Women in Music: Ruth Crawford Seeger
August 17, 2014 by Christine Gengaro, Ph.D.
Ruth Crawford Seeger’s plan was simple: go to the American Conservatory in 1921, study for one year, and obtain a teacher’s certificate in piano. This was a common plan for musical women at the time, and was certainly a perfectly reasonable goal for Crawford to achieve. When she moved to Chicago, she was barely twenty, but possessed a solid musical foundation from her studies in Jacksonville, Florida, and she had some teaching experience as well. In fact, she had dabbled a bit in composition, writing some short pieces for the students she taught at Foster’s School of Musical Art. But as fate would have it, that wasn’t the plan that she ended up following, and the musical world—and American folk music—are the richer for it.
Chicago provided a lot of inspiring experiences for Crawford, who enjoyed the opportunity to see operas and symphony concerts and to hear some of the greatest performers of the day including Rachmaninoff and Arthur Rubinstein. So, after a year, instead of leaving with her certificate, she stayed on and began her study of composition with Adolf Weidig. With Weidig’s encouragement, Crawford began to find her voice as a composer. She also began what would be a lifelong dedication to folk songs. In Chicago she met Carl Sandburg, who asked her to contribute arrangements of some folk songs for his 1927 anthology The American Songbag. We’ll return to Crawford’s connection to folk music in a moment.
The atmosphere in Chicago proved fruitful for Crawford, who wrote many works there, and in 1928, she helped to found the Chicago chapter of the International Society for Contemporary Music. Her reputation was moving into the national sphere as well. In 1927, the League of Composers chose works from six promising “young Americans” for a concert in New York, and Crawford was one of them. (Aaron Copland was another.) She composed some songs on the poetry of Carl Sandburg, with whom she worked on the American Songbag anthology. Five Songs to Poems by Carl Sandburg was composed in 1929, as was the Suite No. 2 for Piano and Strings.Crawford’s next important move would be to New York to study “dissonant counterpoint” with a man who would start out as her mentor and eventually become her husband, Charles Seeger.
Crawford made history in 1930 by becoming the first woman to win a Guggenheim Fellowship. She spent a year in Europe, specifically Paris and Berlin, meeting other composers and writing music. This was a crucial time in Crawford’s development. Her String Quartet 1931 is a highly respected and revered work, and that, and other works—the Suite for Wind Quintet and Three Songs to Poems by Carl Sandburg among them—solidified her reputation as an important modern composer. Charles and Ruth married in 1932 and subsequently moved to Washington D.C. It was in this city that Crawford’s career took another fateful turn. She came into contact with John and Alan Lomax at the Archive of American Folk Song. She provided transcriptions and arrangements of folk songs for the Lomaxes’ anthology Our Singing Country. She would continue the work of editing and arranging folk songs in her own collections. Her own creative work became secondary to her work with folk songs, although she would compose late in her life.
Crawford was known as one a part of a group of composers—including Carl Ruggles and Edgard Varese—called the “ultra-moderns.” They were composers who endeavored to create “American” music. In the late nineteenth century, the Russian group the “Mighty Five” displayed a similar kind of nationalism, as did Les Six in Paris. The ultra-moderns wrote music that was dissonant, polyphonic, and innovative. Crawford’s style in particular relies heavily on melody, and she emphasized the “horizontal” aspect of her music over the vertical aspect we associate with harmony and sonority. In fact, Crawford was conscious to avoid triads that might occur incidentally as horizontal lines flowed simultaneously. Charles Seeger called this process “dissonation.” In some early works, Crawford seemed intrigued by ostinati—repeated musical phrases that return unchanged, continuously throughout a movement. On the other hand, as Crawford’s art developed, she often transformed motives if they returned, rather than allowing for a simple retread.
As a modern composer she anticipated integral serialism, something that would occupy many composers in mid-century and beyond. Serialism, in its most elemental form, uses a pre-conceived series of pitches as the basis for a piece. No one note is more important than another (as it is in tonal music); only the order of the series matters. In this form of serialism, solely the pitches are organized in a series. In some of Crawford’s music—and in the subsequent music of Pierre Boulez and Milton Babbitt, to name just two—other aspects of music are serialized as well. One could serialize rhythmic durations or dynamics, for example. It is an interesting way to solve a central challenge in atonal music: how to create a sense of structure and organization when tonality—itself a powerful organizing principle—is absent.
Ruth Crawford Seeger was only fifty-two when she died. In her last years, she showed great dedication to both the preservation of American folk music and to the education of young people in this repertoire. She edited and published transcriptions and arrangements of folk tunes in American Folk Songs for Children, Animal Folk Songs for Children, and American Folk Songs for Christmas. Although her work with folk songs and her composition did not often intersect, one piece, Rissolty, Rossolty—An American Fantasy for Orchestra, composed for the radio series The American School for the Air, is based on folk tunes. Although she enjoyed recognition for her work while she lived, most of her pieces were published posthumously beginning in the 1970s. Only String Quartet 1931 and Three Songs to Poems by Carl Sandburg were published during her lifetime. There is no doubt that her focus on the preservation of the folk repertoire and her pre-mature death precluded her from writing more original works. It is a shame she did not get to compose more. But her work continues to be lauded for its forward-looking adventurousness, and when we look back to her choices at the beginning of her career, it seems equally possible that Crawford could have received her piano teaching certificate and gone on to a quiet life as a piano teacher in a small town. As it stands, she is an important figure in the history of American music and art music in general. She influenced other composers, like Elliott Carter, pre-figured developments in modern music, and ensured American folk music would continue to touch subsequent generations. When taken as a whole, it seems like so much, and yet, we are left wanting more.