"Antheil's more splintery compositions ... were as unsoothing as a punch in the nose." -- Ben Hecht
The score for "Ballet Mecanique," which caused riots in Paris and boos at Carnegie Hall.
|1927: Trenton's 'bad boy' of music|
|By JON BLACKWELL / The Trentonian|
|George Antheil didn’t play the piano. He attacked it, wrists and palms banging against the keyboard, thick as sausage fingers pounding out a thumping rhythm.
When the restless musician from Trenton composed his own music, he not only put pianos in the orchestra, but added airplane propellers, doorbells, buzz saws and anvils on the same stage as the tuxedoed pianists.
Antheil called it "Ballet Mecanique" -- a tribute to the industrial age.
In 1927, he brought the crashing, clanging show to New York City's Carnegie Hall. It was the musical event of the season, and Antheil, all of 26 years old, was ready to take Manhattan by storm.
Instead, he got a reception more awful than the nearriots that greeted some of his more raucous European recitals. The New York audience simply shrank back in silent horror. Reviewers heaped scorn on him. "A brainless and stupid nullity," one of them wrote.
Antheil is remembered now as one of the great innovators of the 20th century. But in the popular press, he would never live down the disaster of 1927. Nor could he escape the tag he gave himself: “The Bad Boy of Music.”
“He was always too much anti establishment for the music establishment," said his nephew, Arthur McTighe of Hamilton. "It's too bad that he isn't as much remembered today for his talent than he is for his rebelliousness."
George Antheil (pronounced AN tile) was born with the century, on July 8, 1900, at 35 Davies St. His parents were German immigrants, and his father, Henry, owned Antheil's Friendly Shoe Store, at 135 N. Broad St.
From his earliest days, George remembered growing up with the noise of a factory town at its peak of productive power. “I have come to wonder whether the clatter set the course of my musical career," he later wrote.
From Davies Street, now known as Stokely Avenue, the family moved to 677 Second St., then 7 McKinley Ave. Antheil would later remember living across the street from New Jersey State Prison while a neighbor played the piano at top volume to cover up the, noise of an attempted breakout. It was one of his many tall tales; he was never that close to the prison.
He got his first piano lessons at age 10 and almost immediately began composing, too, his preference running to Chopin, Debussy and Bach. At 12, he wrote a mournful tribute to the Titanic; at Trenton Central High School, he won contest after contest.
Antheil's genius also won the attention of a Philadelphia music teacher, Constantine Von Sternberg, who became his tutor in 1919. Von Sternberg taught him counterpoint, harmony, simplicity, lessons that the pupil would absorb. Von Sternberg also tried to Mot the young pianist to be more relaxed -- advice that went unheeded.
Antheil's friend, playwright Ben Hecht, would later describe the musician's style. "Music poured out of Antheil 16 hours a day," Hecht wrote. "At home or in hotel suites, Georgie played the piano until his swollen fingers had to be stuck in a bowl of ice for healing.
"As he played the piano, pummeling the hell out of its keys and stomping on the loud petal, Georgie sang the various instrumental parts of his compositions. His half-falsetto squeal supplied horn, fiddle, flute and drum accompaniments. I listened always with fascination to Antheil's more splintery compositions. They were as unsoothing as a punch in the nose."
Antheil grew up to be 5 foot 4 and his smooth face made him look like a child even in his 20s. But he was no pushover, for he was built like a lightweight boxer, had beefy hands and glared a menacing expression.
In his later years, peope would note his resemblance to sinister movie bad guy Peter Lorre. Antheil welcomed the comparison.
In 1921, Antheil got the break for stardom he had been scheming for. A prize pianist scheduled for a European tour suddenly quit in a snit. Antheil called the pianist's manager and was booked to do the tour himself.
His tough guy style at the piano soon had audiences' attention. In Berlin, they cheered; in Budapest, they rioted. In Munich -- so went his story -- Antheil got death threats from something called the National Socialist Party and its brownshirt leader, Adolf Hitler.
Antheil took to keeping a .32-caliber pistol under his jacket. When there was a commotion at one of his performances, he would withdraw the firearm and set it next to his sheet music. "From, then on, every note was heard," he said.
