Cowell, Henry (Dixon)

views updated May 23 2018

Cowell, Henry (Dixon)

Cowell, Henry (Dixon) , remarkable and innovative American composer; b. Menlo Park, Calif., March 11, 1897; d. Shady, N.Y., Dec. 10, 1965. His father, of Irish birth, was a member of a clergyman’s family in Kildare; his mother was an American of progressive persuasion. Cowell studied violin with Henry Holmes in San Francisco; after the earthquake of 1906, his mother took him to N.Y., where they were compelled to seek support from the Soc. for the Improvement of the Condition of the Poor; they returned to Menlo Park, Calif., where Cowell was able to save enough money, earned from menial jobs, to buy a piano. He began to experiment with the keyboard by striking the keys with his fists and forearms; he named such chords “tone clusters” and at the age of 13 composed a piece called Adventures in Harmony, in which they appear. Later he began experimenting in altering the sound of the piano by placing various objects on the strings, and also by playing directly under the lid of the piano pizzicato and glissando, thus the later development of the “prepared piano.” He first exhibited these startling innovations on March 5, 1914, at the San Francisco Musical Soc. at the St. Francis Hotel, much to the consternation of its members. The tone clusters per se were not new; they were used for special sound effects by composers in the 18th century to imitate thunder or cannon fire. Vladimir Rebikov applied them, for example, in his piano piece Hymn to Inca, and Charles Ives used them in his Concord Sonata to be sounded by covering a set of white or black keys with a wooden board. However, Cowell had a priority by systematizing tone clusters as harmonic amplifications of tonal chords, and he devised a logical notation for them. These tone clusters eventually acquired legitimacy in the works of many European and American composers. Cowell also extended the sonorities of tone clusters to instrumental combinations and applied them in several of his symphonic works. In the meantime, Cowell began taking lessons in composition with E.G. Strickland and Wallace Sabin at the Univ. of Calif, at Berkeley, and later with Frank Damrosch at the Inst. of Musical Art in N.Y., and, privately, with Charles Seeger (1914–16). After brief service in the U.S. Army in 1918, where he was employed first as a cook and later as arranger for its Band, he became engaged professionally to give a series of lectures on new music, illustrated by his playing his own works on the piano. In 1928 he became the first American composer to visit Russia, where he attracted considerable attention; some of his pieces were publ. in a Russian ed., the first such publications by an American. Upon his return to the U.S., he was appointed lecturer on music at the New School for Social Research in N.Y.

In 1931 Cowell received a Guggenheim fellowship, and went to Berlin to study ethnomusicology with Hornbostel. This was the beginning of his serious study of ethnic musical materials. He had already experimented with Indian and Chinese devices in some of his works; in his Ensemble for Strings (1924), he included Indian thundersticks. In 1931 he formed a collaboration with Leon Theremin, then visiting the U.S.; with his aid he constructed an ingenious instrument, the Rhythmicon, which made possible the simultaneous production of 16 different rhythms on 16 different pitch levels of the harmonic series. He demonstrated the Rhythmicon at a lecture-concert in San Francisco on May 15, 1932. He also composed an extensive work entitled Rhythmicana for it, but it did not receive a performance until Dec. 3, 1971, at Stanford Univ., using advanced electronic techniques. In 1927 Cowell founded the New Music Quarterly for publication of ultramodern music, mainly by American composers.

