The face of the young composer-pianist already tells you something. That of an all-American rising star, the hard-charging hero of the college football team? Or a German air ace in World War I? George Antheil would surely have felt much in common with either.

When was George Antheil born?

Born in Trenton, New Jersey on 8 July, 1900, the first-generation American child of German immigrants, the future composer of Ballet mécanique quickly showed a supercharged, out-of-the-blue talent for music which had his shoestore-owning father wondering what on earth to do about it.

According to Antheil’s account in his cheerfully unreliable autobiography Bad Boy of Music, his mother tried to hose down his ‘craziness’ about music by packing him off to the country where, she reasoned, there would be a helpful shortage of available pianos.

Who did George Antheil study music with?

The facts tell a different story. Antheil’s evidently unstoppable keyboard talent developed to the point where, at 16, he found himself studying piano, plus the basics of composition, in Philadelphia with Constantine von Sternberg, a former pupil of Liszt.

Then came a move to New York to study with Ernest Bloch. This most eclectic and open-minded of teachers was initially turned off by Antheil’s super-confident temperament and his insistence on a Stravinsky-inspired, ‘mechanised’ genre of musical modernism – both of which Bloch saw as ‘pretentious’, before the young composer’s energy and eagerness won him round.

Antheil also acquired a patron, Mary Louise Curtis Bok, who fixed up his next stage of studies in Philadelphia (she later founded the city’s Curtis Institute), and was intermittently to underwrite his future career in Europe for several years.

This began – by way of a stopover in London to give a Wigmore Hall recital – in Berlin, a natural first choice for the bilingual Antheil. By the time he arrived there in 1922, determined to make his mark as an ‘ultra-modern pianist-composer’, he already had a sizeable number of compositions under his belt.

At their best these display both a phenomenal creative talent, and a musical personality more at odds with their creator’s self-styled enfant terrible status than Antheil might have admitted. His Second Piano Sonata, subtitled ‘Airplane’ and supposedly a ‘mechanistic’ work, sounds to present-day ears like a fairly benign take on Prokofiev’s motor-driven keyboard style.

More revealing is 1919’s Lithuanian Night, a tiny, two-movement string quartet, whose title and idiom both show an affinity with Bloch-like atmospherics; even in such a short work, there is no mistaking the music’s vivid focus, sureness of touch, and underlying creative strength.

Who did Antheil marry?

In Berlin Antheil met his future wife, the Hungarian-born Boski Markus, and also the visiting Igor Stravinsky, who was sufficiently taken by Antheil’s talent to suggest a move to Paris. The city’s allure for artists in general, and for Americans in particular, was at a pinnacle in the early 1920s (a strong dollar-franc exchange rate helped).

Setting about making himself known in the Parisian cultural scene, Antheil quickly got to know writers Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, James Joyce and Jean Cocteau, plus composers Erik Satie and Darius Milhaud.

George and Boski soon found themselves living together in a room above Shakespeare and Company, the bookshop run by Sylvia Beach where Joyce’s Ulysses was first published. A setback was a rift with Stravinsky, who was unimpressed when the Paris grapevine informed him how Antheil had been proclaiming, no doubt over-extravagantly, that ‘Stravinsky admires my work’.

Wide acclaim, however, greeted a crop of three Violin Sonatas commissioned by Jean Cocteau for Olga Rudge, the gifted girlfriend of Ezra Pound, and premiered by her and Antheil in 1923 and 1924. To judge from the sustained virtuosity and firepower demanded by the music, Rudge must have been a performer as impressive as Antheil himself.

The First Sonata can claim to be the composer’s true (as distinct from most notorious) masterpiece – a torrential creation drawing together all the elements of his style at a pinnacle of energy and invention, including an extended finale marked by relentless rhythmic pounding (literally hammered out by the pianist’s fists) and headlong glissandi.

Not all of Antheil’s teeming productivity at this time, though, has the same sense of breakthrough individuality: the two Piano Concertos, for instance, trade on the young Prokofiev’s brand of in-your-face rhythmic effrontery and ironic lyrical detachment rather too obviously. Yet this was also the period which generated the work by which Antheil continues to be remembered.

