Hello MMD readers, For those interested in the 1927 Carnegie Hall
concert, let me say that it was a fiasco, which is why the composer,
who misread the American public's taste, returned to Europe immediately
The promoter, and the sponsorship of the Baldwin Piano Co., would have
taken George Antheil across the country on a series of performances,
but the fact remains that Art Deco, moderne, Futurism (whatever one
wishes to call that post World War One trend) was different in the
States, so "Ballet Mecanique" came across as a freak show, rather than
a quasi-comic artistic statement as it had been in Paris.
If you read the composer's 1945 autobiography you can get a good
picture of why he chose not to continue with a tour after the Carnegie
Hall premiere. All the information is there, and the book is
reasonably easy to find, since it was "inspired by" Oscar Levant's
earlier, wittier 1940 opus, called "A Smattering of Ignorance" (which
appears via a quotation, in the opening pages of the Antheil book).
Both Levant and Antheil traveled in the same Parisian expatriate social
circles of the 'Twenties, for example.
The Futurist (Art Deco, etc.) movement in Europe was a homage to
machinery, following the devastating Great War, but it also embraced
socialism, communism, anti-Catholicism, robots, homosexuality and all
sorts of decorative art and architecture trends, including the German
Bauhaus styles, to one degree or another. After all, the
experimental film plus player roll work grew out of a discussion
in the Hemingway-Joyce group of free spirited Americans, who said:
"The theater is dead, and has been replaced by the cinema."
Already in Paris there were a series of experimental silent movies with
accompaniment by avant garde composers, including Erik Satie and Arthur
Honegger, so George Antheil (young and new to the scene) obviously took
the idea one step further: eliminate the live accompaniment and have
machinery replace that aspect of the audio-visual experience. This
meant the Foto-Player or the Pianola, for which "Ballet Mecanique" was
By the time the work was expanded to the Theatre des Champs Elysees,
without the Murphy-Leger (plus Man Ray) movie, the player piano was
reduced to an "effect", while the orchestral ensemble took over the
sound effects inherent in a large Foto-Player (tympani, Chinese gong,
bells, klaxon horn, aeroplane noises, tom-tom, etc.). It was the 1926
performance at the Theatre des Champs Elysees where the original "riot"
took place which gave George Antheil his once-in-a-lifetime notoriety.
The New York City "riot" was staged by the promoters to keep the
momentum established by reports of the French premiere. Similarly, the
many New York City newspaper articles were a reflection of the times,
and publicity hacks, wherein the United States (saddled with
Prohibition and all sorts of "back to normalcy" mores) really didn't
understand the roots of the work, nor the Futurist movement, either.
Thus Art Deco architecture, especially here, became a "decorative
tack-on" more than anything else, particularly in office building
lobbies and movie theater designs. One replaced floral designs with
stylized lightning bolts or 'streamlined' images, usually in a silver
motif. Moderne, here, was derivative, in my opinion.
Disillusioned, George Antheil returned to Europe and didn't come
back to the States until he took on a series of jobs as a soundtrack
composer for the Hollywood film industry in the 'Thirties. There he
wrote melodic pieces which were diametrically opposed to the spirit of
"Ballet Mecanique" of the 'Twenties.
Anyone interested in the 1927 concert should (a) purchase the Maurice
Peress CD recording, which recreates it (on Music Masters), and (b)
seek out and read "The Bad Boy of Music", Antheil's 1945 autobiography.
The newspaper articles of the time were just part of the publicity
machine, and were on the level of the press releases used by the
Hollywood studios to "build up" a new silent film star.
Also, remember that the Vitaphone (and early Movietone shorts) were now
on the American scene. The whole idea of coupling a silent film with a
pneumatic player instrument was passe in 1927, with "The Jazz Singer"
in the film houses, Robert Benchley's talking shorts for Fox, and John
Barrymore in the feature film "Don Juan" (with Vitaphone accompaniment),
already a year old by this time. "Don Juan" also had the "Prelude to
the Vitaphone" which presented a series of operatic and vaudeville
shorts, many filmed at the old Hammerstein Theater in New York City.
(Added note: Douglas Heffer in Paris appeared at The Louvre a few years
ago in a presentation called "Cine Memoire". This consisted of restored
Vitaphone shorts, operatic arias and orchestral selections, with his
Pianola (console piano-player) performing in between each of the sound
film segments. Thus, the player rolls and the Vitaphone were united in
this recent presentation, whereas the music rolls were cast aside when
the "talkies" arrived in the late 'Twenties of Antheil's day.)
Hope the above has been of some interest.
Douglas Henderson - Artcraft Music Rolls
Wiscasset, ME 04578 USA