Cowell’s career was brutally interrupted in 1936, when he was arrested in Calif, on charges of homosexuality (then a heinous offense) involving the impairment of the morals of a minor. Lulled by the deceptive promises of a wily district attorney of a brief confinement in a sanatorium, Cowell pleaded guilty to a limited offense; he was vengefully given a maximum sentence of imprisonment, up to 15 years. Incarcerated at San Quentin, he was assigned to work in a jute mill, but indomitably continued to write music. Thanks to interventions on his behalf by a number of eminent musicians, he was paroled in 1940 to Percy Grainger as a guarantor of his good conduct; he obtained a full pardon on Dec. 9, 1942, from the governor of Calif., Earl Warren, after it was discovered that the evidence against him was largely contrived. On Sept. 27, 1941, he married Sidney Robertson, a noted ethnomusicologist. He then resumed his full activities as an ed. and instructor; he held teaching positions at the New School 742 for Social Research in N.Y. (1940–62), the Univ. of Southern Calif, in Los Angeles, Mills Coll. in Oakland, Calif., and the Peabody Cons, of Music in Baltimore (1951–56); he was also appointed adjunct prof, at summer classes at Columbia Univ. (1951–65). In 1951 Cowell was elected a member of the National Academy of Arts and Letters; he received an honorary Mus.D. from Wilmington Coll. (1953) and from Monmouth (111.) Coll. (1963). In 1956–57 he undertook a world tour with his wife through the Near East, India, and Japan, collecting rich prime materials for his compositions, which by now had acquired a decisive turn toward the use of ethnomusicological melodic and rhythmic materials, without abandoning, however, the experimental devices which were the signposts of most of his works. In addition to his symphonic and chamber music, Cowell publ. in 1930 an important book, New Musical Resources. He also ed. a symposium, American Composers on American Music (Stanford, Calif., 1933). In collaboration with his wife, he wrote a biography of Charles Ives (1955).


