific invention to aid in the Allied war effort.
George Antheil (pronounced ANN-tile) was a brilliantly gifted, multifaceted artist. He was also a colorful personality, a brazen eccentric prone to exaggerating the truth. You might say he was the original Trenton cracker.
The self-proclaimed “Bad Boy of Music” (also the title of his autobiography), Antheil was born in New Jersey’s capital city in 1900. A contemporary of Aaron Copland and George Gershwin, he was once one of America’s most frequently performed composers. However, following his early death in 1959, his star quickly plummeted. He now appears mostly as a footnote in biographies of the actress Hedy Lamarr, though there have been sporadic attempts to raise awareness of his music through recordings. A number of his major works have been revived in the past few years by the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and the Capital Philharmonic of New Jersey. In fact, the Capital Philharmonic is scheduled to perform Antheil’s “Jazz Symphony” at the Trenton War Memorial on Saturday, March 10.
Daniel Spalding, the orchestra’s music director, will conduct the uproarious piece as part of a program of music colored by “jazz,” as it would have been recognized in the Roaring Twenties. Also featured will be Igor Stravinsky’s “Ragtime for 11 Instruments” and Darius Milhaud’s “La Creation du monde” (The Creation of the World). Soprano Gianine Campbell will offer cabaret-style songs, such as “Mack the Knife” from Kurt Weill’s “The Threepenny Opera.” The concert will be held in the War Memorial’s George Washington Ballroom, located at 1 Memorial Drive.
Antheil’s “Jazz Symphony” was originally slated to be given its premiere in 1924 on the same concert as George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” but it was deemed too radical. Gershwin himself praised the work. The first performance took place at Carnegie Hall in 1927. For attendees, it was clearly the highlight of the evening, since everything that could go wrong with its companion piece, the “Ballet Mecanique,” did.
Spalding has conducted two critically acclaimed albums of Antheil’s music with the Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra, which he founded in 1991. Several of the pieces were set down as world premiere recordings. For the Naxos label, he documented the “Serenade for Strings No. 1,” the “Symphony for 5 Instruments,” “Concerto for Chamber Orchestra,” and Antheil’s most notorious work, “Ballet Mecanique.”
Antheil’s succes de scandale was originally scored for player pianos, airplane propellers, siren, and electric bells. At its Paris premiere in 1926, the audience erupted into one of classical music’s great riots. Of course, musical Parisians loved controversy — they had rioted most energetically at the premiere of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” in 1913 — and Antheil was celebrated as an enfant terrible. Spalding recorded the work in its revised 1953 version for four pianos and percussion.
The recording was selected as an “Editor’s Choice” by Gramophone, one of the world’s most venerable music magazines. It was also chosen as CD of the week by BBC Radio 3 and the London Observer, and as one of the top ten classical CDs of 2001 by the Chicago Tribune. The album became a bestseller, both in England and the U.S.
A second Antheil album with the Philadelphia Virtuosi, released on New World Records, features the “Piano Concerto No. 2,” “Serenade No. 2,” and the ballet “Dreams,” which was originally choreographed by George Balanchine. The soloist in the concerto was Guy Livingston, one of the composer’s foremost champions. Livingston directed an Antheil festival in Trenton in 2004.
This is not the first time Spalding has performed Antheil’s music with the Capital Philharmonic. In 2015 he conducted a suite from the ballet “Capital of the World,” which included extended episodes from the unpublished score, housed in the Library of Congress. The ballet is based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway, whom Antheil knew in Paris. The scenario tells of a young waiter in Madrid who has dreams of becoming a matador, but some spirited role play leads to tragedy. Antheil’s ballet is especially striking in that it includes a part for flamenco dancer. The Capital Philharmonic’s performance featured dancer Liliana Ruiz.
George Antheil was born in Trenton to German immigrant parents who lived at 35 Davies Street (currently Stokely Avenue). The site is now a parking lot next to Mott Elementary School. The family moved around the corner to 677 Second Street, then across town to 7 McKinley Avenue. The composer’s father was the proprietor of Antheil’s, A Friendly Shoe Store, at 135 North Broad Street. His younger brother, Henry W. Antheil, Jr., became a diplomat. Henry died when his plane was shot down over the Baltic Sea in 1940.
Despite an incident-filled life in which he met and worked with a good many of the major artists of his time, Antheil was fond of mythologizing his origins. It is highly unlikely, for instance, that a pair of neighboring old maids played the piano loudly every night in order to cover up the noise of two convicts tunneling out of Trenton State Prison into their basement. The Antheils lived a good half mile away from the prison walls.
While Antheil never completed high school, he churned out music, poetry, and prose from an early age. When his mother discouraged his enthusiasm for the piano, the boy arranged to have one delivered to the house himself. He practiced long hours with such ferocity that he had to soak his swollen hands in fishbowls filled with water.
