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George Antheil (1900-1959)


The American virtuoso pianist George Antheil intruded like a shining comet into the depression of post WW I-Europe. The first half of his recitals with Beethoven, Chopin etc. were followed by his own machine-like and explosive piano works: “Sonate Sauvage”, “Airplane Sonata”, “Death of Machines”, “Jazz Sonata”  (G.A.: “A pianists fingers are both his ammunition and his machine guns”), causing such uproar and scandal, that once in Budapest after the intermission he asked on stage that the doors be locked, then took his Chicago-gangster style 0.32 automatic Colt out of from its special pocket of his made to measure suit and deployed it on the piano, thereby imposing respectful silence and warm applause from the audience.


In his autobiography he describes himself playing the first movement “Allegro” of a Beethoven Sonata: “The first theme, a noble theme it is, as noble as a mans true love, the woman he marries... Now comes the second theme. In the dominant, a brigther key. It is the mistress. The mistress always comes a little while after the wife, and she is in a brighter key. Don’t worry, though, for the mistress theme will be as dull as the wife’s in the recapitulation, in the same key. Isn’t that like life?... And here is the development. Here is where the wife gets to know about the mistress and raises hell. Here they are together; left hand is the wife, right hand the mistress. They call it counterpoint. I call it a cat fight! What a wonderful master Beethoven is.”


Beethoven remained Antheils lifelong hero, while an initial fascination with Stravinsky gave way to scepticism. The latter, and also  Arnold Schoenberg were to him “not composers of ideas, but wrote solely to illustrate and prove a system”. He included Schoenbergs followers saying, that “the post-WW II European composer is aiming for discipline, discipline - discipline so narrow that it amounts almost to a small but utterly safe (as he thinks) prison. He finds his haven in the atonal note sequence cell. In it he finds refuge against passion, sentimentalism, or styles - real or synthetic, taste, artistic creation.”


Morton Feldman  first studied composition with pupils of Schoenberg and Webern but in New York he became a friend of John Cage, who encouraged him to compose without relation to compositional systems of the past and  introduced him to George Antheil, who probably would have approved.


Antheil wrote his three Paris violin sonatas after WW I for the violinist Olga Rudge. She had been introduced to him by their common friend Ezra Pound and according to Antheils autobiography they performed frequently together in the Paris of the midtwenties, always to sold-out houses and with “succès de scandale”. After world war II he also wrote a violin concerto which was performed just once.


Antheils very funny autobiography “Bad boy of music” is highly recommended. Some musicologists pretend that it is not serious or reliable, but probably they are only jealous of his superior and spot on writing skill.  


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