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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 5 Containing Multitudes (Transcendentalism, II)
Richard Taruskin

Partly in connection with Henry Cowell and his New Music Quarterly, a recognizable school of American maximalists or “ultramoderns”—Carl Ruggles (1876–1971), Wallingford Riegger (1885–1961), John J. Becker (1886–1961), Dane Rudhyar (1895–1985), Ruth Crawford (or Ruth Crawford Seeger, 1901–1953), and Cowell himself—briefly came into view, seemingly ranged around Ives. If Ives seemed to dominate the group in terms of publications, it was partly because he was bankrolling the venture with his business fortune and Cowell was showing his gratitude. Nevertheless, the school was a coherent one. Its members shared both a technical orientation and an expressive purpose, which like Ives’s own may be jointly summed up as transcendental maximalism. All, that is, employed radical means toward spiritual ends.

Transcendentalism Vs. Futurism

fig. 5-7a Ruth Crawford Seeger (photograph by Fernand de Gueldre).

Transcendentalism Vs. Futurism

fig. 5-7b Program for a concert of the Pan American Association of Composers, 21 April 1930.

Two of the group, Rudhyar and Crawford, were like Scriabin drawn to theosophy, and used their music to convey its occult concepts. Rudhyar (or Daniel Chennevière, as he was known in his native France before he emigrated to America in 1916), was a practicing astrologer. Crawford, the piano pupil of Djane Lavoie Herz (1888–1982), a Scriabin disciple who had known the Russian composer in Brussels at the height of his involvement with theosophy, was described at the beginning of her career as a member of “the Rudhyar-Scriabine faction.”56 In 1928 Cowell published a set of preludes by Crawford in the New Music Quarterly. The sixth, composed in 1927, is marked Andante mystico and dedicated “with deep love and gratitude to Djane, my inspiration.” The impulse to aggregate-completion, the ever-present sign of spiritualist maximalism, is especially clear in this piece: the two-measure right-hand ostinato presents nine (out of twelve) pitch classes, and the root and fifth of the F♯ minor triad arpeggiated in the left hand supply the tenth and eleventh tones. The remaining pitch class, D, is saved for the ninth measure, when the bass note shifts to G, to provide the crowning touch (Ex. 5-20).

Transcendentalism Vs. FuturismTranscendentalism Vs. Futurism

ex. 5-20 Ruth Crawford, Prelude no. 6 (Andante mystico), beginning

The unusual pedaling, deploying all three pedals so that the sostenuto pedal sustains the sound whenever the damper pedal is cleared, insures that the twelve-tone aggregate, or something close to it, is maintained as a resonance throughout. This effort to sustain the aggregate sonority apparently follows a precept of Rudhyar’s that finally makes explicit what we have long observed to be an implicit maximalist principle linking musical practice with the transcendentalist or theosophical conception of “the ONE.” This link is precisely what Rudhyar intends by the strange term “syntonistic,” when writing that

whereas in the classical tonal music, each distinct harmony had to keep its resonance separate, in this “syntonistic” music there is in theory but one harmony, that of the whole body of Sound or of Nature, and therefore chords must be made usually to blend their resonances.57

Although she never experimented with microtonality as a composer, some of Crawford’s letters describe her enthusiasm on hearing Carrillo’s work, which she found “very fascinating and moving,” and (possibly owing to her theosophical predilections) likened to something “extremely oriental, Hindu in effect.”58

Ruggles also made aggregate-completion an explicit basis of his composing practice. The best-known example is the opening theme from the orchestral fantasia Sun-treader, published by Cowell in 1934, Ruggles’s largest work (its astrally elated title borrowed, like much in Ives, from the poetry of Robert Browning). The theme (Ex. 5-21) consists of two widely arching phrases separated by a sixteenth rest. The first presents all the pitch classes except C♯D♭ (with the opening A♭–A climactically repeated in reverse), and the second presents all but B, with D♭, the pitch withheld from the first phrase, now forming the very pinnacle of the melodic arc. The brackets display the many embeddings (or “imbrications,” to use current music-theory language) of the tritone-plus-fourth motif we have already noted several times as endemic to maximalistic music in many countries. Like Ives in the Universe (and Stravinsky in The Rite, as well as several other composers we will be meeting shortly), Ruggles used it as a basic constructive element.

