Is There Really No Place Like Home?: American Composers Abroad

Is There Really No Place Like Home?: American Composers Abroad


Edward MacDowell‘s first teachers in the U.S. were Colombian, Cuban, and Venezuelan. In April 1876 (he was only 16) his mother moved with him and his violin teacher to Paris. The talented young MacDowell studied at the Conservatory until transferring to Germany in 1878: First Stuttgart, then Wiesbaden, then Frankfurt, with a succession of teachers. He married an American student and taught at the Darmstadt Conservatory (nothing radical about it then) from 1881-82. He was widely respected, and at first he did well in Germany. He lived in Wiesbaden with his new wife, spending time with among others, his close friend George Templeton Strong Jr., also an American composer. But later, at the latter’s urging and as a result of lack of funds, MacDowell moved home to Boston in 1888.

Ruth Crawford (Seeger), born just after the turn of the century, grew up in Ohio and Florida, and studied at the American Conservatory in Chicago. Already interested in folk music, she worked with her future husband Charles Seeger in New York, and then won a Guggenheim which enabled her to spend the 1930s in Paris, Berlin, Vienna, and Budapest.

George Antheil, who is more closely associated with Paris, nonetheless spent a whirlwind and exciting season (1922-23) in Berlin during the heady post-war period: “Berlin was in gray slow motion, a beaten capitol…all the better for the countless cabarets and mysterious private apartments where muffled string quartets played… it was not long before I discovered that I was earning money faster than I could spend it… one day on a buying spree I bought myself…two Marcoussis, one Braque, one Picasso, a Leger…” From concert fees in Holland and England, Antheil was able to amass an impressive collection of modernist and surrealist paintings, which he absent-mindedly shipped off to the U.S. at the end of the year. The story of the re-discovery of those paintings in the 1940s, by which point their value had skyrocketed, is one of the more entertaining dramas of his autobiography, Bad Boy of Music.

In 1930, Antheil was back briefly in Berlin, and involved with the opera and the musical theater: at one point this young true-blue American even commanded a German military troupe (they were extras on-stage!) at the Berlin State Theater.

Although German opera had a wild avant-garde revival during the early thirties that saw the premiere of Antheil’s Transatlantic and almost saw the premiere of Virgil Thomson‘s Four Saints in Three Acts, the onset of fascism precluded any further foreign productions. Americans, already scared by the Depression and the resulting end of grants and generous checks from patrons, deserted Germany and France in droves in the late thirties.

Europe was in economic and political turmoil: “The newly exiled Krenek was applauded politely when he played the piano in the U.S. premiere of his aggressive and atonal Second Piano Concerto in Boston in November 1938. Afterwards, his publisher heard one patrician lady exclaim to another, ‘Conditions in Europe,’ she observed, ‘must be dreadful.’ “

Conditions were dreadful, but despite the political climate, on the eve of W.W.II in 1939, Berlin had 81 orchestras, 200 chamber groups, and 600 professional and amateur choruses. Compared to the dearth of cultural activity in the States, this would have seemed (and still seems) mind-boggling to most American musicians.

After the war, it took many years to rebuild this wealth of cultural activity. There is no question today that Germany has redeveloped the most comprehensive and vigorous governmental support of the arts in Europe, though there are recent signs in Berlin and elsewhere of eroding support for new music, with funds being re-targeted for opera and traditional symphonic repertoire.

Postwar Germany

George Crumb, born in 1929, attended the Berlin Academy of Music on a Fulbright (1955-56), for studies with Boris Blacher. Afterwards, he returned to the University of Michigan to complete his Doctorate. He has spent much time in Rome at the American Academy as well and has an affectionate association with the city of Rome: I recently heard him there performing his hilarious Mundus canis (5 Humoresques) for guitar and percussion.

