Antheil tells about his earliest hatchet job

Not all of my earliest musical memories were pleasant. For instance, upon Christmas day, 1903, I made early demonstration that insofar as music was concerned I was to be no one to be trifled with, but I had consequently to take the normal punishment invariably meted out to premature original thinking.

Upon this Christmas morning I had come down from upstairs only to discover that I had – contrary to my wishes – received from Santa Claus a large toy piano.

Now, frankly, this had been very inconsiderate of Santa Claus. For the Christmas before I had also wanted a “big real piano with real black keys too” and Santa Claus had brought me a miserable toy piano that was no real piano at all. One mistake upon his part might be excused, two mistakes of the same kind, however, was a direct insult. This Christmas a slightly larger toy piano in the place of the “real” piano I had wanted, but this was if anything an enlargement of the insult.

I promptly spirited it away down to our cellar and chopped it up with father’s hatchet. To smithereens.

My parents do not seem to be able to recall whether or no I now eliminated my namesake’s behaviors and promptly admitted

“I cannot tell a lie – I did it with my little hatchet.”

In any case mother, alarmed at the depth of my babyish passion, immediately took steps to curb it. I was spanked soundly.

Here, however, I had elaborately and with malice aforethought hung up the musical motto which I was ever afterwards to unswervingly follow:-

All or nothing!

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Today Antheil would have been 113 Years Old

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.

Manhattan Musical Mystery

Revenge is a dish best eaten cold and it took Antheil almost three years to recover completely after the Carnegie Hall incident. Of course, the best way for him to recover was by taking revenge, himself: obstructing Friede’s confusing editorial plans with Joyce was not enough. Antheil had piled up enough of a grudge to murder Friede and his entire family.

Metaphorically, of course: he was an artist! Therefore, as long as he could write a good detective novel[1] under a pseudonym, in which Friede, his mother, wife and stepbrother would die off, he was perfectly happy. And, best of all, the book was to be published by T.S. Eliot’s Faber & Faber.

The killer? Not Antheil himself, but rather Friede’s wife who, after shooting the whole family in the forehead and made an attempt on her physician’s life, commits suicide in a final scene worthy of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, in a laboratory full of electronic equipment, screens and phosphoric liquids.

What a satisfaction for Antheil, signing himself as George Stacey Bishop[2], to be able to eliminate his opponents, including Aaron Copland, disguised as Dave Denny’s half-brother, the indebted, incompetent and disinherited Aaron Donaldson![3] Of course, a pars destruens was not enough, as Antheil needed a rewarding pars costruens as well, which allowed him to appear in the book as John Alvinson, a famous young musician bound for a brilliant future. He could then receive eulogies as well, not only from the author, but also from Stephen Bayard, the detective, an umpteenth alter ego of Antheil himself (and here it’s three!)

In his later autobiography, the composer explained how in 1929 he met William Butler Yeats and Gerhart Hauptmann in Rapallo, where he had been invited by Ezra Pound. The two Nobel prize-winners, residing there at the time, were – together with Pound – untiring readers of detective stories:

When they eventually exhausted the local English lending library, I decided to write a detective story for them. I started it, and as it developed, chapter by chapter, almost every one of this august literary body took part in editing and correcting my grammar (which was hopeless).[4]

With the modesty of his mature years, Antheil admitted that the novel was not a masterpiece (even the writing follows Pound’s favourite crime-writer, S. S. Van Dine, a bit too closely). Faber & Faber bought it for the typescript — with autograph corrections Yeats, Hauptmann and Pound — rather than for the introduction of endocrinology into the world of detective literature. Apart from musical and artistic purposes, the book promoted Antheil as the sort of a new man he thought himself to be.[5] His wife, the personification of the flapper, hair cut short, charming, self-confident, sporty and independent, was also included in the praise.[6]

But let’s pass to the “exorcism” itself and see how the “infAntheil” (as Pound called him) plays with his puppets, the good (the Alvinsons, Bayard, Stacey, Stein) and the bad (the Dennys). The plot: in the spring of 1930, David Denny, concert manager, 28 years old, is found dead in his Manhattan apartment, at the end of a party. Denny was a man of some renown, married to a pretty girl of higher rank, spoiled by an oppressive mother and persecuted by his half-brother, seeking money to cover up his debts. All these elements lead the police to believe it was a suicide, and afterwards to suspect the relatives. However, in the course of a few days, the police is at loggerheads because the relatives themselves are killed in ingenious ways, right before the eyes of the police. Suspicion reaches Alvinson, described as “small, blonde, a musician of international fame”. Still, affirms the author, “too young, and devoted himself too much to music of the modern school to be really the great figure in the world of music that he deserved to be”.[7]

