Monday, 11 August 2008

George Antheil

Since some of the following sounds unlikely and Other Men's Flowers is sometimes suspected of adopting a less than serious attitude to the truth I must preface this note by firmly attesting to its accuracy; if you doubt it there is always Google.

George Antheil, born in Trenton, PA, bounced into Europe in the twenties as a precocious pianist, playing his own avant-garde compositions in several major cities. They provoked mild enthusiasm and sometimes riots; he took to having the doors locked and keeping a pistol on top of the piano.

Such works as Ballet Mécanique, scored for pianola with amplifier, two pianos, wooden and metal aircraft propellers, tam-tam, three bass drums and a fire siren, became hugely popular, but Antheil's reputation in France declined and in 1927 he took his masterpiece to New York, where it was performed under the baton of Eugene Goossens; it now featured ten pianos, one played by Aaron Copland. Sadly, the publicity had led the audience to believe that they were in for a bit of fun, and when the wind driving the propellers hit the audience, blowing off hats and toupees, and the fire siren, cranked up too late for its cue, didn't stop when it was meant to, many New Yorkers collapsed with laughter or left the hall.

Back in Paris, Antheil was out of fashion, though he had some success with an opera, Transatlantic, about a US presidential election. He returned to the USA, broke, in 1933 and turned his hand to various ways of making money, writing a lonely-hearts column with his wife, studying endocrinology and writing articles about glands for Esquire, and then went to Hollywood where he produced thirty-three much admired film scores.

So far, then, a fairly conventional sort of life. In 1942, however, it took a turn for the unusual when he collaborated with the sex-goddess film star Hedy Lamarr in designing a radio-controlled torpedo which they patented. It never actually went into production, but the principle of frequency-hopping on which it was based has various uses today in modems, satellite transmissions and mobile phones. In 1997 the US military revealed that the Lamarr-Antheil device was the basis for their secure communications system.

A survey in 1947 found Antheil to be one of the most performed US composers, so I am ashamed that until yesterday I had never heard of him. But I wish I had been at the Carnegie Hall concert in 1927, and I much enjoyed reading his story.


Paul Lehrman said...

A very nice entry on Antheil, whose work I have been researching for over ten years, but I wanted to point out a few factual errors.
Antheil's name has an "h", which you missed in the title and once in the text.
He was born in Trenton, NJ, not PA.
Ballet Mécanique was played on eight or more pianos in Paris before it came to New York, not just two, so the Carnegie Hall performance was not unique in that regard.
Antheil's reputation was not in decline in Paris when he brought the Ballet Mécanique to New York--he was still fantastically popular--but after the debacle at Carnegie Hall, he did fall out of favor in Paris, mostly for adopting a new compositional style that was much tamer than his previous "mechanistic" style.
When he wrote Transatlantic, he had left Paris and was living in Germany. The opera was produced in Frankfurt.
His wife did not help with his lonely-hearts column--he wrote it himself. After a while, however, the publisher hired ghost writers to do it.
His collaboration with Hedy Lamarr took place before the US entered World War II, not in 1942, although the patent on their process wasn't granted until 1942 (patents take a long time). The Antheil/Lamarr collaboration is the subject of a terrific play called "Frequency Hopping" which had a successful run in New York this past June.

Tony said...

Dear Paul Lehrman

Thank you very much for taking the trouble to comment on this post.

Misspelling Antheil's name (twice) was inexcusable: I have now corrected it.

You must be a leading expert on his life and works, and I entirely accept that I may have got some of the details wrong; my source was a 2003 book by the historian Angus Calder, who in turn acknowledged four other sources including Grove. It may well be that the discrepancies arose from my careless plagiarism rather than any disagreement between the various writers about the facts.

Anyway, I hope you will agree that the errors are not substantive and do not really detract from the story of this remarkable man, so that there is no need for me to amend what I wrote: readers will note your corrections.

You will see that some 69 of the posts in Other Men's Flowers have some connection with music; I am profoundly ignorant on this subject and it would be nice to think that you will read them all through with a musicologist's eye and bring any other errors to my attention.

It is possible, I suppose, that you are not a musicologist at all but a student of naval warfare and electronics. Or you might be both.

All good wishes