George Antheil: String Quartet no. 3

performed by the Fine Arts Quartet, or below by the Mondriaan String Quartet

second, third and fourth movements

(cover image by Larm Rmah)

George Johann Carl Antheil was born on July 8, 1900 into a family of German immigrants in Trenton, New Jersey. He was raised bilingually, and began learning the piano at age six. He never formally graduated high school or college, but traveled to Philadelphia in 1916 to study with a former pupil of Liszt, one Constantine von Sternberg.

In 1919, he began working with Ernest Bloch in New York City. Bloch described Antheil as “empty” and “pretentious” but was impressed by his enthusiasm. While in The Big Apple, Antheil met Leo Ornstein, who was an influence on him, with his use of tone clusters and such.

Sternberg introduced Antheil to Mary Louise Curtis Bok, who ended up being his patron for two decades, and later founded the Curtis Institute. She supported his career with a stipend of $150 per month. In 1922, at 21 years of age, he moved to Europe and studied in Berlin with Artur Schnabel. His work Ballet Mecanique was perhaps inspiration for later works by Honegger, Prokofiev, and Satie. He moved to Hollywood in 1936, wrote a book, as well as film scores. You may also want to do some reading about Hedy Lamarr, an inventor and actress with whom Antheil worked to develop “a radio guidance system for Allied torpedoes, which used spread spectrum and frequency hopping technology to defeat the threat of jamming by the Axis powers,” technology which ultimately ended up being used in such ubiquitous applications as modern Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. No joke.

Antheil’s third string quartet is a work that surprises me. I never really remember it as one of the works I really enjoy, any kind of favorite, but every time I listen, I’m impressed. It catches me by surprise.

It’s in four movements, with a duration of about 18 minutes, and was completed in 1948. This is one of those works I came across accidentally, which just happened to be on the same album as something else I was looking for, but what a pleasant discovery it was. We hear some elements in this work that might strike a listener as very unrelated, but we’ll see how convincingly the composer is able to weave them all together.

The first movement sounds foreign and folksy, at turns melancholy or sentimental, but with an infectious bounce. But it doesn’t end there. Wait for the first theme to subside, with it’s rustic, almost gypsy-sounding mood, and we’re presented with a down-home, almost cliché-sounding American theme. It doesn’t last long before the first subject comes back, but between these two very cute themes, the first movement is irresistibly charming. Don’t get me wrong, there are some moments of crunch in the development, as well as the closing gesture of the first movement.

The second, in contrast, is soft, marked ‘largo’ and is the longest in the Fine Arts Quartet’s recording. Again, it sounds suddenly, unmistakably American, like chewing on a piece of straw (actually grass) looking out over an open prairie at sunset, or sitting in a rocking chair in a chilly living room with a squeaky floor, fire crackling in the fireplace nearby. But as we listen, it actually gets more dense, and there are some very interesting harmonies introduced, and a wandering, drifting set of solos with longing, poignant, even haunting melodies. There are wonderfully effective echoes of the first movement, but also very contrasting elements, like the sul ponticello, that break the peaceful little quaint image of this slow movement, which ultimately does finish peacefully.

The scherzo returns to the buoyant spirit of the opening movement, and lasts just over two minutes in length. There’s barely time for a trio and return to the opening, but there are distinct sections in this very compact movement, although we flip through them pretty quickly before the movement is out.

The finale has the most driving tempo, and it sounds remarkably like Prokofiev to me, but even here we get both quintessential American-sounding tunes and quotes from the opening movement. There’s something kind of wild about this movement, not quite maniacal, but it means the work overall is quite connected, even if this finale is dominated by darker-sounding themes and less of the pleasant American sound.

Overall, with the strengths of this quartet, how vividly memorable and effective the melodies are and the juxtaposition of simple American-sounding melodies with darker tinges, we have an interesting mid-century work, obviously far more conservative than what you might expect from either the time or the composer, but it’s certainly no whitebread run-of-the-mill quartet either. The piece is compact, but is rich and bustling with detail and gems at each turn.

Isn’t that quirky and nice and just memorable? It’s ‘fun’ but also has quite a sense of seriousness much of the time, a work with more emotional pull than just ‘fun’. That’s all we’ll see of Antheil for a while, but if you’re using WiFi, and I’m sure you do in your daily life, think of Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil, and give this piece another listen!

Stay tuned, because we have another week of excellent symphonies before we move into the much more modern, experimental (or avant-garde) portion of our American series. Thank you so much for reading.

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