At a certain point of the novel, his wife Frieda, “a dark and beautiful little Russian girl”, whom he married in Europe, also comes under suspicion. Alvinson could have had reasons to murder these people, since Denny, in order to make his own big society-debut, actually organized the infamous concert at Carnegie Hall, with the result that the composer “had then starved two years in Europe.”[8] Denny billed him, “hired a claque to start a riot that died miserably at the actual performance, and clearly proved itself to be an arranged affair. Of course, the pre-arranged riot thoroughly prejudiced an already prejudiced public, and that added to the fact that no tickets had been given to the critics, made the concert a catastrophe”.[9] However, when Alvinson “had a stroke of good luck and came out on the top again with his new Central Europe contracts”,[10] he came again to New York, accepting to stay at Denny’s in the east nineties, seemingly forgiving him all. Every detective would suspect Alvinson/Antheil, but for the pleasure of the music world, the man who carries out the investigation is Stephen Bayard, whom we should call one of the “enlightened” of his times. Bayard is described as a skilled criminologist, a bibliophile, an amateur pianist keen on contemporary composers such as Satie, Gershwin, Milhaud and Stravinsky.[11] Moreover, he is an expert on modern art, collector of Miró’s paintings and, en passant, interested in endocrinology, thanks to which at the end he solves the tricky case. Bishop describes him as having a “fair brownish complexion, clean skin, almost beardless, and delicate artistic hands. Still (..) boyish, and can stand a match at tennis, or in the light-weight ring. (His) whole appearance could not be called unsympathetic. (..) A new type of human being, typical of our age”.[12] While Bayard is investigating, the criminal facts continue, with the attempted shooting of another guest of the family, Doctor Stein, a well-known endocrinologist, friend and personal physician of Dave’s wife, Gertrude. The character of Dr. Stein, built upon Antheil’s early friend, Louis Berman, is only lightly wounded, and survives. So who can the killer be now? Bishop removes Alvinson from suspicion: “he is so completely an artist that he would have never occupied himself with thoughts of a baser nature.”[13] Nor is Frieda thought guilty, although she loves Alvinson passionately, and is “capable of anything” for his sake. Evidently the assassin must be Gertrude, who “married Dave for his money but had little idea that he was so spoiled a character as he turned out to be.. after a few months.”[14]

It is our own assumption that Antheil actually knew Evelyn Friede well before she married Donald[15], and that he was jealous of that marriage. Perhaps he didn’t made a move on her, but he seems to have enjoyed her company very much during his 1927 stay in New York, and dedicated his A Jazz Symphony to her at that time. He describes Gertrude as a girl who was “light, trim, and young, and had a bright intelligent face”[16] and “too much good for Dave”. He clarifies: “exactly very pretty she was not; but she was the kind of girl men often fall very deeply in love with, for she radiated a peculiar kind of ‘not-of-this-worldness’ that formerly men called exotic, but that one today calls sex-appeal, or what not..”[17] So, while Dave is presumably being buried, Stacey, Bayard, Gertrude and the Alvinsons are dancing at the Nelson Club![18]

The novel ends with an unhappy climax: Gertrude ends up shooting herself in Stein’s Metropolis-inspired laboratory, while the latter, whispering “I love you, I love you, I love you”, administers her the electro-magnetic treatment to modify her pure thymocentric personality and save her from the criminal destiny imprinted on her glands!

The pars costruens of the finale, however, regards the fate of Alvinson the composer. Antheil wishes himself a happy ending, with the premiere of his new opera (Transatlantic) at the Metropolitan in New York: “simple, melodic, and new in technique, but not too difficult for the general public, it raised a storm of applause” So much so that Alvinson “seemed likely to become that long-sought-after musician who is some day to lead the musical destinies of America”.[19]

The novel itself is not so badly written. What doesn’t work well, besides the ridiculous egocentric publicity, is Stacey himself: his presence is too obviously only an expedient. He is always on the crime scene, but nobody suspects him, while at a certain point everybody suspects the public prosecutor Wayson. Moreover, Antheil’s writing tends to get lost in the thousand facets of Bayard’s hypothesis, leaving out the real facts, and naively ignoring either real life or the nature of crime scenes: nobody ever calls the ambulance, for instance, nor the doctor, for that matter! The old Mrs. Friede, therefore, dies with a bullet in her head, and Bayard, there in the room with the other suspects, does nothing to aid her, but he begins questioning the people, with the old woman passing away on the armchair.

Apart from an interesting setting of the perfect crime (the first two, happening in the classical locked room setting), the book has its own merits also in the fact that, for the first time, a detective comes to the solution by adopting methods previously unknown to the classical crime literature, i.e. those of criminal endocrinology, a sort of physiognomy “à la Lombroso”, with typologies derived from glandular studies. Here a sample of those methods applied to the young composer:

[Alvinson] is a thymocentric, but with strong pituitary compensation, a type verging on the criminal type, but which has given us most of our eccentric men of genius. Raphael, according to his self-portraits, was certainly a pituitary-thymocentric.[20]

When we come to analysing the deeper construction of this puzzle of personalities where he mirrors himself, we find that there are four Antheils in the novel: an Antheil at the historical level is the real composer. When Bayard proves to be a fine expert of modern art and cites its best representatives, he mentions Antheil. But – ironically – not in the first place, as we would think (this is a list of names, not a chart!)[21]: “Wyndham Lewis, Picabia, Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Milhaud, Krenek, Antheil, Schleezer [sic; Boris de Schloezer], Jean Cocteau, Breton, Aragon, Soupault, Tscheliescheff [sic: Pavel Tchelichev], Man Ray, Kiki, Churico [sic: Giorgio de Chirico], Miró, Kurt Weill, and William Carlos Williams.[22]

Then there is a first level Antheil, John Alvinson[23], to whom the writer does justice not only by telling publicly of his unfortunate happenings, but also by not putting him in any way among the people under suspicion, even when the very wrong he suffered is the main clue for a murder. Then we have Bayard, the detective-ego, Antheil’s investigative side (Antheil claimed that during the early Thirties he cooperated with the Paris Police) but sublimed by a certain wealth and nobility, lacking in his real background. And then at level three there is the author himself, who appears in the novel for literary reasons and as an interlocutor, or as a mirror for Bayard. In short, just what Watson was to Sherlock Holmes.

