An American Biography: The Music of Henry Cowell

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert An American Biography: The Music of Henry Cowell, performed on Jan 29, 2010 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

This evening’s concert goes to the very heart of the original mission of the American Symphony Orchestra. American Symphony’s founder Leopold Stokowski was a controversial figure, looked down upon by those who considered his style and approach to music to be vulgar, and his self-invented personality too flashy and artificial. But oddly enough, that early icon of conductorial hair style actually had substance and principle—something that happens too rarely, particularly in the world of classical music. For all his commercial success and reputation as a Hollywood figure, Stokowski was from the outset a persistent innovator and explorer. He may always not be remembered for particular interpretations of masterworks, but he certainly will be remembered as one of the creators of the modern standard of orchestral sonority, the nearly technicolor lushness of the blended sound of the modern orchestra, still cherished today. Stokowski’s truly distinctive contribution, however, was his broadening of access to new audiences and his advocacy of new and unknown music. While at the Philadelphia Orchestra, and later during his tenure at the American Symphony Orchestra, he fearlessly presented new repertoire.

Stokowski’s presence in American musical life coincided with a cultural movement in music that mirrored the brashness of an America that had just taken its place as a major player in the world. When one reads the fine essay by Richard Teitelbaum that follows, one should remember that Henry Cowell was twenty years old when the United States entered the First World War. His career coincided with a time in history in which the America of his day was the China of today. The United States was growing rapidly and was at the cutting edge of industrial competitiveness. It had outstripped Europe and was on its way to becoming the largest economy in the world. During Cowell’s lifetime it would take its place as the most powerful nation on earth. For Europeans, Americans represented industriousness, competition, innovation; America was the future. While earlier generations of European intellectuals found ways to see the United States as backward and provincial, by the time World War I ended, America was no longer a plausible object of derision. Rather it became an object of fascination and emulation, and for that very reason, also a focus of anxiety. In the interwar period, the distinguished German critic and theorist Siegfried Krackauer pointed to the Radio City Rockettes to exemplify the dangers of spiritual mechanization of the human that powered America’s economic and political domination. Through music and film, America became a leading exporter of culture. Given the devastation that took place in Europe, European artists flocked to the United States for patronage and audiences.

It is therefore not surprising that while all this was going on, an optimistic spirit of innovation flourished in the arts in the United States. Cowell’s career coincides with the advent of American modernism in painting, sculpture, and architecture. Insofar as music in American life before 1917 seemed to be derivative in its indebtedness to European models, the challenge facing young American artists in the 1920s was the creation of something distinctly and uniquely American. Now that America, though still young, seemed fully realized as a nation, it demanded that its own distinctive voice be heard. The character of that voice would have to match the industrial spirit of America. It had to be marked by a self-conscious modernity and a faith in innovation.

In this regard, there was no more distinctly American composer in the first half of the twentieth century than Henry Cowell. He was an experimentalist and a pluralist. True to America’s identity as an immigrant nation, he embraced influences from numerous sources. He broke the boundaries that had been erected between types and genres of music. He invented new sounds. He introduced the work of composers from all over the world to American audiences. No individual was more responsible than Cowell for bringing America’s first truly original master of composition, Charles Ives, to the public’s attention. Ives reciprocated with support for Cowell and his activities. Cowell’s interest encompassed not only experimental and avant-garde modernism, but that which we today awkwardly call “world music”. As Richard Teitelbaum suggests, this may have been the result of his being born on the West Coast, which retained more of a link to Asia, while the East Coast seemed to preserve its residual debt to Europe. Cowell’s energy and productivity are themselves a source of amazement. So too is the list of those indebted to Cowell for his role as mentor and advocate.

This impressive record of achievement thus begs the question: why is it that more than three quarters of the devoted audience for classical and concert music today might not recognize even the name of Henry Cowell, much less his music? A search of programs by American orchestras and ensembles will reveal that very little if any of Cowell’s music is played. (On the list of orchestras that have played Cowell’s music, the American Symphony would be toward the top, owing largely to Stokowski’s advocacy and to recent performances of several of Cowell’s works.) Is the answer to the question that Cowell was simply a great organizer, teacher, and thinker whose music isn’t worth performing? That would be the most commonplace answer.

