Female composers getting the short shrift is certainly nothing new, and is by no means limited to classical music. But as an admittedly casual fan of atonality, dissonance, modernism and serialism, I was surprised in February of this year to, for the first time, stumble across Middlewestern composer Ruth Crawford Seeger‘s unique, innovative musical voice. She immediately became a featured artist on The Lunatic Asylum and I became interested in her story.
Ruth Porter Crawford was born on July 3, 1901 in East Liverpool, Ohio, supposedly the “World Capital of Pottery.” Her father was an itinerant minister. Her mother began her musical education with piano lessons when she was 11. Upon graduation from high school, she entered Foster’s School of Musical Art in Jacksonville, Florida. In 1921, when it relocated to Miami, Crawford enrolled at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, where she studied with Madame Valborg Collett, Polish-born Henriot Levy and Louise Robyn. By 24, with the completion of her earliest work, she already displayed a unique modernist voice.
In Chicago, she met Djane Lavoie Herz, who in turn introduced her to the music of sometime-serialist Russian composer Alexander Scriabin. Through Lavoie Herz, she met and fell in with transpersonal astrologer/composer Dane Rudhyar, theorist/composer Henry Cowell and pianist Richard Bühlig. Cowell was an early supporter of her work and arranged for performances of her compositions in New York, where her folkish take on avant-garde drew comparisons to the work of Charles Ives and Aaron Copland.
In 1927 she was employed by famed poet Carl Sandburg, teaching piano to his children. Having played a part in introducing her to American folk songs, she returned the favor by contributing to his publication The American Songbag. Two years later she set several of his compositions to music. That same year, 1929, she began studying composition with Adolf Weidig and Charles Seeger.
A partial early discography:
Kaleidoscopic Changes on an Original Theme Ending with a Fugue (1924)
5 Preludes (1924–5)
Adventures of Tom Thumb (1925)
Music for Small Orchestra (1926)
Sonata for Violin and Piano (1926)
Suite, 5 Wind Instrument (1927) (rev. 1929)
4 Preludes (1927–8)
Nine Preludes for Piano (1928)
5 Songs to Poems by Carl Sandburg: Home Thoughts, White Moon, Joy, Loam, Sunsets (1929)
Suite No. 2, for Strings (1929)
A Piano Study in Mixed Accents (1930)
4 Diaphonic Suites (1930)
3 Chants: no.1, To an Unkind God, no.2 To an Angel, no.3, Female chorus (1930)
String Quartet (1931)
In March 1930 she became the first woman to receive the Guggenheim Fellowship and went to Berlin, where she composed String Quartet, sung in an imaginary language and based on the Bhagavad Gita. In November of 1931, Crawford married her composition teacher, Seeger. After receiving another Guggenheim award, they moved to Paris. In 1933, at the ISCM Festival in Amsterdam, her Three Songs for voice, oboe, percussion and strings was the only American piece performed.
In the 1930s, Ruth and Charles Seeger became Communists and their interest shifted from Adorno-inspired theory to populism. Her subsequent compositions reflected a philosophical shift, and the beginning of a musical one:
Rat Riddles (1932)
Two Ricercare: Sacco, Vanzetti – Chinaman, Laundryman (1932) (text by H.T. Tsiang)
Rissolty Rossolty (1939)
By 1934 Crawford Seeger, for the most part, stopped composing and started developing new methods of primary music education. She focused on raising her family (for the most part) rather than composing original works. She and her family moved to DC in 1936 when her husband received an appointment in the music division of the Resettlement Administration, charged with collecting songs for the Library of Congress. At this point she began arranging and interpreting folk music, which went hand in hand with both her husband’s postion as well as her own developing trancendentalism. Crawford Seeger and her husband transcribed songs for the John and Alan Lomax book, Our Singing Country.
In 1948, she published American Folk Songs for Children. Eventually, several of her children became incredibly important in the folk music scene, Mike, Peggy and (stepson) Pete Seeger.
In 1951, composer Esther Williamson Ballou urged Crawford Seeger to join the DC chapter of the NAACC (National Association for American Composers and Conductors). After announcing a competition, Crawford Seeger put her other work on hold to work on the Suite for Wind Quintet (1952). It won and Crawford Seeger wrote to her friends Carl and Charlotte Ruggles, “I believe I’m going to work again — more. If I live to be 99 as my grandfather did, I will have 48 more years.” Unfortunately, she died of intestinal cancer in Chevy Chase, Maryland not long after, on November 18, 1953, just 52 years old.
Crawford Seeger, according to her peer Henry Cowell, broke the stereotypical notion of female composers with her serious, adventurous and unsentimental compositions. On the other hand, she continued in the tradition of talented female composers like Clara Schumann and Alma Mahler, who sacraficed their own considerable musical talents for their families whilst their husbands soaked in the glory. Although highly regarded by her peers, some of her works, such as the first and third chants in Three Chants, weren’t recorded until 1996. Yet there’s no reason Crawford Seeger shouldn’t be held in the same esteem as similar but more widely known composers like Schoenberg or Webern.
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in Amoeblog, diaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
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