DRAMATIC The Building of Bamba, pageant (Halcyon, near Pismo Beach, Calif., Aug. 18, 1917). O’Higgins of Chile, opera (1949; unifnished); The Commission, “operatic episode” (1954; Woodstock, N.Y, Sept. 26, 1992). 16 HYMN AND FUGUIN G TUNES (based on fuguing tunes of William Billings): No. 1 for Band (1943); No. 2 for String Orch. (1944); No. 3 for Orch. (1944); No. 4 for 3 Instruments (1944); No. 5 for String Orch. (1945; version for Orch. incorporated into Sym. No. 10); No. 6 for Piano (1946); No. 7 for Viola and Piano (1946); No. 8 for String Quartet or String Orch. (1947–48); No. 9 for Cello and Piano (1950); No. 10 for Oboe and Strings (1955); No. 11, became 7 Rites of Music for Men’s Chorus and Orch. (1956); No. 12 for 3 Horns (1957); No. 13 for Trombone and Piano (1960); No. 14 for Organ (1961); No. 15A, a duet for the anniversary of his marriage (Sept. 27, 1961); No. 15B for 2 Violins or Any Combination (2 versions, 1 with a more extended ground bass); No. 16 for Violin and Piano (1965; N.Y, Oct. 6, 1966; also for Violin and Orch.). 20 SYMS: No. 1 (1916–17); No. 2, Anthropos (Mankind; 1938); No. 3, Gaelic Symphony (1942); No. 4, Short Symphony (1946; Boston, Oct. 24, 1947); No. 5 (1948; Washington, D.C., Jan. 5, 1949); No. 6 (1950–55; Houston, Nov. 14, 1955); No. 7 (Baltimore, Nov. 25, 1952); No. 8, Choral, for Chorus and Orch. (1952; Wilmington, Ohio, March 1, 1953); No. 9 (1953; Green Bay, Wise., March 14, 1954); No. 10 for Chamber Orch. (1953; U.S. premiere, N.Y, Feb. 24, 1957); No. 11, The 7 Rituals of Music (1953; Louisville, May 29, 1954); No. 12 (1955–56; Houston, March 28, 1960); No. 13, Madras Symphony, for Small Orch. and 3 Indian Instruments (1957–58; Madras, India, March 3, 1959); No. 14 (1960–61; Washington, D.C., April 27, 1961); No. 15, Thesis (Bowling Green, Ky., Oct. 7, 1961); No. 16, Icelandic Symphony (1962; Reykjavik, March 21, 1963); No. 17 (1962–63; 1st movement perf. as Lancaster Overture, Lancaster, Pa., 1963); No. 18 (1964); No. 19 (Nashville, Term., Oct. 18, 1965); No. 20 (1965). OTHER WORK S FOR ORCH.: Vestiges (1914–20); Some Music (1915); Some More Music (1915–16); Communication (1920); Sinfonietta for Small Orch. (1924–28; Boston, Nov. 23, 1931, Slonimsky conducting); Irish Suite for Solo String, Percussion, and Piano (1928; Boston, March 11, 1929, Slonimsky conducting; a scoring of the piano pieces The Banshee, Leprechaun, and Fairy Bells with Chamber Orch. accompaniment); Piano Concerto (1929; Havana, Dec. 28, 1930; 1st complete U.S. perf., Omaha, Oct. 12, 1978); Polyphonica for 12 Instruments (1930); Synchrony (1930; Paris, June 6, 1931, Slonimsky conducting); Reel No. 1 and No. 2 (1930,1932); 2 Appositions for Strings (1931); Rhythmicana, Concerto for Rhythmicon and Orch. (1931; Palo Alto, Calif., Dec. 3, 1971); 3 pieces for Chamber Orch.: Competitive Sport, Steel and Stone, and Heroic Dance (1931); 4 Continuations for Strings (1933); Old American Country Set (1937; Indianapolis, Feb. 28, 1940); Celtic Set (Selinsgrove, Pa., May 6, 1938); American Melting Pot (1939); Symphonic Set (1939; orchestration of Toccanta)-, Shoonthree (Sleep Music; 1939; also for Band); Pastoral & Fiddler’s Delight (1940; N.Y, July 26, 1949, Stokowski conducting); Ancient Desert Drone (1940); Tales of Our Countryside for Piano and Orch. (1940; Atlantic City, May 11, 1941; composer soloist, Stokowski conducting; based on piano pieces written 1922–30); Vox Humana (1940); Little Concerto for Piano and Orch. or Band (1942; also known as Concerto piccolo); Suite for Piano and Strings (1943); American Pipers (1943); United Music (1944); Big Sing (1945); Festival Overture for 2 Orchs. (1946); Saturday Night at the Firehouse (1948); Aria for Violin and Strings (1952); Rondo (1953); Ballad for Strings (1955); Variations (1956); Persian Set for 12 Instruments (1956–57); Music 1957 (1957); Ongaku (1957; Louisville, March 26, 1958); Antiphony for 2 Orchs. (1958; Kansas City, Mo., Nov. 14, 1959); Percussion Concerto (1958; Kansas City, Jan. 7, 1961); Mela and Fair (New Delhi, India, Dec. 11, 1959); Characters (1959); Chiaroscuro (I960’, Guatemala City, Oct. 13, 1961); Variations on Thirds for 2 Solo Violas and Strings (1960); Concerto brevis for Accordion and Orch. (1960); Har-monica Concerto (1960); Air and Scherzo for Saxophone and Small Orch. (1961); Duo concertante for Flute, Harp, and Orch. (Springfield, Ohio, Oct. 21, 1961); two koto concertos: No. 1 (1963; Philadelphia, Dec. 18, 1964) and No. two (Hanover, N.H., May 8, 1965); Concerto grosso for five Instruments and Orch. (1963; Miami Beach, Jan. 12, 1964); Harp Concerto (1965); Carol (1965; new orchestration of slow movement of Koto Concerto No. 1). OTHER WORK S FOR BAND: A Curse and a Blessing (1938); Shoonthree (1940; also for Orch.); Celtic Set (1943; orig. for Orch., 1938); Animal Magic (1944); Grandma’s Rumba (1945); Fantasie (West Point, N.Y, May 30, 1952); Singing Band (1953). OTHER WORK S FOR VOICE: The Thistle Flower for Women’s Voices (1928); Vocalise for Voice, Flute, and Piano (1937); Chrysanthemums for Soprano, 2 Saxophones, and 4 Strings (1937); Toccanta for Soprano, Flute, Cello, and Piano (1938); The Coming of Light for Chorus (1939); Fire and Ice, after Frost, for four Male Soloists and Orch. or Band (1942); Sonatina for Baritone, Violin, and Piano (1942); American Muse for Soprano, Alto, and Piano (1943); To America for Chorus (1947); The Commission, cantata for four Soloists and Orch. (1954); …// He Please for Mixed and either Boys’ or Women’s Choruses and Orch. (1954); Septet for five Voices without words, Clarinet, and Piano (1955–56); A Thanksgiving Psalm from the Dead Sea Scrolls for Men’s Chorus and Orch. (1956; orig. Hymn and Fuguing Tune No. 11); Edson Hymns and Fuguing Tunes for Chorus and Orch. (1960); The Creator for Chorus and Orch. (1963); Ultima Actio for Chorus (1965). OTHER CHAMBE R WORKS : Quartet Romantic for 2 Flutes, Violin, and Viola (1915–17); five string quartets: No. 1, Pedantic (1915–16), No. 2, Movement (1928), No. 3, Mosaic (1935), No. 4, Untied (1936), and No. five (1956; rev. 1962); also the unnumbered Quartet Euphometric (1916–19); other pieces; also unnumbered Ensemble for 2 Violins, Viola, 2 Cellos, and 3 Thundersticks (1924; version for String Orch. without Thundersticks, 1959); 7 Paragraphs for String Trio (1925); Suite for Violin and Piano (1927); Exultation for 10 Strings (1928); Suite for Wind Quintet (1930); 3 works for Percussion: Pulse, Return, and Ostinato Pianissimo (1930–34); 6 Casual Developments for Clarinet and Piano (1935); Sound-form

