Women in Music – Ruth Crawford Seeger

Updated: Jun 17

Ruth Crawford Seeger: Modernist Composer, Music Educator, Ethnomusicologist, and Mother

Ruth Crawford Seeger, Mike Seeger, Peggy Seeger and Charles Seeger, c. 1937 Library of Congress.
Ruth Crawford Seeger, Mike Seeger, Peggy Seeger and Charles Seeger, c. 1937. Library of Congress.

Before we get into our Mother's Day themed post, Women in Music: Ruth Crawford Seeger, I have an announcement: This marks the 101st Perennial Music and Arts post! This little music and arts education blog has come a long way since it began a little over five years ago in March 2016.

As this blog has grown, I've added more resources that I offer to the public free of charge, including well-researched educational blog material, lesson suggestions for teachers, and enrichment for artists of all skill levels and experience. If you are a regular visitor and you have the means to do so, please consider buying me a coffee on Kofi or joining me on Patreon.

I look forward to continuing to share content of the highest caliber with you as well as my passion for all things creative! You have my sincere gratitude from the bottom of my heart for your continued support.

Ruth Crawford Seeger

Photos of Ruth Crawford Seeger at ages 2, 8, 16, and 20s from The Ruth Seeger Press Kit

Ruth Porter Crawford was born in East Liverpool, Ohio on July 3, 1901. She was the second child of Clark Crawford, an itinerant Methodist minister, and Clara Graves Crawford. The family resided in Jacksonville, Florida when Clark died of tuberculosis in 1914. Her mother began operating a boarding house to support the family.

Fine_Arts_Building_410_South_Michigan_Avenue_Beyond My Ken
Fine Arts Building, 410 S Michigan Ave, Wikipedia

Growing up, Ruth was interested in writing poetry and had aspirations to be a poet. She began studying piano at the age of six, and after high school graduation, she entered Foster's School of Musical Art in Jacksonville to further study piano. The Foster School relocated to Miami in 1921, and Crawford continued her higher musical studies by enrolling in the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago. (The American Conservatory operated from 1886–1991 and was located in what is now called the "Fine Arts Building" on Michigan Ave.)

Ruth Crawford: Modernist Composer

Ruth originally planned to stay at the conservatory for only a year, taking the one-year teaching certification course for piano. However, she stayed on, studying harmony (music theory) with John Palmer during her first year and counterpoint, orchestration, and composition with German-born, American composer Adolf Weidig Nov. 28, 1867 Sept. 23,1931) in subsequent years, who encourage her compositional efforts. In 1923, Clara relocated to Chicago to live with Ruth, and the following year, Ruth earned her bachelor's degree in music from the Conservatory and subsequently enrolled in the school's master's degree program. By 1924, at the age of only 22, Ruth had developed her "ultra-modernist" compositonal voice. Her early student works include her Piano Preludes (1924-1925), Sonata for Violin and Piano (1926), and Music for Small Orchestra (1926).

In Piano Preludes, many of Ruth's characteristics of her style are present. She uses assymetric rhythmics, ostinato figures, and atonal material that feels almost like chords to the listener.

Piano Prelude No. 2 (1924)

The first movement of Sonata for Violin and Piano, features a rich texture created with whizzing pianistic figurations and acrobatic violin. Notice the jazz-like ostinato bass line in the piano at the beginning of the second movement. The slow third movement uses elaborate chords that once again are reminiscent of jazz while the piano and violin play off one another in contrary motion—going in opposite directions at the same time. The final movement. sums up the work with by featuring the techniques of the earlier movements in one movement with a lot of contrary motion and more jazz-like"harmonies"

Sonata for Violin and Piano (1926)

Notice her use of ostinatos—repeated short musical ideas—in Music for Small Orchestra which give the piece cohesion without typical tonality.

Music for Small Orchestra (1926)

Although her talent was recognized by the musical establishment, Ruth was faced with the sexist attitudes of the day with critics saying statements that she could "sling dissonances like a man." At the time, music composed by women was considered "sentimental" or "quaint." Ruth challenged stereotypes. Listening to her Piano Prelude No. 2, for example, the percussive dissonances strike right away. But, as the piece goes on, we become accustomed to Ruth's harmonic dialect and the rolling chords at m. 21 begin to sound less atonal, lacking a tonal center, and more comfortable.

While in Chicago, Ruth also studied piano with Djana Lavoie Herz (1888–1982), pianist and ex-follower of the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin (Dec. 25, 1871 – April 14, 1915). Madame Herz introduced Ruth to a circle of mystics and modernists, including French-born American author, composer, and astrologer, Dane Rudhyar (b. Daniel Chennevière, March 23, 1895 – Sept.13, 1985); American modernist composer, music theorist, and teacher, Henry Cowell (March 11, 1897 – Dec. 10, 1965); and German-born American pianist Richard Buhlig (Dec. 21, 1880 – Jan. 30, 1952). Cowell became a strong support and ally for Ruth's music, and he arranged performances of her music in New York and published it in the periodical New Music Quarterly.

Ruth with hatchet and poet, Carl Sandberg, Ruth Seeger Press Kit
Ruth with hatchet and poet, Carl Sandberg, Ruth Seeger Press Kit

At this time, Crawford was the piano teacher of American poet and Chicagoan Carl Sandburg's (Jan. 6, 1878 – July 22, 1967) three daughters and she became "like an un-adopted daughter" in the Sandburg family. Sandburg was the one who initially piqued Ruth's interest in American folk music. She de