2001 Volume XXXI, No. 1
Ruth Crawford Seeger's Contributions to Musical Modernism
by Joseph N. Straus
Crawford’s early musical training was traditional, but in the late 1920s, when she was in her twenties, she came under the influence of Cowell and Rudhyar, a contact that marked the first of two crucial turning points in her compositional career and ushered her into the world of dissonant, ultra-modern music. During the mid and late 1920s, she composed a number of adventurous and innovative works, including the Nine Piano Preludes (1924-1925; 1927-1928), the Suite No. 2 for Piano and Strings (1929), and the Five Songs to Poems by Carl Sandburg (1929). In 1929, she began to study composition with Charles Seeger. That experience marked the second turning point, and led to her finest and most characteristic works, including her Four Diaphonic Suites, String Quartet 1931, Three Songs to Poems by Carl Sandburg, and Suite for Wind Quintet. This group of works, totaling less than three hours of music, is the source of her reputation and influence.
The basis of Crawford’s musical style is melody. Her comment about her String Quartet, that it is “music which is thought horizontally,” applies equally well to most of her later music. In this, she rejects what she considered the over-reliance of nineteenth-century romantic music on vertically conceived chordal harmony. Her melodies are carefully structured to avoid outlining major or minor triads—they are “dissonated,” to use Charles Seeger’s term—and to avoid repetition of any particular note or interval. Beyond these strategies of avoidance, Crawford’s melodies project a vigorous, self-contained internal coherence, but of a special kind. Instead of taking the more traditional approach of repeating motives, her melodies often change shape as they move. They expand and contract, surge forward and hold back, twist and turn, shifting and changing their identity all the while. As a result, their coherence depends not so much on their content, which is constantly in flux, as on certain distinctive processes of melodic transformation. The melodic unity is one of process rather than content, thus bringing Schoenberg’s modernist conception of “developing variation” to a high point of intensity and refinement.
Many of Crawford’s melodies follow an explicit precompositional scheme. In their simplest form, such schemes involve ostinati—distinctive musical figures usually one or two measures in length that repeat continuously. Six movements, most from relatively early works, are based on ostinati. In five movements from later works, Crawford uses melodies based on rigid, mechanistic serial plans involving rotation and transposition. A brief melody is stated, then rotated to begin in turn on each of its notes. When a set of rotations is completed, the melody is transposed to the level of the second note, and a new set of rotations begins. Three movements are constituted as palindromes, the same from end to beginning as they are from beginning to end. Such precompositional schemes are one of Crawford’s responses to the central dilemma of modernist music: how to create musical structure, continuity, and closure in the absence of the organizing power of traditional tonality. Like the twelve-tone serialism of Schoenberg, Crawford’s precompositional schemes offer a way of bringing order to the potential chaos of atonality.
Crawford’s music often combines two or more independent melodic lines in a texture she described as “heterophonic.” She used this term in a special way—to refer to a kind of hyper-polyphony, in which melodies are deliberately uncoordinated with each other. As Charles Seeger phrased it, heterophony involves “a polyphony in which there is no relation between the parts except mere proximity in time-space: each [melody] should have its own tonal and rhythmic system, and these should be mutually exclusive.” Her melodies are of two types: either they are free and rhapsodic, constantly changing shape, or they are strictly and systematically controlled in some way, often by an explicit serial organization. Melodies of the first type test the limits of musical freedom. They seem to ask, “How independent of system or constraint is it possible for music to be without fatally compromising its coherence?” Melodies of the second type test the limits of musical control. They seem to ask, “How strictly can system or constraint be applied to music without fatally compromising its expressive power or degenerating into mere machine?” Crawford’s music, in a deep sense, is concerned with exploring the traditional, interrelated dualisms of freedom and slavery, independence and constraint, human and machine. Her most characteristic and profound explorations take place in works where two melodies are combined, each representing one pole in this network of opposites. Crawford’s exploration of polyphonic “heterophony” represents one of her most original and enduring contributions.
Crawford’s treatment of rhythm was also innovative and influential. As with the pitches, Crawford often subjected her rhythms to explicit pre-compositional schemes. In some pieces, the rhythms are patterned independently of the pitches, creating a somewhat different kind of musical heterophony. In their most interesting manifestation, however, the rhythmic patterning interacts with the pitch patterning in some purposeful way. In the fourth movement of the String Quartet, for example, Crawford finds ways of projecting similar musical ideas simultaneously in the domains of pitch and rhythm. In that sense, she anticipates what is later called the “serialization of rhythm.”
Crawford’s “heterophony,” operating between musical lines and between musical domains, has radical implications for musical form. Musical form is traditionally understood to arise from patterns of what Milton Babbitt calls “dimensionally conjoined repetition.” Points of formal articulation are normally marked by melodic arrival and harmonic cadence, and frequently reinforced by changes in melody, harmony, rhythm, register, and instrumentation, all occurring simultaneously. In Crawford’s music, however, these dimensions are often structured independently; they are not conjoined. Furthermore, none can be taken as primary. Each cuts across the others in an unbounded play of equals. Neither melody nor harmony nor rhythm is privileged, and there is no single place from which to perceive the whole. There is thus no form at all in the traditional sense. Instead, we must speak of the multiple forms of her music, each suggested by patterns or articulations in some musical dimension.
It is here, in the heterophony of her music, that Crawford offers her most significant and lasting challenge to music in the Western classical tradition. This is also the aspect of her music that proved most decisively influential for later generations of American composers. In a narrow sense, it led directly to the music of Elliott Carter, so often characterized by vigorous independence of the parts, and this is an influence that he has acknowledged. In a broader sense, Crawford’s heterophony pointed ahead to the music of Cage and other “post-modern” composers who celebrate the independence of musical events from any subsuming context.
Crawford’s contribution to musical modernism was necessarily confined to the small number of works she wrote and their relatively limited dissemination during her lifetime. She was active as a composer of “ultra-modern” music for only a very short period, from roughly 1926 to 1932. She then decided to stop composing and devoted herself instead to recording, transcribing, and arranging folk music. When she resumed composing, in 1952, she picked up right where she had left off, in the same idiom that had served her so well. Ironically, by then the musical world had changed dramatically and her brand of modernism was ultra-modern no longer, having been supplanted by the still more radical music of the post-Webern generation in both Europe and America.
Crawford’s contribution nonetheless remains a significant one. Her commitment to the primacy of melody and counterpoint over harmony, her interest in precomposi-tional schemes, her attempts to structure rhythm and to integrate it with pitch, and, above all, her explorations of musical heterophony, mark her music as a watershed in the history of modernism. In any fair account of American music in the twentieth century, Crawford’s music will occupy a central place.