11 Feb 2010

Ruth Crawford Seeger, Part 2 – Her Music.


Most of her compositions, including her masterpieces such as the String Quartet of 1931, date from the 20s and 30s, before the tragic depression hit that led to her and her husband’s introduction to American folk music. Her music of this time is known for dissonance. She describes her self-preference to “sprinkling sevenths and ninths plentifully and insistently, and observing or breaking the solemn rules of harmony with equal regularity (her words!).” A critic described her as being able to “sling dissonances like a man.” Before you start freaking out about dissonances and “ugly” sounding music, give the Andante for Strings (the fully orchestrated version of the third movement of her 1931 String Quartet) a listen.

This deeply beautiful work is comprised of mysterious-sounding pitch clusters (notes close together in pitch that sort of move together as one voice) that are dissonant, but are also beautiful and full of enigma. The five sections of the orchestra rise together in one mass wall of sound both melodically in terms of pitch (i.e. it’s getting progressively higher) and in terms of dynamics (i.e. it gets progressively louder). Suddenly, at right about the golden mean incidentally, the five voices suddenly explode into a moment of virtuosity that gradually moves back down as one mass, again both melodically (the pitch lowers) and dynamically (the sound gets quieter), until it ends almost silently. Very Zen. If you allow yourself to be lost in the passion and tension as the orchestral mass sound rises to its climax, explodes, and then ends in silence, you will experience the intense beauty that so moved Maestro Varga when he discovered this work two years ago.

Now Rissolty, Rossolty comes from an entirely different place compositionally. It is one of just a handful of works written in her post-child bearing years and therefore occurs after she had discovered folk music and changed her entire musical outlook on life. The work is very much influenced by her new-found passion for American folk, and in many ways, marries this passion of folk music to her love of classical music. It was a commission from the CBS Radio Network. I unfortunately couldn’t find a recording available for your streaming pleasure online, but trust me, if you’re afraid of “that weird modern music,” you won’t be frightened of this work. It’s tuneful, folk-like, and Copland-esque. It features not one, but THREE popular folk songs one of which is actually called Rissolty, Rossolty. Incidentally, it is also the piece that her children sang over her grave when spreading her ashes. The folk songs eventually build and dissipate into a sort of “wall of sound” similar to the Andante for Strings but without the dissonance. The wall of sound builds and thickens and then suddenly dissipates into a little pianissimo “pluck, pluck” that will make the music nerds in the audience laugh. Now that you know it’s supposed to be funny, you can laugh too and all your neighbors will look at you in awe for getting the musical joke.
So there you go, Ruth Crawford Seeger. She was an incredible woman, beloved in her time and still incredibly important to music nerds of today. We study her and love her brief output of music as well as her contributions to perpetuating and collecting American folk music. Hopefully this blog entry isn’t your only exposure to Crawford Seeger, but an introduction to further study. Indeed, if you’d like to stretch your music muscles, you may enjoy this rather technical overview of her musical ouvre, written by my former teacher, Joseph N. Straus: http://depthome.brooklyn.cuny.edu/isam/rcstraus.html.