Transcendentalism Vs. Futurism

ex. 5-21 Carl Ruggles, Sun-treader, opening theme

As for Cowell himself, his earliest (and most radical) music was written for performance at the Temple of the People, a theosophical colony, which the young composer joined in 1916, located in Halcyon, a California coastal town somewhat to the north of Santa Barbara. The community patriarch, John Varian, installed a giant harp in his home to represent the mythical harp of life on which the Celtic gods had played. The notion of that cosmic music, and the Irish myths that Varian retold in his poems, inspired in Cowell, the precocious son of an Irish immigrant, the work that made his early fame.

Cowell took a more direct approach to aggregates, producing them by laying palms, fists, and forearms on the piano keyboard. The results, called “elbow music”59 by detractors, and “concordances of many close-lying notes” or “secundal harmonies” by their more pretentious admirers, became celebrated as “tone clusters,” the term Cowell devised for them in 1921. The playing technique as such, which Cowell probably discovered the way countless other children discover it, went perhaps a decade further back. Cowell notated it for the first time in Adventures in Harmony, a “novelette” for piano written (or written down) in 1913, when the composer was fifteen or sixteen, at the request of his piano teacher, who was a devoted member of the Halcyon temple.

Transcendentalism Vs. Futurism

fig. 5-8 Henry Cowell.

The first piece Cowell composed after he joined the temple himself was The Tides of Manaunaun, first played in the summer of 1917 as part of the music to accompany a Halcyon pageant called The Building of Banba, a dramatization of the Irish creation myth. The “story according to John Varian,” printed above the music when it was published in 1922, recounts that

Manaunaun was the god of motion, and long before the creation, he sent forth tremendous tides, which swept to and fro through the universe, and rhythmically moved the particles and materials of which the gods were later to make the suns and worlds.

The music consists of a jiglike tune in the natural minor mode (hence identifiably “Irish”), accompanied by forearm clusters spanning two octaves.

The split-level effect, one hand confined to traditional modes and scales, the other to clusters, was dictated by the motivating poetic idea, which Cowell and Varian represented in many variants. Another Halcyon tone-cluster piece, Voice of Lir, portrayed the father of the gods, whose commands for creating the universe were only half understood since he had only half a tongue. Therefore, according to Varian’s legend, “for everything that has been created there is an unexpressed and concealed counterpart.” This simple dichotomy between the precisely formed and the inchoate was a “natural” for depiction in the usual Cowellesque way, playing simple folk tunes against clusters. Cowell’s apparent nonchalance with regard to stylistic discrepancy, and his indifference to (or at least his unironic acceptance of) the seeming mélange of “advanced” and “regressive” techniques, is another indication, like those we have encountered in Ives, that maximalism (especially, perhaps, when practiced by Americans) could stand entirely apart from the aesthetic of modernism.

But there was another side to Cowell. Another poetic idea motivated another kind of cluster music, the “futurist” kind, stimulated by a short trip to New York in the fall of 1916, where he met another notorious maximalist of the day, the phenomenally long-lived Leo Ornstein (1893–2002). Ornstein, an immigrant from Russia, made music that celebrated—or at least was obsessed with—speed, aggression, and the mechanization of modern life. He gave sensational piano recitals at which he assaulted audiences (to their great delight) with modestly clustery pieces bearing titles like Suicide in an Airplane (1913, Ex. 5-22b) and Wild Men’s Dance (1915, Ex. 5-22a). These pieces were as of then the most spectacular musical responses to the call put out by the futuristi, a boisterous group of Italian artists headed by the poet Emilio Marinetti (1876–1944) and the painter Luigi Russolo (1885–1947), for an “Art of Noises” that would replace all conventional music as the appropriate sonic representation of the machine age.

A title like Wild Men’s Dance (later amended to Danse sauvage) might sound more like primitivism than futurism, but as the composer and Cowell scholar Michael Hicks has observed, “in musical terms, futurism and primitivism are the same,”60 quoting as clincher Ornstein’s own avowal that he used clusters in his futuristic compositions to “project the dark brooding quality” that for him characterized “prehistoric man.” Cowell provided another confirmation when he changed the title of one of his compositions from the futuristic Dash to the primitivistic Tiger.

