Mother of the Modernists

The mother of folk singer Peggy Seeger used to be known for one short but extraordinary quartet. But now composer Ruth Crawford Seeger – who died young in 1953 – is being recognised as something of a pioneer.

We’ve all talked about ‘one-work composers’ – meaning usually those who’ve actually written dozens of pieces but only one of them ever gets played. Dukas (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice but what else?) is still in that category for most people; so are Dohnányi and Pachelbel. But the oddest case of a one-work composer is surely Ruth Crawford Seeger, who for a long time seemed literally to have written only one work. But a very remarkable one: the piece in question is a short string quartet (about 12 minutes), written in 1931. Lots of people who are interested in twentieth-century music know it – it’s been recorded several times – and it’s often been described as a masterpiece. I had no doubt that it was from the moment I first heard it, but I could find no recordings of anything else by her, and very little information about the composer herself, save that she was born in 1901 and died in 1953. A shortish life, then, but since she lived for 22 years after writing that quartet surely she must have written something else?

It isn’t uncommon for gifted women composers to give up writing due to family pressures. One of the most heartening examples is Minna Keal, who as a young woman was obliged by the early death of her father to give up music to save the family’s small business. But she took up composing again, with great distinction, at the age of 70; now in her late eighties she’s still working. Seeger, however, wrote her quartet at 30, and it sounds like the work of a mature artist, not a promising one. It’s very tough – it must have seemed very modern in 1931 – but at the same time it’s intensely, even tragically, expressive. Its language is highly personal and its technique is masterly. Surely neither can have been achieved overnight? There must be other works by Ruth Crawford Seeger waiting to be rediscovered!

There are, but it has taken a long time for them to come to light. And confronted with a list of them you can’t help noticing that almost everything dates from a very short period, 1929-32. but within that few years her creativity and originality were astonishing. A group of choruses for women’s voices using an imaginary language to create a spell-like quality which seems to distil the essence of religious music, Eastern and Western. Some songs to texts by Carl Sandburg which are like musical equivalents of futurist pictures or the machine-like paintings of Léger. Exercises in rhythm that other composers would only follow up 20 or 30 years later. Musical structures so rigorous and yet so satisfying that you can understand why, when someone suggested that she study with Schoenberg, she replied that she didn’t need to.

Indeed she didn’t. Partly influenced by her husband’s theories of what he called ‘dissonant counterpoint’ she devised a language in which dissonances are seen as ‘normal’, with consonances used as an expressive ‘flavouring’ – precisely the reverse of nineteenth-century harmony. Rhythm, tone-colour and dynamics (loudness) are as exactly calculated in her music as melody. And yet her music isn’t really ‘difficult’. The slow movement of her string quartet uses a technique that she off-puttingly described as ‘dissonant dynamics’. The score is studded with very precise indications of loudness, softness and the gradations between them; almost as though dynamics were more important than melody. The function of the technique, though, is to place in relief a very long melody which passes from instrument to instrument almost with each note. Played as she instructed that melody is not only very beautiful but poignantly expressive.

But while we’ve been waiting for her other pieces to emerge, a few more facts about Seeger have become rather better known. Pheraps her married name may have rung a bell in your memory? The popular and influential folk singers Pete, Peggy and Michael Seeger are her stepson, daughter and son respectively. In 1931 Ruth Crawford married her teacher Charles Seeger. During the 1930s, the years of the Depression and its aftermath, they became passionately involved in politics – both were communists for a while – and in a conviction that music could help in the political struggle. Ruth devoted much of her energy from the early 1930s onwards to transcribing, arranging and publishing American folk songs – thousands of them – particularly for educational work with children. What with that and with teaching the piano to make ends meet – the Seegers were never well-off – there was little time left for composing. And besides, Ruth was fairly heavily involved in what she called ‘composing babies’ – with three children from her husband’s previous marriage, there would eventually be seven little Seegers to look after. She wrote a couple of overtly political works, settings of propaganda texts by the Chinese communist poet H T Tsiang (though she removed some of his more inflammatory words), but she didn’t return to writing what she called her ‘own’ music until 1952, when she wrote a suite for wind quintet. Shortly thereafter, however, she developed cancer and died the following year.

It’s a sad story, but an inspiring one. (I would imagine that Minna Keal, who in the 1930s was active in the anti-fascist movement in the East End of London and who helped to save many refugee children from Nazi Germany, would agree). It’s sad, not only because Seeger died relatively young, with most of her ‘own’ music little-known, but because in that late wind quintet she seems to have been moving towards a new style, maintaining the toughness of her remarkable youthful compositions but seasoning it with something of what she had learned from her indefatigable work on folk song. It’s sad, too, of course, because we have no ‘serious’ music from what might have been her most productive years. But who’s to say that the years she devoted to folk music (and to the bringing up of her children) were wasted?

Classic CD magazine, 1997

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