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George Antheil, the bad boy of early twentieth century music

By Meghann Wilhoite


American composer and self-proclaimed “bad boy of music” George Antheil was born today 114 years ago in Trenton, New Jersey. His most well-known piece is Ballet mècanique, which was premiered in Paris in 1926; like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, from which Antheil seems to have derived quite a bit of inspiration, the premiere resulted in audience outrage and a riot in the streets. The piece is scored for pianos and a number of percussion instruments, including airplane propellers.

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Though he died at the age of 58, polymath Antheil managed to accomplish quite a bit in his relatively short life both in and outside the field of music. Here are some highlights:

  • His name appears alongside the actress Hedy Lamarr’s on a patent, granted in 1942, for an early type of frequency hopping device, their invention for disrupting the intended course of radio-controlled German torpedoes.
  • In 1937 he published a text on endocrinology called Every Man His Own Detective: A Study of Glandular Criminology. The book includes chapters on “How to read your newspaper” and “The glandular rogue’s gallery”.
  • His music was championed by the likes of James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Sylvia Beach, W.B. Yeats, Erik Satie, and Pablo Picasso.
  • Under the pseudonym Stacey Bishop, he wrote Death in the Dark, a detective novel edited by T.S. Eliot, the hero of which is based on Pound.
  • After spending the majority of the 1920s and 30s in Europe, he settled in Hollywood and wrote dozens of film, television and radio scores, for directors such as Cecil B. DeMille and Fritz Lang (and with such titillating titles as “Zombies of Mora Tau” and “Panther Girl of the Kongo”).
  • Last, but not least, here is Vincent Price narrating Antheil’s “To a Nightingale” with the composer himself on piano: George Antheil – Two Odes of John Keats – To A Nightingale: Vincent Price, narrator; George Antheil, piano

Meghann Wilhoite is an Associate Editor at Grove Music/Oxford Music Online, music blogger, and organist. Follow her on Twitter at @megwilhoite. Read her previous blog posts on Sibelius, the pipe organ, John Zorn, West Side Story, and other subjects.

Oxford Music Online is the gateway offering users the ability to access and cross-search multiple music reference resources in one location. With Grove Music Online as its cornerstone, Oxford Music Online also contains The Oxford Companion to Music, The Oxford Dictionary of Music, and The Encyclopedia of Popular Music.

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