At Utah Symphony, we’re all about making you happy and keeping things interesting. We accomplish that by programming many of your most favorite, beloved masterworks in a season, but we also try to program lesser-known works here and there. Partially in an effort to keep things interesting for both our orchestra, and you, our listeners, the act of programming a lesser-known composer or work is frankly pivotal to our successful growth as artists. You don’t want us passing out onstage from boredom do you?
The performances on February 12th and 13th will be an opportunity to hear two blockbuster masterworks: Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony with its famous second movement and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, arguably the composer’s most popular concerto. And what’s the icing to this delicious evening? You’ll also get to hear two works by early twentieth century composer Ruth Crawford Seeger.
Now before you blow a gasket accusing us of “sneaking” in these two unknown works before two such popular and beloved pieces, and/or forcing you to eat your musical spinach with your sweets and fried food, you should be aware of two things:
1) We do everything for a reason.
2) If you get to know Crawford Seeger a bit, you might actually find these two works to be your highlight for the evening.
So why Ruth Crawford Seeger? What’s our reasoning? Maestro Gilbert Varga, the evening’s guest conductor, personally chose the composer and these two works (Rissolty, Rossolty and Andante for Strings, both of which happen to be Utah Symphony premieres). Crawford Seeger is an incredibly important and beloved composer among American music nerds, but in Europe, she is still virtually an unknown. Hence, Maestro Varga was only introduced to her music just two years ago by the critic Michael Steinberg who has since passed away. [The Maestro has dedicated this performance to Steinberg’s memory because of the musical introduction.] The piece Steinberg played for Maestro Varga was Crawford Seeger’s String Quartet from 1931. It is her most important and famous work. The third movement, in particular, blew him away. He was in shock that he had never heard of this composer, let alone that her music was so incredibly beautiful, challenging, and moving. He was even more ecstatic to learn that Crawford Seeger approved having an Orchestra perform the third movement as a stand-alone piece with the basses doubling the cello part. He knew he had to program her works in the near future, and we’re honored that he chose Utah Symphony as the platform.
You’ll love these pieces just as much as Maestro Varga does; all you need is just a little bit of education. So today, I’m going to tell you all about Ruth Crawford Seeger’s life, and then on Friday I will explain the two works on the program.
RUTH THE PERSON
If the second half of Ruth Crawford Seeger’s last name sounds familiar, then half our work is done here. Ruth Crawford-the-composer married Charles Seeger-the-composer-music-theorist-folk-music-scholar in 1932. Together they essentially became America’s first ethnomusicologists and catalogued and arranged literally thousands of America’s best folk music. Charles’s son from his first wife, Peter, was later to become one of America’s most preeminent folk singers in the 60s (you might recall songs such as Where Have the Flowers Gone? and Turn, Turn, Turn). Before they became nutso for folk, Ruth and Charles were both part of New York’s group of composers known as the “ultra-moderns.” Essentially, they were the first American composers to have a unique musical language completely divorced from what was happening in Europe. It’s not that they weren’t aware, it’s just that they chose to ignore what was going on “across the pond.” Crawford Seeger herself was initially very influenced by the works of Scriabin before she moved to New York and met the rest of the ultra-moderns as well as her future husband. Shortly after meeting and studying with Charles (he was her teacher and introduced her to his method of “dissonant counterpoint”), Crawford Seeger became the first woman to win a Guggenheim Fellowship for Composition. She shipped off to Europe in 1930, but true to her American ultra-modern roots, she interacted very little with the music scene of Berlin, and derided them as, “sickening sweet inanity.” I.e. the American music nerds were much cooler and more experimental—in her mind—than their contemporaries in Germany.
Her return to the US coincided with the Depression. Suddenly she and the rest of the ultra-moderns found themselves wondering if music had a place in light of such tragedy. Especially, they questioned if there was a purpose for their brand of experimental music. Charles and Ruth married in 1932, and shortly thereafter they became involved in political activism of the progressive left. They started to ask questions about accessibility and social responsibility and whether or not that challenged the relevance of “elitist” art. Ruth also gave birth to the first of three children spanning a period of five years during this period. Combining the demands of a young family along with questions about the place of musical art in light of the depression, Crawford Seeger slipped into a still much-lamented silence as a composer. She was only to write a few more works for the duration of her life (she died in 1952 from intestinal cancer).
In 1936 Charles Seeger took a WPA job that moved the family to Washington D.C.; a move that changed the family’s life physically and musically. The job was to work with John and Alan Lomax at the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress to preserve and teach American folk music. Their musical lives changed from “ultra-modern” to being 100% about folk. They lived, breathed, and ate it, and in doing so, essentially became America’s first ethnomusicologists as mentioned previously. Crawford Seeger herself published her own pioneering collection, American Folk Songs for Children, in 1948, designed for use in elementary school. This seminal text book of folk music is still used.
Come back on Friday for Part 2 of Discover Ruth Crawford Seeger – The Music.