for Dance for Flute, Clarinet, Bassoon, and Percussion (1936); Sarabande for Oboe, Clarinet, and Percussion (1937); Trickster Coyote for Flute and Percussion (1941); Action in Brass for five Brasses (1943); Violin Sonata (1945; rev. 1947); Saxophone Quartet (1946); Tall Tale for Brass Sextet (1947); Set for 2 for Violin and Piano (1948); 4 Declamations and Return for Cello and Piano (1949); Set of 5 for Violin, Piano, and Percussion (1951); Set for Harpsichord, Flute, Oboe, and Cello (1953); Set of 2 for Harp and Violin (1955); Homage to Iran for Violin and Piano (1957); Iridescent Rondo for Accordion (1959); Air and Scherzo for Saxophone and Piano (1961); Quartet for Flute, Oboe, Cello, and Harp (1962); Gravely and Vigorously, in memory of John F. Kennedy, for Cello (1963; orig. the Hymn and Fuguing Tune No.17); 26 Simultaneous Mosaics for Violin, Cello, Clarinet, Piano, and Percussion (N.Y., Dec. 1, 1964); Piano Trio (1965); Cleistogamy (self-pollinating flowerlets), a collection of pieces written between 1941 and 1963. KEYBOARD : Piano : The Tides of Manaunaun (1912); Advertisements (1914; rev. 1959); Dynamic Motion (1914); 6 Ings: Floating-Fleeting-Wafting-Seething-Frisking-Scooting (1916); It Isn’t It (1922); The Snows of Fujiyama (1922); Aeolian Harp (1923); Piece for Piano with Strings (Paris, 1924); The Banshee (1925); Lilt of the Reel (1925); Sinister Resonance (1925); Tiger (1927); 2 Woofs (1930); Hilarious Curtain Opener and Ritournelle (1937); hundreds of other pieces with similar fanciful titles; also some organ pieces.


New Musical Resources (N.Y., 1930); ed., American Composers on American Music: A Symposium (Stanford, Calif., 1933); with S. Cowell, Charles Ives and His Music (N.Y., 1955).