But concert piano playing was too limited for the brash Trenton kid to pursue for more than a year. In 1923, he settled in Paris to work solely on composing. He moved to 12 Rue de l'Odeon, above the Shakespeare and Company bookstore run by Princeton born Sylvia Beach.
There he got a taste of '20s style sexual freedom. He had affairs with a Russian actress, a courtesan, a dancer, a German baroness. He ended up marrying Boski Marcus, the beautiful, elfin niece of a famous Austrian playwright.
Paris was also a haven for the modem minded intellectual. Pablo Picasso was there. So were James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, T. S. Eliot. Antheil mingled with them all.
In the post World War I society, the idea took hold that stodgy tradition had to give way to the machine age in all its dynamic glory. Antheil was exhilarated with the idea, and it shaped his music. Pianos and strings were fine, he reasoned -- but why not add the real sounds of machines at work?
Hemingway laughed at Antheil as a pretentious kid, but Pound one of the greatest poets of his time - took the young composer under his wing. Pound encouraged Antheil and gave him financial backing. He also wrote a short book, "Antheil and the Treatise on Harmony."
The tome made little sense musically, but it rang with praise for Antheil, and everyone was impressed with one phrase: "His musical world is a world of steel bars, not of stone and ivy." That helped Antheil to get his "Airplane Sonata" produced in Paris' biggest theater, where he introduced an airplane engine onto the stage.
The sonata's critical success encouraged Antheil to work on his most ambitious project yet, "Ballet Mecanique." It would proceed in three "rolls”; it would feature eight, count 'em, eight grand pianos; it would be scored with propellers and saws and anvils and sirens and buzzers.
Wen it was first performed in Paris in June 1926, the blast of the propeller hit the front row like a wind tunnel, blowing off ladies' hats and men's toupees. Loud hisses erupted. Scattered brawls broke out. But for every boo, Pound led the audience in even louder cheers.
Antheil was hailed by French, critics as "le gran musicien" and "I'enfant terrible." His work was "the sincerest expression of America," one wrote. Sensing an opportunity to spread his fame, Antheil grabbed at an offer to make his American debut in New York City.
Time magazine called the concert the musical event of the season and hailed the return of the native son, "The Trenton Tough." Billboards went up all over New York. The number of pianos was increased to 16; xylophones, anvils and even louder machinery were brought in, too.
On premiere night, April 10, Antheil watched nervously as the first booming notes of "Ballet Mecanique" reverberated through Carnegie Hall. There were a few scattered boos. One man tied a white handkerchief to his cane and held it aloft to signal surrender. But most of the audience sat back quietly and hated it.
"Whooping piffle," one critic said "Infantile, unresourceful and unexpressive," said another.
Antheil went home to Trenton for the first time in six years, feeling defeated. To top it off, his mom chastised him for not writing home.
Never again would Antheil get the sort of fame he squeezed from his Carnegie Hall episode. Still, he recovered to become a little-publicized Renaissance man of the mid 20th century.
He wrote operas, string quartets, symphonies. He moved to Los Angeles and scored the music for a dozen movies, including "The Buccaneer," and the TV documentary series "Twentieth Century."
And that wasn't all. He teamed with none other none than Hollywood sex goddess Hedy Lamarr to patent a radio controlled torpedo. He wrote an advice for the lovelorn column for an L.A. paper.
Antheil never did take care of himself, however, smoking several packs of cigarettes a day
and working himself into exhaustion. On Feb. 12, 1959, he flew to New York to compose a TV musical score. He died of a heart attack when he got to his Manhattan apartment; he was just 58.
In 1945, Antheil had written his autobiography, "Bad Boy of Music," in which he accepted that he would be remembered more as a mischief maker than a classical musician. "If the public still thinks of me at all, it probably thinks of me as the composer of this damned 'Ballet Mecanique,” he said. "It is frankly a nightmare."
Yet the whole "bad boy" reputation is unfair, said Alan Mallach, a concert pianist who serves as Trenton housing director..
"When he was a kid, by all accounts, he was very full of himself, very immature and eager to make a name," Mallach said. "But when you go beyond the brash exterior, you find a fully developed musical personality."