To celebrate Antheil’s birthday, here is part of an article for Guy Livingston’s CD, which is going to be released in Germany in October of 2013. (Antheil in Berlin is the title).
In 1920, a brash young composer from New Jersey named George Antheil decided to be the “most ultra” of the avant-garde, quarreled with his teachers, and transformed himself into a concert pianist. His cousin Robert Antheil remembered many years later:
“At that time George was getting ready for his trip to Europe and was practicing all day long. The keys on the piano were worn through the ivory and down into the wood. He attacked the piano fiercely. When his fingers got very sore he plunged them into two fish bowls full of salted water. The idea was to toughen the fingers for further stress. After eighty years I can still remember the phrase that he repeated time after time all day long: ‘dum dady ata dady ata dum dum dum’.”
Once he perfected his technique, George planned to conquer the concert halls of Europe. Profiting from the post-war situation, many North American artists were touring inflation-plagued Germany, Austria and Hungary, exchanging dollars for good reviews in famous halls and state operas. Thanks to an investment by his patron Mrs. Curtis Bok of more than $6000, Antheil traveled with his manager Martin H. Hanson to London for his debut, and then to Germany, where he set up headquarters in Berlin from July 1922 to June 1923.
“My July 1922 arrival in Berlin remains one of the greatest impressions of my entire life. Gone were the gay blue, red and green uniformed soldiers. Gone were the boisterous happy, prosperous, tumultuous days – Berlin was in grey slow-motion.
The summer passed uneventfully except in that I now spent long hours at my piano fighting it as a prize fighter punches his training bag.
Meanwhile all Berlin around me disintegrated into bankruptcy. The mark flew to pieces and money became the sign of a sign. My success in London earned me several additional concerts at the celebrated seaside resorts nearby, in Holland and Belgium, in Prague and Zurich. Success followed success […] it was not long before I discovered that I was earning money faster than I could spend it.
One day I bought myself a whole stack of modern paintings – these consisted of two Marcoussis, one Braque, one Picasso, three Dungerts, two Bobermans, two Kubins, one Leger.
I indulged myself in other buying sprees, discovered three young painters, whom I believed had talent, and promptly became a patron of the arts. I subsidized all those painters, their wives and mistresses, visited them every day to see how they were getting along.
My apartment filled itself with celebrities and others of whom I occasionally lost track. My apparent wealth began now to attract attention. A whole ballet and its manager escaped from Russia – the manager attempted to prevail upon me to manipulate M.H. Hanson into booking them for America. “M.H.”, however, declined. The manager then pursued me. He then set his ballerinas upon me. Too many persons, however, were now after my financial favors to allow me to devote myself to anyone person exclusively. […]
I avoided these attractive and adventurous possibilities – not without several tugs at my heart. Once, however, and in a tentative mood, I bought myself a fine automatic revolver, and had my tailor fashion a most snug little silken holster to go right under my armpit – I had gotten the idea in reading about Chicago gangsters. Although I never went to Russia I now never went anywhere without being fully armed.
Meanwhile my concert season had begun. M. H. Hanson, feeling that the past three months in Berlin had given me the polish necessary to a budding world-shaking concert pianist, had “booked” me rather solidly from January 1923 onwards. I was to play a number of preliminary concerts in Munich, Dresden, Leipzig, Frankfurt and other fairly nearby but very critical cities.”
In addition to his adventures into Berlin nightlife, Antheil quickly met many key intellectuals, such as Herwarth Walden of the Galerie Der Sturm, the young critic Hans Heinz von Stuckenschmidt, who hailed him as a genius, and Böski Markus, a young Hungarian student who would become his wife. He became a member of the Novembergruppe, where he met Wladimir Vogel, Stefan Wolpe, Hanns Eisler and Kurt Weill, and absorbed the ideas of the Neue Sachlichkeit. And, to crown a period of exciting discoveries and new perspectives, he was lucky enough to catch the interest of his musical idol, Igor Stravinsky, whose daring rhythms and poly-harmonies had already inspired several of Antheil’s compositions. The budding composer began to write and publish manifestos.
Antheil’s childhood had given him a good background for living in Berlin. Born in Trenton, New Jersey, he was raised in a Lutheran household, speaking German at home. His parents were from Rhineland and Western Prussia, and baptized him Georg Karl Johann Antheil at his birth in 1900. At the age of 11, he made an extensive summer trip to Germany with his family. Back in the United States, he dropped out of high school to study with the eminent Constantin von Sternberg, remaining under the wing of a strict Germanic teaching method, even when he turned to Ernest Bloch for a more modern approach to composition. At ease with the language and the culture, he arrived in Germany in 1922 well-prepared to dazzle Europe with his daring compositions and bold pianism. Most of his “futuristic” piano music was composed in Berlin in just one year.