This is the sixth in our series of newsletters focusing on individual pieces of chamber music, chosen by members of the Strings Attached team. This time Helen Simpson, Strings Attached committee member, writes about another relatively unknown piece from the 20th century. And if the name Seeger seems familiar, yes, she was the step mother of Pete Seeger and mother of Peggy!
Ruth Crawford was an American composer, known for her modernist works in the 1920s and early 1930s. Her music was published in the New Music Quarterly and in Chicago there were public performances of her piano and violin pieces. In 1929 Crawford was in New York studying with Charles Seeger. There, she worked in what was called dissonant counterpoint, a method which uses dissonant intervals primarily and if consonant intervals are used they are preceded and followed by dissonant intervals.This will become clear when you listen to the sound clip!
In 1930 Crawford was in Berlin having been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship; the first woman to receive one. There, although in contact with Bela Bartok and Alban Berg, she worked alone and kept to her own compositional style, not yielding to serialism that was being developed by Arnold Schoenberg. While still in Berlin she wrote her String Quartet ‘1931’ which is considered her greatest work. Click here to listen to it on YouTube.
This clip shows you the score which is being played. For some, this is a bonus, for others a somewhat less human experience; either way, the piece is remarkable.
I Rubato assai
Immediately the wide arching first violin’s line is contrasted with busy, nervy passages in the other parts. Much scurrying and pulsating continues beneath the high flying lines and these disparate ideas slowly converge and condense, as the movement draws to a close.
This is dense in contrapuntal techniques; imitation is obvious and tonally C or C# is prominent. It is reminiscent of Bartok’s quartet writing and his fourth was written in 1928, just before Crawford began work in Berlin.
On the score you will see the ‘hairpin’ dynamic markings at very close intervals.
This movement is remarkable and features ‘dissonant dynamics’. Crawford said of it “no high point in the crescendo in any one instrument coincides with the high point in any other instrument. The melodic line grows out of this continuous increase and decrease”.
This movement contrasts with the previous two in every aspect. There is very slight tonal sense; it’s all about the uses of dynamics and small intervals.
IV Allegro possibile
This opens as a conversation between the first violin and the other three players. There are sudden sforzandi and pianissimos and this, together with the changing dialogue where the opening material is passed between all players makes a strong and exciting finale to the quartet.
Back in New York Crawford married Charles Seeger in 1932. In 1936 they moved to Washington and this marked a shift in Ruth Crawford Seeger’s career. She worked with John and Alan Lomax at the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress and she preserved and transcribed folk music for the next twenty years of her life. Ruth developed school music programmes, drawing on folk music and in 1948 she published American Folksongs for Children. Ruth’s stepson Pete Seeger was a well known folk music performer from the 1940s to the 1960s and beyond; and Peggy Seeger, Ruth’s daughter, born in 1935, also became a well known folk singer and performer who married Ewan MacColl and settled in the UK. Pete and Peggy Seeger are big names in folk music circles and no doubt are well known by many of you reading this today.
Ruth Crawford Seeger’s reputation as a modernist composer is based on her work in 1930-33 when she was extending serial parameters from just the pitches of notes, to the use of dynamics as we have seen in the third movement of her quartet. The strong influence here is of course Schoenberg and his pupils. Traditional and Folk music from Europe and America were important in Ruth’s musical life and, in a life which achieved so much published and documented work, the String Quartet ‘1931’ is an important introduction to this remarkable musician.
Because it hasn’t started yet, we’ll repeat the information contained in the previous newsletter. The Wigmore Hall will be broadcasting a new series of live lunchtime concerts every weekday in June, in collaboration with BBC Radio 3. You will be able to listen live on radio, or watch a live stream from the empty auditorium on the Wigmore Hall website. Artists involved include Imogen Cooper, Lucy Crowe, Iestyn Davies, Benjamin Grosvenor, Angela Hewitt, Stephen Hough, Michael Collins, Paul Lewis, Mark Padmore, Mitsuko Uchida and Roderick Williams. That’s marvellous news and it’s due to a donation by an anonymous benefactor.
Enjoy your listening!
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