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MMD > Archives > January 2003 > 2003.01.24 > 05Prev  Next

1927 Premiere of "Ballet Mecanique" at Carnegie Hall
By Joyce Brite

What really happened at the April 10, 1927 premiere of "Ballet
Mecanique" at Carnegie Hall?  How did critics and the public react to
the performance?  Was it a success or failure?

To answer these questions, I started my search for reviews and comments
by those who were in attendance that evening.  The most logical place
to look was "The New York Times" which is available on microfilm at
most research libraries.  Microfilm copies of "The Times" go back to
the nineteenth century making them a valuable tool for researchers.
I also checked the "Reader's Guide" for 1927 and found some published
articles about the program.

The performance of "Ballet Mecanique" played to a packed house.
Among the celebrities in the audience were George Gershwin and singer
Paul Robeson, best known for his rendition of "Old Man River" from
"Showboat."  The program opened with a jazz symphony followed by a
sonata which Antheil had also written.

The "Ballet Mecanique" was performed after the intermission.  There was
no consensus of opinion about it.  People either loved it or hated it.
Those who hated it seemed to be a majority.  The following headline was
published in the New York Times on April 11, 1927:

  Antheil Art Bursts on Startled Ears
  First Performance of Ballet Mecanique in This Country Draws
    Varied  Response
  Hisses, Cheers Greet Him
  Concatenation of Anvils, Bells, Horns, Buzzsaws Deafens Some,
    Pleases Others

"George Antheil's Ballet Mecanique was played for the first time in
America at Carnegie Hall last night.  The young composer and his
presentations, which included several other of his own composition,
met with a lively reception.

"When the ballet was first played in Paris a near riot was reported to
have developed in the concert hall.  Nothing of that sort occurred last
night, but the efforts of Antheil to interpret "The Jazz Era" by means
of such "instruments" as anvils, airplane propellers, electric bells
and automobile horns did provoke the audience to a response unlike that
usually dealt out to an artist here.

"The audience did not restrain itself too much.  A number of persons
cheered loudly while other expressed their disapproval in other kinds
of vocal activity.  Some even had the temerity to hiss.  Some waved
handkerchiefs to denote their pleasure, while one beleaguered man tied
a particularly white kerchief on a cane, hoisted it over his head and
waved it from side to side in token of surrender.

"The cries of pleasure and pain had difficulty at times in rising above
the din of the "Mecanique" part of the "Ballet."  To the "harmony"
produced by the "instruments" previously mentioned was added a
concatenated welter from torpedoes repeating alarm clocks, screw
drivers running in reverse, fan belts, kazoos, rattler, sirens and
police whistles. ... "[1]

Other critics were more harsh in their reviews.  Mr. Gilman of "The
[New York] Herald Tribune" wrote:

  "The 'Ballet Mecanique' is unconscionably boring, artless, and naive.
Throughout its stupefying length it never once speaks vividly,
creatively, outrageously.  Its rhythms are infantile, its dynamic
effects are unresourceful and inexpressive; and long before it ended,
the hostile demonstration; at the back of the hall, so suspiciously
manufactured in character, had died a feeble, fluttering death, and an
infinitely weared [sic] audience was passing out into hideousness and
wonder and incomparable fascination of that actual New York which has
rebuffed the mechanistic wooing of this troubadour from Trenton."[2]

Mr. Henderson of "The [New York] Sun" added:

  "The reporter who went to this moronic exhibition in the hope of
getting a good story was grievously disappointed.  Some of the promised
decorations were not seen.  Those which were disclosed were either
vulgar or ridiculous.  So was the music.  In the sonata for violin,
piano and drum there was a moment of comprehensible burlesque.  The
quartet was the cheapest and flimsiest kind of imitation of Schoenberg
and his school.  The jazz symphony should blush to appear anywhere
within a mile of Broadway, where better stuff of the sort is done every
night.  One wonders what the negro cabaret performers must have thought
of it.

  "The ballet was whooping piffle, mere noise, and pretense.  For
thirty seconds it copies Stravinsky and for the other thirty Carpenter
in Skyscrapers.'  The rest was straight Antheil, one must suppose, and
was not worth of a single word of comment or line of description.  An
elaborate attempt at a hostile demonstration fizzled pitifully.  The
whole thing was an explosion of harmless gas."[2]

Composer and music critic Deems Taylor commented about "Ballet
Mecanique" in his book, "Of Men and Music."  "... as a comedy hit it
was one of the biggest successes that ever played Carnegie Hall."[3]

Henrietta Straus wrote in "The Nation":

  "George Antheil is too gifted a musician to allow either himself or
his works to be presented as a circus attraction.  Doubtless his
management meant well when it announced him as the musical sensation of
the year' and, after dwelling pointedly on the riots attending similar
performances abroad, invited the same by wondering' obviously what New
York would do.  New York did the obvious thing by flocking to the
concert and, promised a sensation' by Mr. Antheil and his management,
coming in a corresponding mood.  The composer had promised much. ..."[4]

Straus then reveals a startling fact:

  "...[T]he music for a Ballet Mecanique,' [was] scored originally
for electric pianos, but now containing only one, manipulated by Mr.
Antheil himself, and supplemented by some half-dozen others played by
human hands, to say nothing of xylophones, sirens, alarm clocks, and
even an aeroplane propellor."[4]

Hence, there was only one electric piano at the performance.  All the
others were played by human pianists.  Was this modification in the
score intentional or accidental?  Was it the result of an inability
to properly coordinate the timing of all the pianos?  Or, was there
a mechanical failure or lack of available reproducing pianos?  The
article does not say.

By the time the "Ballet Mecanique" was presented after the
intermission, the audience was getting restless:

  "It now showed the result.  It booed, whistled, clapped, and even
hissed.  A feeble attempt was made to start the hoped-for riot with a
few rattlers, but it died out.  In the midst of the din one man
furnished comedy by hoisting a handkerchief tied to a cane.  A good
time was being had by all!  One can scarcely believe, however, that
this was the composer's chief aim. ...

  "[The] ballet itself displayed a singularly coherent exposition of
modern life in a modern city, with all its steady monotony and roar,
and all its dynamic energy.  The composer's claim that today machinery
has entered the imaginations of men' is undoubtedly borne out by the
life about us; and just as the romantic composer of the nineteenth
century tried to imitate the sounds of nature, so the realist of this
has tried to embody the Age of Steel.  No one has succeeded in doing
this better than George Antheil.  Whether one wishes to listen to it is
not so important as that, if one does, one listens to is seriously.
Because of this, Mr. Antheil's presentation was much to be deplored."[4]

In the same chapter where Deems Taylor describes the scene at "Ballet
Mecanique," he also comments:

  "Critical disapproval never killed a genuine work of art of any kind.
It has killed the artist, on occasion, but it never shortened the life
of his work.  Any masterpiece outlives its audience and its critics.
If a piece of music can't survive your dislike, or mine, it hasn't got
the breath of life in it."[3]


[1]  "The New York Times" April 11, 1927.
[2]  "Riotous Return of Mr. Antheil." Literary Digest  93:26-7.
      April 30, 1927.
[3]  "Of Men and Music" by Deems Taylor.  New York: Simon and
      Schuster, 1937.
[4]  "Sensations-- Good and Bad."  The Nation 124:438-4.
      April 27, 1927.

Joyce Brite
Player Piano and Mechanical Music Exchange

(Message sent Fri 24 Jan 2003, 23:07:27 GMT, from time zone GMT-0600.)

Key Words in Subject:  1927, Ballet, Carnegie, Hall, Mecanique, Premiere

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