The self-apologetic tone is somewhat redeemed by Antheil’s irony. He is so treacherous against some of the enemies that at certain points the situation becomes really funny, for instance when Bayard, having cleared him from any suspicion, asks Alvinson why on earth he forgave Denny and came to stay in his apartment after two years of troubles. Bayard admits he could well have understood and even excused a murder in that situation![24] (A detective on the side of a potential murderer!) But what a chef-d’oeuvre is Alvinson’s reply:

I forgave Dave Denny as soon as success came. When the public listened again, and contracts were flowing in, and the European press acclaimed me… I.. like the soft fool I am.. forgave everything.[25]

How candid! In the end, Stephen Bayard could but state: “I grow jealous before the fiery talent of that young man!”[26] – Antheil was envious of himself: what a cathartic experience!


[1]           Death in the Dark, London, Faber & Faber, 1930.

[2]           The editor corrected the more evident nom de plume George Stacey Trent (the Stacey Trent was a hotel in Trenton) with the simpler Stacey Bishop, but in the preface, Antheil signed also with his first name, George Stacey Bishop.

[3]           In order to make sure that the public would understand well that Dave Denny was Donald Friede, Antheil split his name into Donaldson and Frieda (Alvinson’s wife). I leave to the reader’s imagination to trace one more name hidden in the book..

[4]           Antheil. George, Bad Boy of Music, pp. 227-228.

[5]           Read for example p. 11: “The speed of our age, our modern art, the European war and the horrible revolutions following it, have made another and more formidable race of young people”.

[6]           Antheil here reveals his fondness for the new type of woman now budding after the war (Böski included): “The modern girl in America competes with men in all sports, and is especially superlative in swimming. Indeed, is there anything that she does not do? – boxing, fencing, piloting an airplane, or driving a racing auto? The young girl of today is often enough masculine in her taste for sports”. p. 159.

[7]           Bishop, p. 29.

[8]           Ibid., p. 30

[9]           Ibid.

[10]         Id., p. 62.

[11]         As always with Gershwin, Antheil is ambivalent. He puts him among the great composers, but finds time, passing by, to differ from him, labelling him a “dance composer”, as his friend Youmans: “Nice short pieces, free from the Liszt and Schubert passages found in their larger works. (..) The music annoyed me. Always the same.” (p. 233)

[12]         Id., p. 154.

[13]  Id., pp. 280-1.

[14]         Id., p. 230.

[15]         When Stacey is questioned by Bayard, he doesn’t deny to “have been especially sweet on Gertrude.. but after her marriage, I had not seen her again, except once or twice at the Nelson Club” (p. 172)

[16]         Id., p. 33.

[17]         Id., p. 206.

[18]         Continuing his cynical double-sidedness, Antheil makes Alvinson dance with the widow of his enemy on one side, and, on the other, lets Stacey (the next to be invited to dance by the same widow) exclaim: “we are living in a new and de-sentimentalised age, where funerals are conducted in swift moving auto-coaches, and a tear or two is wept before the next engagement is announced, and nobody thinks the worse of it.” (p. 164)

[19]         Id., p. 278. On his new opera, he comments further: “It is our first real American opera, beyond Victor Herbert’s “Naomi”! No false modernism! It is sill more than modern, for it dares to be melodic again. (..) Not a discordant, long, philosophical note in it. Pure line. (..) Likewise down with the little precious American imitators of Ravel, and early Strawinsky, and middle-period Schoenberg.” (p. 279)

[20]         Id., p. 54. A pure thymocentric, like many famous geniuses: Michelangelo, Leonardo and Oscar Wilde among them!

[21]         Among the composers, only Milhaud, Krenek and Kurt Weill are mentioned, because the book is dedicated in friendship to Hans Heinsheimer of Vienna. Heinsheimer was the responsible for George’s new operatic career, since he hired him at the Universal Edition of Vienna. And the three mentioned composers were published by UE!

[22]  Id., pp. 107-108.

[23]         Antheil describes himself like that: “His hands were delicate and those of an artist. Still, his face had a certain rugged outline that did not make one wish to start a row with him, and in some day not long past, he had evidently had something to do with sports as well as with music. His appearance emanated sympathy and honesty”. (p. 63)

[24]         During an interrogation he whispers: “I want you to know that whatever happens I am on your side” (p. 202)

[25]         Id., p. 203.

[26]         Id., p. 283.