Crawford: Music for Small Orchestra
While we may be early on in this project, today’s work could turn out to be a serious contender for “most useful” piece studied. Pieces for chamber orchestra that include only single woodwinds are always welcome finds. Ruth Crawford Seeger’s Music for Small Orchestra not only fits into this family of instrumentations, but is a perfect companion perhaps the most famous American chamber orchestra piece in the repertoire—the original version of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring. While of course Crawford’s work stands by its own merits, it’s always exciting to find a lesser known gem that fits neatly into a programming category always looking for additions.
Also exciting: as of this writing, a complete set of parts is a cool $18.00 for purchase from the publisher of the critical edition (A-R Editions). An American piece that doesn’t break the bank to rent and perform? Yes please!
Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-1953)
Ruth Crawford (later Seeger) belongs to that handful of female composers who have already been included in some American collegiate music history curricula. I believe she may have been one of two who I encountered with more than just a passing mention in my university classes (the other being the mystic Hildegard von Bingen). Crawford’s Diaphonic Suites and String Quartet ‘1931’ are studied for their rigorous and complex compositional technique, totally original, independent, and equal to concurrently developing second Viennese school techniques. Bridging the gaps between the grunge of 1920s American modernism and the growth of American folk music research in the late 30s and 40s, just by examining her career one is provided a litmus test for the shape of American compositional trends in the early 20th century. Of course, this is not to say that she was merely “going with the crowd”—her already recognized importance is testament to the fact that she as much shaped American composition as she was shaped by it.
Crawford’s training, like many composers, was principally as an instrumentalist, specifically a pianist. In the Grove Dictionary’s listing of her pedigree, the only composition teacher mentioned is the almost completely forgotten Adolph Weidig, a professor at Chicago’s American Conservatory where Crawford was pursuing her degree as a pianist. Despite the conservatism of Weidig’s own compositions (a few are on display on IMSLP) and the arts scene in Chicago mainly supporting conservative voices (the preface to the new score gives a good outline for this time period), Crawford became more and more attracted and involved in the small but active avant-garde scene. As a pianist, she became acquainted with the mystic works of Scriabin through a new teacher, Djane Lavoie Herz, herself a piano student of the great composer. Perhaps more important than this, however, was the avant-garde community—and particularly, Henry Cowell and Dane Rudhyar—to which Herz introduced Crawford. From this time she became more involved in activities, societies, and philosophies that would define the American avant-garde for much of the 1920s and 30s (again, see the preface to the new edition).
Unlike the past two composers we have studied (Dame Ethel Smyth and Louise Farrenc), Ruth Crawford had a respectable enough career as a composer, folk-song collector, and teacher, that her efforts can be divided (despite her short age) into style periods like her male colleagues. The introduction to the new critical edition does a fantastic job giving a run-down of these amidst the other details of her life, so I will give a summary below.
Ignoring juvenilia, the music of Seeger’s first period is that composed during her years in Chicago, starting with those pieces composed in 1924 (the Kaleidoscopic Changes and the 5 Preludes, both for piano) and ending when she moved to New York at the end of the decade. The preface to the new edition applies the label “post-tonal pluralism,” to these pieces, as they are atonal works with somewhat eclectic style. The second period is that which most students who have come in contact with her music are familiar—the New York years, influenced by the thoughts of her future husband Charles Seeger, where her music took on the level of mathematical precision and detail of a serialist. These “short but fruitful years” (as the Grove dictionary describes them) gave way to her final period in which Crawford became principally a collector and editor of American folk songs. Unfortunately, the promising resurrection of her career as a composer through the Suite for Woodwind Quintet was cut short by her early death in 1953.
Music for Small Orchestra
The Music for Small Orchestra belongs to Crawford’s first style period, yet shows off a number of the priorities and techniques that would define her later music. We’ll get into the specifics of these during analysis of the piece, but it is a sure work from a twenty-six year old composer, both excellent in itself and suggesting the future excellence to come.
