Seeger, Ruth Porter Crawford
Ruth Porter Crawford Seeger
American composer, music teacher and musicologist Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901–1953) is regarded by many to be the most important American female composer of the 20th Century. She was a crucial figure in the American modernist movement in the 1920s and early 1930s and also played a key part in the American folk music revival. With her husband, composer Charles Seeger, she became a champion of the downtrodden.
Seeger was born Ruth Porter Crawford was born July 3, 1901, in East Liverpool, Ohio, the daughter of a Methodist minister and his wife. Because of his religious calling, Seeger's father, a conservative man of humble means, took posts at many different parsonages, and the family moved around a lot. He died in 1914 while the family was living in Jacksonville, Florida.
During Seeger's itinerant childhood, her mother encouraged her interest in music while her father's sermons inspired her to write poetry. Seeger began studying piano when she was 11, and she became an accomplished pianist while still a teenager. After she graduated from high school, she enrolled in Foster's School of Musical Art. When the school relocated to Miami, Seeger moved to Chicago in 1921 to continue her music education. Her mother intended for her to study piano for a year and then return home to teach music.
Began Composing in Chicago
But things didn't go as planned. Chicago opened up a whole new world to Seeger, and at age 19 she entered a period of tremendous personal and artistic growth. She was introduced to orchestral and symphonic music, opera and, later, avant-garde music. She would remain in Chicago until 1929, when she moved to New York.
An important early step in Seeger's increasing sophistication as a musician and an individual came when she began studying musical composition and theory under the hard-driving music teacher Adolf Weidig, whose father had been a pupil of Brahms. The innovative teacher, originally from Hamburg, Germany, encouraged his students to produce original works as part of their education, and that advise greatly influenced Seeger's development as a composer.
Seeger's personal growth took another great leap when she began studying under pianist Djana Lavoie Herz, who was a disciple of Alexander Scriabin, a renowned Russian composer whose deep interests in philosophy and mysticism were evident in his piano sonatas, concertos and symphonies. His later and more complex works exhibited atonality, a method of musical composition that rejects the principles of tonality, harmony and key. Through Herz, Seeger became interested in theosophy, Eastern religions, European modernism and American transcendentalism.
Seeger became part of Herz's circle of musician friends that included avante-garde composers Dane Rudyhar, Aaron Copland, Carl Ruggles, and Henry Cowell. Rudhyar and Cowell encouraged Seeger's leanings toward atonality. Seeger developed a professional relationship with Cowell that had a tremendous impact on her career. Cowell, a highly regarded publisher and promoter of new music, became her most ardent supporter.
Seeger's earliest compositions, created in 1922 and 1923, were unremarkable works created for children. However, her subsequent pieces, produced between 1924 and 1929, represented a quantum leap. Influenced by the new music she was exposed to and by her talented circle of friends, Seeger began developing her own unique compositional style, which became evident in the Piano Preludes she created in 1924. At the time, it was a widespread belief among male composers that composition was a task too complex for the female mind, but Cowell recognized Seeger's abilities and would publish and write about her music as well as arrange performances. Concert performances of her work caused a critic to comment that Seeger could "sling dissonances like a man" (according to her daughter Peggy Seeger's website).
Her Chicago work, particularly her nine Piano Preludes, showed the influence of Scriabin, with their atonal elements, including dissonance and irregular meters and rhythms. These daring and original pieces reveal an artist at the peak of her form. Other works from this impressive period include Sonata for Violin and Piano (1926) and Suite for Five Wind Instruments and Piano (1927).
During this time, Seeger worked in folk music as well. She collaborated with poet Carl Sandburg on folk song arrangements, contributing music arrangements to his book The American Songbag and, later, music for eight of his poems. She also taught piano to his children. Later in her career, she would return to folk music in a more significant way.
Moved to New York
Cowell had published Seeger's works in a New Music Quarterly series, and he convinced Seeger that she had outgrown Chicago. In 1929, acting on Cowell's advice, she moved to New York City. Cowell had arranged for her to study composition with Charles Seeger, an important composer and musicologist, who introduced her to new and more complex musical theories. His teachings greatly affected the way she composed her music.
Initially, it seemed an odd student-teacher coupling. Charles Seeger did not hold a high opinion of women composers, and Seeger found him cold and aloof. However, Charles Seeger soon recognized her tremendous talent, and they entered into a course of intense sessions. Working together, they developed Charles Seeger's theories on dissonance, which would essentially help create a new form of American music that was complex and experimental. Daughter Peggy Seeger relates on her website that her mother later wrote to Charles, saying, "I felt that while you were there I could write symphonies. After a lesson I felt a new power flowing." Soon, Seeger and Charles Seeger realized they were developing strong feelings for each other.