Transcendentalism Vs. Futurism

ex. 5-22a Leo Ornstein, Danse sauvage

Transcendentalism Vs. FuturismTranscendentalism Vs. Futurism

ex. 5-22b Leo Ornstein, Suicide in an Airplane

In a spirit of friendly competition with Ornstein, Cowell produced Dynamic Motion (1916, Ex. 5-23), which at first he announced to audiences as an evocation of the New York subway. It brought him publicity—“at the finish,” one reviewer reported in 1922, “three women lay in a dead faint in the aisle and no less than ten men had refreshed themselves [illegally, Prohibition being then in force] from the left hip”61 — and eventual patronage, which enabled him to launch his important publishing activities. But for Cowell, futurism was a passing fling. His predilection, like Ives’s, was more for the pastoral and spiritual mode than the urban, materialist one. As his career went on, he retreated considerably from his maximalist phase, seeking (as he put it to a reporter in 1955) “an amalgamation of the techniques introduced from about 1908 to about 1930, combined with the familiar elements, producing a literature with more substance, but less individual distinctions.”62 By then he was far from alone, as we shall see.

Transcendentalism Vs. FuturismTranscendentalism Vs. Futurism

ex. 5-23 Henry Cowell, Dynamic Motion, mm. 1-18

But his “retreat” was already in full swing by the 1920s, for which reason Cowell is often taken less than seriously by historians in the romantic-modernist tradition. Only his cluster pieces are treated as “historic,” and even then the “futuristic” ones are given preference over the “Celtic” ones, despite the evidence that this weighting reverses Cowell’s own scale of values. He has been overridden, or overruled, by “history”—which is to say, by historians. Having an inkling that this would be the case, Cowell began backdating his early compositions very much the way Ives has been accused of doing, assigning The Tides of Manaunaun, for example, to 1912, which gave him a clear year’s priority over Ornstein, and ensured his place in the history books.

Yet was it a retreat? Was the up-to-dateness of Dynamic Motion clearly superior, artistically, to what may seem the quaintness of The Tides of Manaunaun? As early as 1933 the critic Nicolas Slonimsky called Cowell’s Celtic pieces “audaciously conservative.”63 It was an apt characterization, and one that would go on describing Cowell until his death thirty-two years later. The clever contradiction in terms betrays many ambivalences; and so did Cowell’s own behavior, as when he told his interviewer that “substance” (that Ivesian word!) does not depend on “individual distinctions,” but at the same time rewrote his autobiography so as to polish his innovative image.

But then the very same ambivalence haunted the very outset of this chapter, with its contradictory quotations from Emerson. It had a long history in America, where—as Hicks has noted, echoing an insight voiced a century and a half earlier by Alexis de Tocqueville in De la démocratie en Amérique (Democracy in America, 1835)—there has always been felt a contradictory yet “insatiable need to be both an individual and a conformist, self-sufficient yet bound to the canons of civilization.”64 But it was also an ambivalence, born of modernism and its conflicting demands, that would presently be felt throughout the world of art.


(56) Paul Rosenfeld, An Hour with American Music (1929), quoted in Judith Tick, “Ruth Crawford’s ‘Spiritual Concept’: The Sound-Ideals of an Early American Modernist,” JAMS XLIV (1991): 235.

(57) Quoted in Ibid., pp. 239–40.

(58) Quoted in Judith Tick, “Ruth Crawford’s ‘Spiritual Concept’: The Sound-Ideals of an Early American Modernist,” Journal of the American Musicological Society XLIV (1991): 244.

(59) Michael Hicks, “Cowell’s Clusters,” Musical Quarterly LXXVII (1993): 428, 440.

(60) Michael Hicks, Henry Cowell, Bohemian (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002), p. 184n64.

(61) Louise Vermont, “A Musical Note Butchers Paper and Cold Feet,” Greenwich Villager, 15 April 1922.

(62) “Public Unafraid of New Music, Composer Says,” Houston Post, 15 November 1955; quoted in Hicks, “Cowell’s Clusters,” p. 450.

(63) Nicolas Slonimsky, “Henry Cowell,” in American Composers on American Music, ed. Henry Cowell (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1933), p. 62.

(64) Hicks, “Cowell’s Clusters,” p. 452.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 5 Containing Multitudes (Transcendentalism, II)." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 31 Mar. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-005011.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 5 Containing Multitudes (Transcendentalism, II). In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 31 Mar. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-005011.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 5 Containing Multitudes (Transcendentalism, II)." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 31 Mar. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-005011.xml