Discovering Ruth Crawford Seeger

Summer has come, and I’m cursed with illness and a temporary lack of wifi. But one distraction among many has been Ruth Crawford Seeger. I downloaded various recordings of her works a few days ago (thank you Apple Music), and have since become fascinated by her.

Her story is an especially curious one. Wife of musicologist Charles Seeger and step mother of folk legend Pete Seeger, she spent most of her years, as I understand it, compiling and arranging folk songs. But from roughly 1926-1932 (and with a brief spurt at the end of her life in the 1950s) she wrote several incredible works – almost out of nowhere – drawing on twelve-tone serialism and dissonant counterpoint, initially an academic invention of her husband, Charles, which proposed reversing all the harmonic rules of ‘traditional’ counterpoint. However, Seeger, alongside others, found profound uses for it.

In my view, and indeed in the view of many others, her works are among the best examples of atonal and highly-dissonant ultra-modern music. As Oliver Knussen, a great champion of her work, has pointed out, she seemed in this period to just go for it – and somehow got it right every time.

She even experimented with total serialism; that is, serialising not just pitches but all other musical elements too. Her String Quartet is an incredible example of this, and is unsurprisingly her best known work. By just listening to it, I can’t piece together its design, but I’m sure the third movement has serialised the dynamics, and with mesmerising results. I am not entirely on board with these kinds of strict pre-compositional methods, but Seeger manages to pull it off somehow.

This is somewhat of a generalisation, but music in late nineteenth century America aspired to be gentile and European. Dvorak’s trip at the end of the decade did not change the situation, or if it did so, its influence was very much belated. Indeed, the American musical scene was often thought of as feminine, being run and supported in large part by woman. The masculinity of many modern American composers can be seen as a reaction to this. But Seeger broke with the feminine stereotype, producing jagged, even rugged, works that were as dissonant as Carl Ruggles (who also used a form dissonant counterpoint) and influenced greatly the likes of Elliot Carter.

Three Chants is my current favourite of her works. It is a purely vocal work, sung it what must be a nonsense language (if not, I’ve probably committed some awful PC crime by offending an obscure ethnic group). I’ve no idea what harmonic system Seeger is using, but it’s definitely not twelve-tone serialism. The music, especially the second movement ‘To An Angel’, is ethereal despite its dissonance. This is less surprising if you believe, as Edmund Burke did, that the sublime is intrinsically connected to fear. Too often we are searching for music that is ‘beautiful’, as in ‘comfortable’ or ‘nice’. ‘Beauty’ is pleasant and well-formed, but often makes for rather unremarkable music, at least in my view. I seek to be intimidated and frightened and confused. The music should be so overwhelming that we never understand it in its totality. And Three Chants does exactly that, giving us an intimidating language – both linguistically and musically – that articulates some of the most sublime sounds I’ve ever heard. (Unfortunately, no youtube video exists of it.)

Outside this short six-year period, there are very few of her compositions that impress me in the same way. The arrangements of folk tunes are good, exciting fun, and a few of the slightly earlier works – for instance, the succinctly-titled Kaleidoscope Changes on an Original Theme Ending with a Fugue – are at the very least interesting. Of the 1926-1932 works, you could easily listen to all of the in one afternoon, and indeed I did, and recommend for everyone else to do the same. They were and are innovative, powerful, clever, odd and a remarkable surprise in the history of twentieth century music.

One last video, perhaps the most accessible of her ultra-modern works, by virtue of its use of repetition:

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