Charles Seeger's influence was so strong that Seeger's work can be divided into two distinctive periods: her Chicago phase and her New York phase. Work from the latter phase is more experimental, as she worked with serial techniques. By 1930, she was regarded as a major talent in American modernism. That year, she became the first woman to receive a Guggenheim fellowship to study in Europe. She visited Berlin and Paris and met famous composers Bela Bartok, Alexander Mossolov, William Walton, Alban Berg, Paul Hindemith, and Josef Rufer.
In Europe, Seeger did more writing than studying. She raised eyebrows when she turned down an opportunity to study with the celebrated Arnold Schoenberg. But she was now confident of her own abilities, and she resented the prevailing Viennese conceit that worthwhile music could not be written beyond the borders of Austria and Germany. While overseas, she wrote some of her best works including "Three Chants," "String Quartet," and "Three Songs." Today, "Three Chants," a wordless text for women's chorus, is considered far ahead of its time.
Before Seeger left for Europe, she and Charles Seeger had admitted their love for each other. In fact, they finally acknowledged their feelings as Charles Seeger was driving her to the Quebec port where she would set sail. They continued their relationship when Seeger returned in 1931, the year she wrote her most famous work, String Quartet, a masterpiece of modernist classical music. In 1960, music critic George Perle, in his pivotal article written for The Score ("Atonality and the Twelve-Tone System in the United States"), remarked that the "String Quartet 1931 of Ruth Crawford is an original and inventive work whose numerous 'experimental' features in no way detract from its spontaneity, freshness, and general musicality."
Today, Seeger's musical reputation is largely built on the works she produced in her New York period, when she was at her most productive and innovative. Her output was severely curtailed after she married Seeger in 1932 and assumed the responsibilities of raising a family. In 1934, she stopped composing music for nearly ten years. Seeger had children from a previous marriage, including Pete Seeger, who would grow up to become a famous folksinger. Two of the Seegers' children, Peggy and Mike, also became well-known folksingers.
During the Depression, the Seegers fell upon hard times. By 1935, the family was poverty stricken, and Charles could find only menial and inconsistent work on farms. But in the autumn of that year, he landed a job with a government relief agency that placed musicians into communities of the poor and displaced. The job required the family to travel to many isolated region across the country. In this way, they were exposed to regional and contemporary American folk music. The Seegers were quite impressed with the music and its creators, and the couple became passionate collectors and transcribers of the music, publishing examples in many songbooks.
Folk Music and Social Causes
Seeger became a driving force in the American folk music revival when she collaborated with two other folk song collectors, John and Alan Lomax. She helped the team edit many songs gathered from actual field recordings. In 1936, the Seegers moved to Washington, D.C. to collect folk songs for the Library of Congress.
The couple's fascination with folk music coincided with their increasing political radicalization, which was due in part to the Depression. Around this time, Seeger began to feel that dissonant music was a bourgeois luxury, and she said that folk music was more in line with her new political beliefs. Indeed, Seeger spent a great amount of time over the next two decades working to bring about social justice and cultural change. In New York City, the couple became deeply involved in the proletarian music movement. Charles Seeger wrote music criticism for the New York Daily Worker, while Seeger wrote political songs that addressed contemporary issues and targeted injustices. Typical works included "Sacco, Vanzetti" and "Chinaman, Laundryman." They also became involved with the American Communist Party.
Returned to Teaching and Composing
In the 1940s, Seeger's main interests involved teaching music to children. She gave private piano lessons to many young students at her daughter's nursery school. In 1948, she published American Folk Songs for Children, an important work designed for elementary grades that became a standard text in primary music education. Her other folk song collections included Our Singing Country, American Folk Songs for Children, Animal Folk Songs for Children, and American Folk Songs for Christmas.
In 1950, Seeger began to compose again. She only completed one work, Suite for Wind Quintet, in 1952. Appropriately, it combined elements of modernism and folk music. The work demonstrated that her strong compositional powers were still fully intact. By the time she finished the piece, she found out that she had intestinal cancer. She died at the age of 52 on November 18, 1953, in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Charles Seeger was at her side.
In the years since Seeger's death, her reputation has grown. Many now consider her to be the most important American female composer of the 20th Century, even though the number of works she produced is rather small. Still, what she accomplished in that small but robust body of work helped shape the course of American music as it evolved over the course of the century.
The later part of the century saw a rebirth of interest in her music thanks, in part, to a new movement of American serial composers that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s. In addition, several important reissues and new recordings of her compositions created new excitement about her work. A 1970s reissue of String Quartet 1931, in particular, was pivotal in sparking the renewed interest.
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