Ruth Crawford Seeger: a woman on the musical frontiers

Ultra-Modern composer, traditional music collector, political activist and mother to a famous family of folk-song revivalists, Ruth Crawford Seeger led an emblematic life as a woman and an artist. On the centenary of her birth, Bayan Northcott examines her conflicts and achievements
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The Independent Culture

The viola begins with a slow pulsation on low C sharp, soon joined by an out-of-sync C natural pulse from the cello. In due course, the second and first violins add their own cross-pulsations to create a multiply throbbing cluster, gradually shifting in harmony according to internal movements of parts and eventually rising to a climax of searing intensity, before rapidly ebbing away.

A sound and a structure all but unheard before in Western music, it comprises the most immediately striking movement of a concentrated string quartet, composed in 1931 by a young American composer variously referred to in the literature as Ruth Crawford, Ruth Seeger and Ruth Crawford Seeger.

But then, the story of her creative life remains one of the most paradoxical – not to say emblematic – in 20th-century music. Born on 3 July 1901, the daughter of a Midwest Methodist minister, and variously raised in small-town Ohio and Florida, she proved gifted enough to enter the American Conservatory in Chicago in 1920, where she received a traditional training while absorbing the more modernist and mystical enthusiasms of her piano teacher, Djane Herz, herself a disciple of Scriabin.

But if such early Crawford scores as her Music for Small Orchestra (1926) contain their darkly numinous textures, they also show a leaning towards constructivist schemes and atonal harmony. In due course, this was to attract the attention of that ubiquitous impresario of radical American music, Henry Cowell, who found a patroness to bring her to New York, where such pieces as her fiercely rhetorical Suite No 1 for Five Wind Instruments and Piano (1927) began to take their place among the works of Ives, Varèse, Ruggles and Cowell himself in what was then known as the Ultra-Modern movement.

In 1930-31, a Guggenheim Foundation award enabled her to travel to Europe. Here, she consulted with Bartok and Berg, and drafted her three masterpieces: the atavistic Three Chants (1930) for women's chorus; the coruscating Three Songs to Poems of Carl Sandburg (1930-32), with their spiky central ensemble and "surround sound" of offstage orchestras; and the four-movement String Quartet itself. Yet, by this vastly promising juncture in her career, economic and personal events were already in train that would alter Ruth Crawford's life utterly.

In 1929, Cowell had arranged for her to take some lessons with his own teacher, Charles Seeger. A mind of commanding scope, Seeger had been a composer until the bulk of his output was lost in a fire, and he was to end up as one of the founding fathers of ethnomusicology. But in the 1920s, he was very much the mentor of the Ultra-Moderns, seeking to formulate the theoretical and technical basis of an authentically American Modernism independent of European influence.

Initially, Crawford was put through a strict course of permutational schemes and anti-tonal counterpoint, which she developed in her four Diaphonic Suites (1930) for one or two instruments. Gradually, the lessons turned into a collaboration on Seeger's proposed theoretical treatise, and then into a romance. After Seeger had divorced his first wife, he and Crawford were married in 1932. Meanwhile, like many left-leaning artists in the early 1930s, they had begun to question the relevance of high Modernism to the social urgencies of the Depression.

For a time, they involved themselves in agitprop and composers' collectives. Then, in 1936, Charles Seeger was summoned to Washington to serve in the Federal Music Project, as part of the New Deal enterprise to create a new, inclusive and optimistic all-American culture.

To this, Crawford was to contribute over the next 15 years by collecting, transcribing, editing, arranging and publishing thousands of American folk songs, while simultaneously pioneering their use in basic musical education – not least, in that of her own children.

In marrying Seeger, she had become stepmother of his teenage son, Pete, who in due course was to emerge as the leading light of the post-war folk- and protest-song revival, and internationally famous as the composer of such numbers as "Where have all the flowers gone?" Yet two of Crawford's own four children by Seeger also made their impact: Mike Seeger as an advocate particularly of Deep South folk-music, and Peggy Seeger with her husband Ewan MacColl as stars of the British folk revival. Indirectly, Crawford's selfless work in traditional music was to exert an enormous posthumous influence.

What, meanwhile, of her own music? In l938, she revised the String Quartet for publication and, the following year, fulfilled a radio commission with a brief but joyous orchestral folk-song fantasia entitled Rissolty, Rossolty – her sole tonal piece. But, for the most part, she seems to have given herself over to folk song and child-rearing in the expectation that there would be time later to pick up the threads. At last, in 1952, she got round to completing a new Suite for Wind Quintet full of implacable ostinatos and hard-edged invention.

Might she have gone on to assimilate the still newer innovations of the post-war avant-garde? Alas, only a year later, cancer claimed her. A sadly truncated career, then, already riven by a whole range of more or less perennial dilemmas – creativity versus motherhood, radical exploration versus traditional continuity, professional achievement versus political engagement – as well as more personal complications.

What of the role of Charles Seeger? In submitting Crawford's already abundant talent to a disciplined fine-tuning, he may have enabled her, briefly, to realise her finest pieces; but, in marrying her, was he also subordinating that talent to his own desire for a renewed family life? In any case, how had Crawford managed to establish herself in a notoriously masculine, and, in the era of Ives, Varèse and Ruggles, aggressively macho profession? Was it by denying her femininity in pursuing as hard and uncompromising a style as any of them? Back in 1953, such matters were difficult to determine since, apart from the String Quartet – already a palpable influence on the teeming heterophonies of Elliott Carter's mighty First String Quartet (1951) – most of her works were little-heard or then remained unpublished for decades.

Only over the last 15-odd years has the true quality and stature of her achievement become apparent, with the publication of Judith Tick's sympathetic and detailed biography, entitled Ruth Crawford Seeger: A Composer's Search for American Music (1997); the appearance of studies by David Nicholls and Joseph N Straus revealing the incredible conceptual and technical ingenuities that she packed into a surviving catalogue of a mere 15 works; and not least the release of two excellent CD collections – on Deutsche Grammophon 449 925-2, directed by Oliver Knussen, and from Sudwestrundfunk on cpo 999 670-2.

By now, it is clear that the half-dozen best of her pieces stand with a handful of scores of Varèse and Ruggles as the essential classics of the Ultra-Modern era – lacking a little of their visionary grandeur, perhaps, yet more various in their radicalism and more steely in their definition. Reason enough for an extensive celebration. Yet, unless In Tune or Late Junction are planning to slip in a last-minute item, you will not be catching a note of Ruth Crawford's music on Radio 3 today. It falls to the Hoxton Festival, programmed by John Woolrich, to make good the BBC's dereliction with a tribute concert on 7 July to a composer who can genuinely be said to have lived the cultural contradictions of the American Century and whose lapidary art still has a lot to teach composers now.

Ruth Crawford Centenary, Hoxton Hall, London N1 7 July, 7.30pm. Box Office: 020-7359 4404