R. Mead, H. C.’s New Music, 1925–1936 (N.Y., 1981);M. Manion, Writings about H. C.: An Annotated Bibliography (N.Y., 1982); W. Lichtenwanger, The Music ofH. C.: A Descriptive Catalog (Brooklyn, 1986).

—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire

Henry Dixon Cowell

views updated Jun 08 2018

Henry Dixon Cowell

Henry Dixon Cowell (1897-1965) was an inventive and productive American composer, pianist, teacher, and author.

Henry Cowell was born March 11, 1897, in Menlo Park, Calif. A precocious pianist and violinist, he began composing by the age of 8. He received his first systematic training under Charles Seeger at the University of California, prior to Army service in World War I.

During the 1930s Cowell, already established in America as a sort of maverick composer, pursued musicological studies in Europe, meanwhile touring as a pianist-composer. He often caused near-riots with audiences when playing works including "tone clusters"—a term and technique he originated that is used by many avant-garde composers. A tone cluster is produced by placing the fist, full hand, or full forearm over a section of the keyboard, while usually the other hand continues to play normally. Occasionally, Cowell rose and sat a moment on the keyboard. He sometimes delved into the innards of the piano, using fingers or plectra to stroke or pluck strings, playing while standing, his other hand on the keyboard, with pedal effects produced by a foot. Meanwhile, he was experimenting with new effects that could be produced on orchestral instruments. However, he was also composing comparatively simple pieces reflective of his Irish parentage and his love of American folklore.

Cowell became one of the most vocal champions of new and of older, neglected American composers. He founded the New Musical Quarterly, contributed to many musical magazines, and edited American Composers on American Music (1933). He and his wife wrote Charles Ives and His Music. He was confounder and often president or board member of the American Composers Alliance, an organization that made unpublished scores by both noted and younger composers available. Cowell even raised money during the 1930s and 1940s to sponsor recordings featuring the works of younger American composers. He later was a director-member of Composers' Recordings, Inc. Meanwhile, teaching in a number of colleges and universities, he influenced many American and some foreign composers, who have since achieved success.

Cowell conjured a special American musical form of his own in which one will find some of his most significant music, aside from his many symphonies. He called it "hymn and fuguing tune." He was also an early experimenter with electronic instruments, such as the theremin, and pioneered in writing "serious" music for bands. His music, too prolific to list here, covers, often in depth, almost every thinkable musical combination. He was frequently disguisedly conservative in his compositions. For example, his invocation of "Americana" in certain works, except for certain subtle creative techniques employed, could sound "apple-pie American." Yet, especially in later years, traveling the world widely (especially Asia), he could dig deeply into the ancient musical lores of, for example, Iran or Japan, and produce an effective work sounding part Persian or part Japanese, part cosmopolitan-modern. He had set out to shock audiences, especially as a performing pianist-composer; later, he composed intricate, but somehow very accessible, music disturbing to practically no one. Cowell died on December 10, 1965, in Shady, New York.

Cowell once stated: "As a creator of music I contribute my religious, philosophical, and ethical beliefs in terms of creative sound: that sound which flows through the mind of the composer with a concentrated intensity that baffles description, the sound which is the very life of the composer, and which is the sum and substance of his faith and feeling." Virgil Thomson summed up: "Cowell's music covers a wider range in both expression and technic than any other living composer. … Add to this massive production his long and influential career as pedagog, and Cowell's achievement in music becomes impressive indeed. There is no other quite like it. To be fecund and right is given to few."

Further Reading

Information about Cowell is available in John T. Howard, Our Contemporary Composers: American Music in the Twentieth Century (1941); William W. Austin, Music in the Twentieth Century (1966); Peter Yates, Twentieth Century Music (1967); and David Ewen, The World of Twentieth Century Music (1968).

Additional Sources

Lichtenwanger, William, The music of Henry Cowell: a descriptive catalog, Brooklyn, N.Y.: Institute for Studies in American Music, Conservatory of Music, Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, 1986.