This is one of only three works Crawford wrote for orchestra (the others being an “optional” orchestral obligato for her 3 Songs of 1930 and the folk-song saturated Rissolty Rissolty of 1939). That being said, this ensemble is at the small end of what might be considered a chamber orchestra, numbering just ten players. Unfortunately for a study of reception history, and for Crawford herself, the preface to the new edition reports that it “was never performed in Crawford’s lifetime, at least according to her own records. Its premiere took place in 1969 at West Texas University in Canyon, Texas” (emphasis mine). Why she even undertook such an effort “on spec” is unclear, nor why, in doing so, she decided upon this set of instruments. The preface to the new edition states that “the instrumentation may be unique: no other piece written for this ensemble, which omits both oboe and viola [and bass]…comes to mind.” While it is true that specifically this combination may be unique, it is quite close to Aaron Copland’s later Appalachian Spring, and suggests to me a small theater band (even if the music is far removed from that style).
The work is cast in two short movements, the first slow, the second fast, and totals about ten minutes in length. Given its unpublished state, the one edition of the score available is the excellent A-R Critical Edition, where it appears alongside the score to Crawford’s Suite No. 2 for Four Strings and Piano.
184.108.40.206 – 0.0.0.0 – pno – str[220.127.116.11.0]
Marked “Slow, pensive,” the first movement is a study in atmosphere and color. Despite Crawford’s organized deployment of ostinati, the music itself doesn’t fit neatly into obvious phrase constructs. However, there are a few moments of formal articulation which we will go into here.
The first five or six bars of the piece serve as a sort of introduction to the priorities of the piece—an asymmetric ostinato in the piano, cloudy chords in the winds and strings, and an oscillating whole step in the second violins. At rehearsal A, the music pivots and measure 7 serves as a four-bar transition to the first music that appears to be a “theme”—a high bassoon solo beginning as a pick-up to measure 11. This music dissolves back into the transitional ostinato one bar before D, where it remains for five bars. One bar after E, the harmonies plane upwards a whole step, and the flute and bassoon again evoke a “theme” of sorts. These melodies meander out as the ostinati beneath adjust and shift, triplets being added to the texture and the quintuplets in the celli being sent to the piano at rehearsal F. The two bars at G again plane the harmonies up, now by a half-step, but this time don’t begin the theme until they have ascended a second time (again a half-step) to start a new, more identifiable theme in measure 31. This phrase dies down and dies into a fermata at the end of measure 41.
The next section is assembled with much the same materials as the first, yet feels like a B-section in the context of the musical flow. An even more espressivo melody appears in the first violins as a pickup to rehearsal K, which cross-fades into the flute in measure 51. This apparition of romanticism fades, however, again into a fermata before rehearsal M. Now we sense a true growth in the composition, the materials layering and crescendoing, multiple voices sharing the same rhythmic ostinato and then a soaring melody starting in the cellos and moving to the violins in unison at rehearsal O. This apparition too, must fade dissolving to a lone flute solo for three bars at rehearsal P.
The high artificial violin harmonics at rehearsal Q clearly evoke Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, giving the music a mysterious sheen while the flute intones a low solo. After two bars of transition at S, we are at a place that is functionally, if not literally, a recapitulation. The bassoon again holds a solo, to be joined briefly by the first cello in measure 84, but now instead of dark clusters in the basement of the piano, a bare D-flat/A-flat fifth is intoned. This music again seems to die away, before one last appearance of dark chords at rehearsal V. The music essentially fade to nothingness, closing on the open fifth in the piano.
The second movement, marked “In roguish humor. Not fast” again shows Crawford’s predilection for ostinati, but now within a somewhat more rigid phrase framework. While technically not an invention or fugue, the aural effect is similar, with imitative entrances being passed around the instrumental families and spiraling out in flights of development.
The first bar repeats itself (written out) four times, before the entrance of the flute at A with a lyric, if disjointed, four-bar theme. Measure 9 is a brief interjection, then measure ten the clarinet takes the same theme as the flute, starting a whole step higher. After this four bar theme, the flute returns alongside the clarinet at rehearsal C, where they evoke aspects of the theme without restating it. These five-bars seem to act as a bridge or transition, and then a cello solo takes the theme, now a half step above the original statement. This seems to start to repeat again at F, but now the music starts to spiral out of control. The ostinati crescendo, cascading piano arpeggios are added in measure 26, and at rehearsal F an accelerando is printed. This all hits a musical “brick wall” one bar before H—the loudest moment printed thus far in either movement—before again restarting the sixteenth note ostinato of the opening.