His musical studies may have taken him to Philadelphia and New York, but there is no question that life in Trenton left its mark. One of his most frequently performed works is called “McKonkey’s Ferry,” which the composer subtitled “Washington at Trenton.” The concert overture was written in 1948 and celebrates Washington’s crossing of the Delaware on Christmas Eve, 1776, in preparation for a surprise attack on a Hessian garrison in Trenton. He also composed a work for chorus and piano called “You Can Tell You’re in New Jersey.”
Antheil found a powerful patron in Mary Louise Curtis Bok, who later established Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music. Bok’s support allowed the composer to continue his studies and maintain a degree of creative autonomy. Leopold Stokowski expressed interest in performing Antheil’s first symphony, but the young composer was fixated on establishing his reputation overseas. This potentially marred his path to success at home, though the trail never went entirely cold, and Stokowski would play a role in jumpstarting Antheil’s flagging career 20 years later.
At 21 Antheil was received in Europe as a formidable avant-gardist. He was promoted as a “futurist” and “ultra-modernist pianist composer.” His piano works of the time emulated a mechanized world gone mad. Works like the “Sonata Sauvage” inspired such a visceral response from audiences that the composer took to carrying a pistol in a silk holster sewn into his jacket. He would ostentatiously remove this and place it carefully atop the piano before commencing his recitals.
But it is with the “Ballet Mecanique” that he achieved his greatest notoriety. Ezra Pound became one of the composer’s most enthusiastic champions, taking a break from writing verse to publish a book titled “Antheil and the Treatise on Harmony.” The riots, as they are described in Antheil’s autobiography, may have influenced Thomas Mann in the writing of his novel “Doctor Faustus,” about a fictional composer who, in order to deepen his creativity, flirts with madness. There are certainly remarkable similarities between the two accounts. Mann worked on “Doctor Faustus” between 1943 and 1947. “Bad Boy of Music” was published in 1945.
Antheil attempted to duplicate his Parisian success in New York, but sensationalist hype and mechanical failures left the audience bemused and the critics hostile. The negative reception was an emotional setback, and his reputation never fully recovered. In any case, by then he had already begun to explore other styles, retreating from the uncompromising machine music that made him famous, to a commitment to more traditional, classical forms.
His later works embrace the kind of musical populism common to the “Greatest Generation” of American composers. When critics began to point to echoes of Shostakovich in his symphonies, Antheil explained it away by suggesting Shostakovich had cribbed his style from him.
No doubt the aesthetic shift was reinforced by his move to California, where he worked as a war correspondent for the Los Angeles Daily News and churned out film scores, including those for “The Plainsman” (directed by Cecil B. DeMille), “In a Lonely Place” (starring Humphrey Bogart), and “The Pride and the Passion” (with Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra, and Sophia Loren). For his friend, screenwriter-turned-director Ben Hecht, Antheil provided music for the loony “ballet noir,” “Specter of the Rose,” a highly stylized film, even by Hecht standards.
He enjoyed a comeback of sorts when Stokowski conducted the premiere of his Symphony No. 4 with the NBC Symphony Orchestra as part of a national radio broadcast. A far cry from the visionary madness of his early years, the work was composed in the more conservative style of most American symphonies written during World War II.
Parallel interests often vied for his attention. He published a murder mystery, submitted articles to Esquire, passed himself off as an expert on endocrinology, and oversaw a column of advice for the lovelorn.
One of the more interesting episodes from this period began with a visit from his neighbor, actress Hedy Lamarr. In addition to being one of the screen goddesses of her day, Lamarr possessed an extraordinary scientific curiosity that caused her to pursue a number of unusual hobbies herself. She was often tinkering and always working at inventions.
During World War II she and Antheil devised a frequency-hopping system that would have prevented the Nazis from jamming radio-controlled Allied torpedoes. The reason for her visit was originally to discuss endocrinological matters, in reference to increasing the size of certain of her “assets.” But the conversation turned to current events, and before long the two were united in their determination to do their patriotic duty.
Lamarr possessed a knowledge of weaponry from her first marriage to an Austrian munitions developer with ties to Mussolini and Hitler; Antheil understood the inner workings of the piano, with its 88 keys. Together they struck upon a remarkable invention. The war ended before the military realized its true value, and neither ever saw a cent for their patent, but you can thank Lamarr and Antheil for having laid the groundwork for modern wireless technology. If not for the unlikely friendship of these two quirky, misunderstood people, there would be no cell phones.
Antheil died of a heart attack in 1959. He was 59 years old. Radio personality Jean Shepherd, whose own memory is kept alive through annual showings of “A Christmas Story,” adored him, and incorporated his music into his radio broadcasts. He even delivered an on-air eulogy following Antheil’s death.
The greatest composer of classical music Trenton ever produced is buried in Riverview Cemetery, not far from the place of his birth. His headstone is located next to a prominent mausoleum near the cemetery’s entrance on Centre Street. Say what you want about George Antheil, he is all ours.
The Jazz Age, Capital Philharmonic of New Jersey, War Memorial Theater, 1 Memorial Drive. Saturday, March 10, 7:30 p.m. $10 to $65. 215-893-1999 or capitalphilharmonic.org.