Ballet mécanique

Ballet pour instruments mécaniques et percussion first began to take shape as a kind of live-performance soundtrack to a film project by the artist Fernand Léger. It then grew into a concert work of double the length of the film itself, whose premiere (minus music) took place in Vienna in 1924 – various attempts have since been made to present a combined version of Antheil’s and Léger’s creations, with mixed success.

Antheil’s later, reduced version of Ballet mécanique may have been made with this in mind, but it amounts to a different, essentially recomposed work. The original score of 1926 calls for 16 player-pianos (or pianolas), two pianos, three aeroplane propellers, three xylophones, multiple electric bells, a siren, four bass drums, and tam-tam.

It quickly became apparent that the problem of keeping the pianolas synchronised would be impossible, so the first performance substituted numerous further pianos instead. Antheil described his magnum opus as ‘All percussive. Like machines. All efficiency. No LOVE. Written without sympathy. Written cold as an army operates. Revolutionary as nothing has been revolutionary.’

There is supposed to have been a ‘riot’ after the premiere, but as with most music-related riots, fact is difficult to separate from fiction; Antheil and his followers may well have tried to stage something along the lines of the uproar that had greeted Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. And what kind of performance did those present actually hear?

Beyond its status as an authentic scandale, the work does not seem truly to have impressed its audience. The same was true of the Carnegie Hall premiere a year later (which was preceded by the engagingly provocative A Jazz Symphony) – apart from the propellors discomfiting the attending New Yorkers by blowing their hats and programmes around, the response was largely dismissive.

Modern recordings, however, give us the true picture of Antheil’s extraordinary conception. He had been at the premiere of Stravinsky’s Les Noces, whose technical apparatus – a clangourous ‘orchestra’ of four pianos and percussion – was rampantly expanded in Ballet mécanique. Much more striking than the music’s self-styled radical pose is its cumulative power. After 20-odd minutes of multiple collages of rhythmic pounding, an alarm bell seems to cause the music to disintegrate into disconnected slabs of sound, punctuated by rattling propellors, until siren wails and massed piano tremolos launch a final rhythmic barrage.

The lukewarm success of Ballet mécanique disappointed Antheil, besides deflating his scrupulously nurtured ‘bad boy’ reputation. Before long he had moved back to Berlin, where the political radicalism and magpie stylistic virtuosity of Hindemith and Kurt Weill soon had Antheil composing along similar lines: with its roguishly entertaining overture, his opera Transatlantic, premiered in Frankfurt in 1930, was a modest success.

Antheil during the 1930s and 1940s

The rise of Nazism then brought about a return to the US, and a giftedly fluent outpouring of film scores and concert works (plus several more operas) at first presaging, then following the diatonic, listener-friendly, ‘Americana’ manner of Copland and Bernstein.

The best of these excel: it isn’t possible to imagine a more skilled or appealing pastiche of Manuel de Falla’s idiom than Antheil’s 1947 score for The Pride and the Passion (Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra and Sophia Loren adventuring in Spain’s 19th-century Peninsula War).

Antheil’s return to the US also led to one of the more unlikely episodes in his rarely-less-than-colourful life. Based in Hollywood, he had become friends with the actress Hedy Lamarr, sultry star of films such as Boom Town and White Cargo alongside the likes of Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy. Lamarr, whose first husband was a munitions manufacturer, and Antheil shared a passion for science and technology.

During the Second World War, they worked together on inventing a means of protecting radio-controlled torpedoes from enemy jamming. Their solution was ‘spread-spectrum frequency-hopping’, for which they were granted a US patent in 1942.

It was a remarkable achievement, yes, though nothing in later life could quite match Antheil’s heady exploits in 1920s Paris. For those few remarkable years he was, if not the man of the moment, then genuinely one of them.

When and how did George Antheil die?

Antheil died from a heart attack on 12 February,1959, in New York.

Main illustration: Matt Herring


Malcolm HayesJournalist and Critic, BBC Music Magazine

Malcolm Hayes Was the former chief music critic of the Sunday Telegraph, and was a music critic with The Times(1985-86) and the Daily Telegraph (1989-95). He has continued to contribute classical music features, reviews and listings to the Sunday Telegraph, and is a regular feature-writer and reviewer for BBC Music Magazine. He writes programme notes for the Proms, the BBC orchestras, and many other organisations.