Alvin Curran was in Berlin in the early ’60s (at the same time as Elliott Carter and John Harbison) and also spent considerable time in Rome. Along with Rzewski, Curran was one of the founders of the radical Musica Elettronica Viva (MEV) in 1966. He creates soundscapes out of natural sites, found objects, and electronics. In the ’80s he became known for environmental works on a monumental scale, including Maritime Rites, Tufo Muto, and Notes From Underground. With MEV he recorded: Friday (1969), Soundpool (1970), and Spacecraft (1968). Currently he teaches at Mills College.

Another artist known for his sound installations, and who also lived in Rome and Berlin, is Alvin Lucier. Though not a fellow at the AAR, he spent two years in Rome on a Fulbright and was more recently in residence in Berlin as a guest of the DAAD Kunstler Program. I am sitting in a room (1981) is one of his most well-known and fascinating works.

Arnold Dreyblatt, born in New York City in 1953, has had an intriguing series of adventures in Europe. In 1983, on a grant from the Overbrook Foundation, he toured Germany, Holland, Budapest, and Romania. Subsequently he moved to Berlin, where he was given a studio in the Künstlerhaus Bethanien. In the ’80s, he alternated his time between Berlin, Budapest, and Belgium, where he lived in an abandoned medieval house. Based on a forgotten listing of important Europeans which Dreyblatt picked up in an Istanbul flea-market, his Who’s Who Opera was produced in Vienna in 1991, and led to the hypertext opera Who’s Who in Central & East Europe 1933.

Another important collaborative project of Dreyblatt’s is the Memory Arena, premiered at a factory in Hamburg, and subsequently in Munich and Copenhagen. He has recorded and worked with Jim O’Rourke in Chicago and for John Zorn‘s Tzadik Label. Recently he taught at the Art Academy in BerlinWeissensee.


Known as the “citadel of the avant-garde,” the Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik (a.k.a. Darmstadt), initiated by Wolfgang Steinecke, has had a huge impact on modern composers the world over since 1949. During the heady days of the ’50s and ’60s, Stockhausen, Boulez, Nono, and Maderna were a key attraction for young composers.

Total serialism may have been an inevitable by-product of this war-ravaged continent. Perhaps it was fertile ground for a new avant-garde: “The Darmstadt School” was a term coined by Nono in his 1957 lecture on the development of serial technique. The influence was enormous, and even though America was developing its own centers (particularly New York), U.S. composers flocked to Germany to attend the lectures and meet the composers.

Since 1963 the Festival has been held in conjunction with the Internationales Musikinstitut Darmstadt. Many artists mentioned in these pages got their initial taste of Europe here and used it as a launching point for their continental careers. Many others came for a few months and returned invigorated (or sometimes disappointed) to the U.S. In the backlash that followed the height of the Darmstadt School, Franco Evangelisti called these “zealots” the “dodecaphonic police.” Mostly discredited in favor of more recent styles, the influence of this school nonetheless continues to this day in many universities.


Vienna is and always has been remarkably conservative (if not reactionary). George Antheil went there frequently to consult with his publishers, and Peggy Glanville-Hicks studied with Wellesz in Vienna, but not many other American composers have worked there. David Burge writes, “There was no city in Europe more seriously dedicated to the status quo. As in Paris, artistic life in Vienna flourished in certain cafés such as the Café Landtmann, where Schoenberg often saw the poets Arthur Schnitzler and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, […] Bruno Walter, and other adherents of new artistic trends. Unlike Paris, which even in its most bourgeois circles was secretly proud of its yeasty artistic life, Vienna had developed a deep enmity toward the sort that gathered at the Landtmann, a contempt that made the appearance of anything nontraditional the signal for battle.” Vienna had great artists, and a small but innovative avant-garde, but no support from the public. In contemporary Vienna, the ORF (State Radio) and the chamber music group Klangforum Wien are two major driving forces for new music: the first concerned primarily with domestic composers, the second much more interested in European music and occasionally American music as well.

From Is There Really No Place Like Home? A HyperHistory of American Composers Abroad
By Guy Livingston
© 2002 NewMusicBox

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