Did Music's Bad Boy Ever Really Reform?

That's the question raised by Antheil: Orchestral Works (Chandos 10982), the latest anthology of symphonic music by composer/pianist George Antheil (1900–1959). This second Antheil title from John Storgårds and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra finds Storgårds exploring music written on both sides of Antheil's successful Symphony No.4, which can be found on Vol.1 of what looks to be an ongoing Antheil series.

Born in Trenton, NJ, Antheil initially made his considerable mark in Europe. After a number of riot-causing concerts in Paris, including the infamous 1926 premiere of his Ballet Mécanique for 16 player pianos, airplane propeller, electric bells, and a kitchen sink's worth of additional instruments, Antheil continued to engage in any number of attention-grabbing stunts, including climbing up the side of Shakespeare & Company in Paris to the apartment where he lived with his wife.

After moving to Germany and finding his music increasingly out of favor with the Nazi orthodoxy, Antheil returned to America. Starting in 1936, he wrote over 30 film scores for the likes of Cecile B. DeMille and Ben Hecht. In the 1940s, he and actress Hedy Lamarr together developed a frequency-hopping scheme to help Allied torpedoes circumvent anti-torpedo technology.

In the second half of his life, Antheil seemed to have beat a musical retreat of sorts by adopting a more conservative, tonal approach to composition in which neo-romantic vigor and short bursts of film score-like inspiration sometimes uneasily inhabited the same bed. Just as those two parts of his musical personality were attempting to join together in holy union, his unpredictable little kid would suddenly emerge, jumping up and down on the mattress and sending notes, themes, and all semblance of cohesion all over the place.

Auditioned in 24/96, Storgårds's just-released anthology open with Archipelago (1935), a wild 6-minute rhumba. Imagine Carmen Miranda and Bugs Bunny doing the rhumba together in Disneyland, and you'll begin to get a sense of what's going on here. Just as those delightful little chickadees fly into view, gayly chirping away, Bugs Bunny yells "What's up, Doc?" and the fur begins to fly. This six-minute piece is a must-hear.

The recording includes two other short, must-hear works. Hot-Time Dance (1948) sounds a bit like the Camptown Races, while Spectre of the Rose Waltz (1946, re-orchestrated 1947), from a film by Ben Hecht, begins kinda lovely and romantic until things suddenly go all unhinged.

The volume's two longer works, the 25-minute Symphony No.3 "American" (1936–41, revised 1946) and slightly longer Symphony No.6 "after Delacroix," puzzle even as they delight. While both contain some delightfully wacky stuff, they often jump from motif to motif and then back again, as if Antheil were scoring a film. I love the crazy chase in the Third Symphony's final movement, "Back to Baltimore," but sometimes I'm unable to figure out if Antheil knows where he's heading. What, for example, are those virtual quotes from the last movement of Sibelius's Symphony No.5 doing in there?

Symphony No.6 certainly sounds American in places—you'll hear the influence of Copland, whom Antheil knew, and whose sensibility also pops up in the Third Symphony—but you'll also hear more of the Keystone Cops wackiness from Antheil's early days. You may find yourself laughing uproariously, or you may feel impelled to jump up from your seat and start playing bone fetch with your doggie.

While I can't find the recording on YouTube, Qobuz appears to have it in 16/44.1 if you want to give it a try. As Antheil's oeuvre begins to scramble your brain, you may find yourself standing up on your hind legs, begging for more. If you do, the 24/96 download is surely the best way to go.

PAR's picture

" While I can't find the recording on YouTube, Qobuz appears to have it in 16/44.1 ".

Maybe you are using the Qobuz USA Beta version but the UK Qobuz currently has it for streaming in 24/96.

It can be difficult to judge exactly what resolution any title may ultimately be available in as streaming rights can be granted by the record labels with a clear eye on the marketing of the recording. So some labels will provide Qobuz with a limited resolution file for the initial period of a new release. For example until recently Chandos would often only allow 30 or 40 second MP3 " tasters" for the first weeks. Other labels use this strategy to give subscribers a taster of releases coming in the near future.

Currently Chandos (and others) may provide the redbook file for the first days with the hi-res version later . An example would be the new release of " The Polish Violin" by Jennifer Pike. 16/44.1 for the first few days then subsequently the hi-res file was posted.

So when writing a blog ( which may have longer term relevance than a couple of days i.e. this one will be archived for future reference) it may be wise either not to cite what looks like a fixed situation for this aspect or otherwise be prepared to regularly update the posting.

OffordTimperley's picture

Also 24/96 on Spain Qobuz ... listening now, sounds wonderful . A pity 24/96 is so 'limiting' ;)

I am not familiar with this 'Bad Boy' but really liking and enjoying so far .

Jim C.'s picture

While reading Antheil's Wikipedia page, I found this:

"Antheil's interest in [female endocrinology] brought him into contact with the actress Hedy Lamarr, who sought his advice about how she might enhance her upper torso. He suggested glandular extracts, but their conversation then moved on to torpedoes."

Which has to be the funniest paragraph on Wikipedia.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Worthy of five torpedoes at the least.