Updated: 2 days ago
Ruth Crawford Seeger: Modernist Composer, Music Educator, Ethnomusicologist, and Mother
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.
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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.
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.
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 described one evening in the Sandberg home in her diary,
"One evening after a siege of wood chopping on the windblown, chilling lake front and a boisterous, laughter-swept dinner with the two buoyant children, he sat there in the lamplight, singing song after song, simply, sometimes wildly, sometimes mournfully, his understanding voice winding in and out among the irregular nuances and accompanied by the stray chords on his guitar. His youngster sitting opposite with sleep-heavy eyes glued on his face, now and then crooning in drowsily on a song that she knew."
Evenings like this helped Ruth to realize that impact that simple folk music can have and its ability to bridge the gaps between generations. This realization would play a large part of her life once she was married and had a family of her own.
Ruth contributed musical arrangements to Sangburg's 1927 book, The American Songbag and of her 10 songs, eight of them were arrangements for Sandburg's poems with the first set of five composed in 1929 and the second set of three composed 1920 – 1932. Sandburg's poetic style influenced Ruth's musical style. She wrote, "One can draw a kind of rhythmic and dramatic pleasure from the very smallest thing" in reference to his use of vernacular language. Musically, she sough to use a similar direct, every day language through the use of dissonance and asymmetrical rhythms in both her settings of his poetry and instrumental music and her vocal works without text.
In 1929, Ruth went to New York where she began study with American musicologist, composer, music teacher, and folklorist, Charles Louis Seeger. Seeger was a teacher at the Institute of Musical Art in New York, which is now known as Juilliard. As Seeger's student, she continued to grow as a modernist though she also shared his love for folk music. She helped him write his treatise, Tradition and Experiment in (the New) Music, in the summer of 1930. Her input was so vital that he considered making her a co-author, however, it was published his name only.
In 1930, Ruth won a Guggenheim Fellowship to work abroad, and she traveled to Europe. She was first woman to have earned this honor. During her time in Berlin, Crawford composed the textless vocal piece, Three Chants: To an Unkind God, To An Angel, and To A Kind God for unaccompanied women's chorus. The eerie sound of Three Chants is before its time. In fact, they are most reminiscent of music not composed until the 1960s, three decades later. It is more similar to the choral works of mid-century avant-garde composers like György Sándor Ligeti (May 28, 1923 – June 12, 2006) and Iannis Xenakis (May 29, 1922 – Feb. 4, 2001) than to others composed at its time.
Three Chants: II. To An Angel (1930)