Manion, Martha L., Writings about Henry Cowell: an annotated bibliography, Brooklyn, N.Y.: Institute for Studies in American Music, Conservatory of Music, Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, 1982.

Saylor, Bruce, The writings of Henry Cowell: a descriptive bibliography, Brooklyn: Institute for Studies in American Music, Dept. of Music, School of Performing Arts, Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, 1977. □

Cowell, Henry (Dixon)

views updated Jun 11 2018

Cowell, Henry (Dixon) (b Menlo Park, Calif., 1897; d Shady, NY, 1965). Amer. composer and pianist, one of those remarkable pioneering figures who belong naturally to the avant-garde. Began to play vn. at age 3 and to compose at 11. In 1912 devised pf. technique known as clusters (tone-clusters) in which adjacent notes are played simultaneously with the forearm or flat of the hand. Also altered sound of pf. by placing objects on the strs. Demonstrated this ‘prepared pf.’ in S. Francisco, 5 Mar. 1914. Had 100 comps. to his credit when he began formal training in 1914 at Univ. of Calif. with Charles Seeger, who encouraged him to codify the unorthodox rules he was making for himself. This resulted in his book New Musical Resources (1919). In the 1920s his recitals attracted notoriety among the public not only because of clusters but because he pioneered other unusual uses of the piano such as plucking the strings or muting them with cardboard or metal. Made 5 tours of Europe between 1923 and 1933, earning friendship of Bartók, Berg, and Schnabel, and studied in Berlin with Schoenberg. In 1922, 17 of his cluster pieces were pubd. Cowell also invented new methods of notation to indicate his intentions and was co- inventor with Theremin in 1931 of early elec. instrument called the rhythmicon, which could reproduce exactly the complicated rhythmic combinations in his work. Cowell was also one of the first composers—in the 1930s—to bring an element of indeterminacy into his works, suggesting that parts of them could be assembled by the performers in any order and repeated at will, with some measures to be improvised.

Deeply interested in mus. of other cultures, introducing Eastern instr. in combination with conventional Western ones, e.g. Indian jalatarang and tablas. Studied Persian folk mus. and in his Ongaku reproduced Japanese quarter-notes and third-notes. At the other extreme, explored early Amer. mus. culture in a series of works called Hymn-and-Fuguing-Tunes. It is not surprising that such an original man should have been friend, companion, and biographer of Charles Ives or that he should have devoted so much time and energy to lecturing, teaching, writing, publishing, and generally promoting new Amer. mus. Most of his teaching was done as dir. of mus. at the New School for Social Research, NY 1928–63, and at Columbia Univ. 1949–65. Among his pupils were Gershwin and Cage. In 1936 was sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment in San Quentin for homosexual offences, but was paroled in 1940 and given a full pardon in 1942 when the evidence against him was found to be false. His list of comps. is very long. Among them are: OPERA: O'Higgins of Chile (1949, unfinished). ORCH.: 21 syms., incl. No.3 (Gaelic, 1942), No.11 (Seven Rituals of Music, 1953), No.13 (Madras, 1957–8), No.16 (Icelandic, 1963); Synchrony (1931); American Melting Pot (1939); Shoonthree (1941); Hymn-and-Fuguing Tunes Nos. 2, 3, 5, 10, and 16; 2 Concs. for Koto and orch. (2nd, 1964); Ongaku (1957); Variations for Orch. (1956), conc. for perc. Also chamber mus. (5 str. qts.), songs, pf. solos, band works, choral, and org. pieces.

Cowell, Henry Dixon

views updated May 14 2018

Cowell, Henry Dixon (1887–1965) US composer, influenced by non-Western music. He created “tone clusters” (dissonances produced by striking piano keys with the fist or forearm), used in such pieces as Advertisement (1914). Other piano pieces are played directly on the strings by plucking or striking, for example Aeolian Harp (1923). His output includes over 20 symphonies, many concertos and operas.

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