These four bars serve as a sort of set up to the second half of the piece, which again, feels somewhat like a recapitulation. The clarinet plays the four-bar “disjointed” theme at rehearsal I, then another ostinato-transition takes place at rehearsal J for five bars. The piano enters one bar before K and sets up a new area starting one bar after K, wherein the theme is developed in the violin and cello amidst swirling clarinet and piano arpeggios. L seems to present a clearer relative of the initial theme in the cello, and then another build begins at rehearsal M. Once again, the sound masses, accelerates, and increases in volume, although now instead of hitting a brick wall, the feeling is that the music has fallen off a cliff into the fermata of silence one bar before R.
Yet again, the incessant sixteenth note ostinato beings at rehearsal R, but this time we are functionally in a coda. S gives some glimpse at the original theme, but the music begins to die away and sputter out before two measures that each slow into silence (measures 82 and 83). This is a scherzo, however, and the last word cannot be pensive; the final measure gives the entire orchestra the head motif of the main theme, and played in unison at fff parrots and parodies decades of “ta-DAH” V-I cadences.
An entire volume of literature could be written (and probably has been) about fourths, fifths, tritones, and “the American Sound.” The Music for Small Orchestra would fit into these studies quite well. While later composers such as Copland and Barber would use quartal and quintal harmonies to imbue complex music with a feeling of consonance, Crawford interjects tritones in the midst of her fourth-based chords that instead lend them a beautiful dissonance. Her counterpoint at this time is fairly free; certainly oriented around intervals it is not yet strictly held to a pseudo-serial plan as she would use later. Certainly, given her use of ostinati, the harmonic underpinnings are often a single pitch or group of pitches repeated in the background while a melody or melodies proceed in the foreground. Overall, the effect is a saturation of dissonance, saved from becoming dull by variations in instrumentation, ostinati, and the brevity of the composition as a whole.
It is clear that to Crawford, rhythm is as important an aspect of the composition as harmony or form. Indeed, given her use of ostinati, one could make the argument that rhythm is her form. While not as organized as later efforts to control or serialize rhythm, mathematical schemata still underpin many of her rhythmic efforts.
In the first movement, this manifests itself as a series of nested “fives.” At its most superficial level, the first five bars are in 5/4. Looking in with more detail, however, a sophisticated rhythmic game is happening in the piano ostinato. The first two notes are an uneven 2+3 (together adding to five). How do we know that these two notes are independent of the rest of the ostinato? Because a repetitive cycle begins on the third F that sets up a multiplication of this original cell. The third through sixth tones proceed in a 2+2+3+3 pattern—exactly double the original 2+3 cell. This cycle repeats essentially five times. I say “essentially” because the final iteration includes an extension of one eighth note, resulting in a 2+2+3+4. But just at this moment, too, the time signature changes to 2/2—the music has transitioned, and the ostinato has as well, setting up the half-note ostinato in the following piano section. Of course there are other ways of parsing this introduction, but I believe the mathematical and formal principals are most compelling in this reading. Whatever the case, this already reveals Crawford’s attention to rhythmic detail that will expand later in her career.
The ostinati at measure 6 and onwards are grouped in several levels: at the longest, the piano chords in the low register repeat every five half notes, as if in a measure of 5/2. In the same register, low cello fifths on D and A repeat twice as often as the piano—every five quarter notes, as if in a measure of 5/4. In the middle register, a cello begins playing quintuplets across the measure, creating the feeling of five-over-four (or two, considering the meter). Above all these, the repeated F of the beginning has now evened to half-note off-beats.
These patterns are shared and exchanged until rehearsal F, where new ostinato layers are added. The first violin adds triplets (printed as sextuplets across the measure) that are subdivided in groups of two (two and three equal five, and again harken back to the generative cell). In the middle register, the first cello starts an uneven 1+2+1, a variation on half note offbeats of the earlier piano. These comprise essentially the totality of ostinati for the rest of the movement, with formal articulation marked by the exchange of ostinati across voices or by removing one or more layers. One additional, moment is deserving of note at rehearsal K, where the piano chords repeat in a cycle of three tied whole notes twice, then two whole notes ending with a fermata. This cycle never does reappear, and suggests the transitory nature of this passage.
The second movement is in some ways simpler than the first, the rhythmic ostinati setting up a feeling more of perpetuum mobile than layered atmosphere. The main take-away is that Crawford uses rhythmic counterpoint the way some composers might use dissonance—moments of higher tension are given more competing and clashing ostinato layers, i.e., triplets across a prevailing duple pulse. Moments of repose feature fewer competing layers, or layers that complement (sixteenth notes in the bassoon and eighth notes in the piano).
Given the small size and uncommon deployment of instruments in this orchestra, it’s little wonder that Crawford would be conscious of which instruments receive which material. Particularly effective use is made of the high bassoon and low flute in the first movement—indeed, it is clearly not unfamiliarity but a desire for new sounds that leads Crawford to have the bassoon in the uncommon role of being above the flute after rehearsal B. Note has already been made of the special Stravinsky-esque moment of violin harmonics at rehearsal Q. The second movement, prioritizing energy and drive more than texture, has fewer interesting highlights in the orchestration than the first, except to say that overall Crawford makes effective and skillful use of the instruments at hand.
The main recording of this work is the fantastic DG release by Oliver Knussen and the Schoenberg Ensemble (shared at the top of this article), where it is grouped with a number of her other pieces. The recording quality is excellent, as is the ensemble playing. As this is music that is more about realization than interpretation, there’s not much to say about that except that the group reproduces what’s printed accurately and clearly. There is always going to be a question of tempo in the first movement—while Crawford prints some metronome markings across the second movement that give cues to her thoughts about the pace, the first movement carries no such indications. An argument could be made for a slightly brisker tempo than Knussen takes, as Crawford does mark 2/2 rather than 4/4 in the sixth measure and, regardless of whether conducted in quarter notes or not, suggests a certain kind of pace to feel the ostinati in conflict with each other. But Knussen’s reading still feels within the realm of interpretative honesty, and the results speak for themselves.
After studying this work, it’s actively strange that it doesn’t appear more often on chamber orchestra programs. Perhaps, like many pieces, it’s merely so unknown as to never be considered. Certainly, the fact that it wasn’t performed during Crawford’s lifetime contributes to its lack of play; equally, perhaps, is that Crawford has no other major orchestral works that would incite a conductor, orchestra, or audience to explore her music more deeply. It’s a pity, as it is an intelligent, enjoyable, and useful piece of music that deserves every chance at play it can get.
I’ve mentioned a number of times already that this work goes wonderfully with Appalachian Spring in its original form, but there are other pieces it would fit with as well. The original ballet version of Samuel Barber’s Medea (Cave of the Heart) or the same composer’s Knoxville are also contenders. Although Ives is always a tempting pairing with any American composer, the atmospheric/mystic explorations in the first movement and quirky humor of the second would be too similar a territory to tread, even if approached in such a different manner (though the new edition makes it clear that Crawford actually had little—if any—influence from or even acquaintance to Ives). Other pairings could be Stravinsky’s neo-classical chamber works (Dumbarton Oaks, for instance). I would love to put it on the same program as Elliott Carter’s Flute Concerto (also for single-winded chamber orchestra), but that might be too tough a sell for an orchestra or audience (although I do love the Carter and believe audiences should be given the opportunity to hear it live). While chamber orchestra works sometimes appear on big orchestra programs, this piece is so small that I think it might be swallowed if surrounded by something too massive. A symphony the size and scale of Mozart or Haydn might work well; Beethoven starts to feel a little out-of-scale with the kind of intimacy Crawford’s Music for Small Orchestra is suggesting.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at another unloved gem from a fantastic composer (who just happens to be female). Let me know what you think about it in the comments below and share with those who you think might want to learn more about this corner of the repertoire. For the next article, we move later in the 20th-century and back across the Atlantic to look at the Concerto for Orchestra of the Scottish composer Thea Musgrave. It’s our first look at a piece by a living composer for this project, so make sure to come back and see what we discover.
Crawford, Ruth; ed. Tick and Schneider. Music for Small Orchestra (1926); Music for four strings and piano (1929). A-R Editions. Wisconsin, 1996.
Tick, Judith. "Crawford (Seeger), Ruth." Grove Music Online. 6 May. 2018. http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000006796.
Schoenberg Ensemble, Oliver Knussen. Ruth Crawford Seeger: Portrait. Deutsche Grammophon 449925, Sept 1997, CD.