Its apparent plausibility rests in the mistaken but recalcitrant idea that first, the standard repertory today reflects the collective and legitimate aesthetic judgment of history and therefore a quasi-Darwinian process of objective selection, and second, that music is an art that demands competitive comparison, that only works befitting the attribute “masterpiece” deserve the time and effort to be heard and played in concert. By this standard, not a single work by Henry Cowell has survived. Indeed, from the perspective of self-styled connoisseurs and aficionados, most of the music performed at American Symphony Orchestra concerts (especially works never recorded) deserve before the performance to be met with skepticism, and after dismissed with the comment that these works do not compare with the major works of Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, Bartók, or Stravinsky.

he judgment of history does not constitute an objective test. Consider the fate of Henry Cowell. The scandal surrounding his imprisonment for homosexuality, and the easy association in many circles between aesthetic radicalism and left-wing politics damaged his reputation and career during his lifetime and posthumously. For all of America’s celebration of its own love of invention and innovation, there has been a dark side to American cultural life: an enormous pressure to conform, the rule of a marketplace that is intolerant of genuine individuality and dissent, and a risk-averse anti-intellectualism derived from mistrust, isolationism, and commercial interest. Henry Cowell’s career and music have consistently tripped the wires of all of these negative attitudes. As a result, for the last fifty years, his music was deprived of the hearing it deserved except in a small community of devoted advocates. More exposure is necessary to permit a reasonable assessment of the worth of his many compositions. Only after repeated performances can we as performers and listeners decide which works we prefer and which seem more persuasive than others. Even within the output of the most famous composers there are hierarchies of taste. In Cowell’s case, exposure denied by the musical establishment at large for extraneous and specious reasons has prevented most listeners from exercising any sort of judgment. That is what makes Cowell the perfect subject for the mission of the American Symphony.

For some odd reason, changing inherited impressions has become much harder in music than it has in either painting or literature. In music, the unremitting standard of the “masterpiece” is more of an excluding factor than it is in any other art. Why does listening to a piece of concert music require a judgment to determine it is not something else—perhaps by Stravinsky, Mozart, Mahler, or Copland? We do not read books this way, and we do not view paintings this way. We do not furnish our homes with paintings and prints and objects that way. No one can argue that the idea that a painting of Botticelli or a play by Shakespeare are daunting and overwhelming examples of the triumph of human imagination. But the greatest Botticelli or Shakespeare need not diminish our appreciation of other paintings and plays. We do not reject plays and paintings old or new in our theaters and museums because they are not Botticelli and Shakespeare. We do not demand that the only things performed or displayed are by Botticelli and Shakespeare. We profess a wider and more eclectic range of appreciation for unquestionably excellent examples of human expression in painting and writing. Yet in music, a dominant snobbery apparent in writers, performers, and listeners would shut down the exercise of curiosity. Young performers and conductors learn and offer almost exactly the same historical repertoire that their counterparts did thirty and fifty years ago. Concert promoters encourage this. But as Cowell understood, music is an experience of life in the world. There is a wide range of music that inspires, ennobles and delights audiences who have the insight to listen to a work in relation to their personal preferences or opinions, not in relation to what they have learned are the narrow group of the “best” composers and compositions.

Our reasons for performing unfamiliar repertoire are not about searching for lost treasures. We are not on some sort of Antiques Roadshow, trying to assess rare work by some pre-existing standard of comparative values. We are not in the business of being musical truffle hounds. Rather, we perform Henry Cowell’s music, as well as the music on past and future programs of the American Symphony, to show not rarity but the unexpected vastness, quality, and depth of musical expression that is available to be heard within the history of music. Our only standard is that it is music that deserves to be enjoyed and experienced. The music must have the inspiration and craftsmanship to capture the attention of those who love to play and listen. Not every work will take its place alongside an acknowledged masterpiece, but it doesn’t have to. As in other arts, all kinds of music contribute to an unimaginably large and varied experience, in which anyone will eventually find something they like. For those who restricted their capacity for the joy of music to a few famous works (an unreasonable fragment of cultural history), they may find that repetition of those works will ultimately eviscerate their power to move the listener by eroding the essential reactions of surprise and engagement those works inspire.

In the course of history, generations reverse themselves. The great work of the past can fade and be replaced by a reversal of judgment. In the end what appeals to the audience is determined by criteria the audience brings to their experience, shaped by the historical circumstances around them. That is what lies beneath the legendary observation of Leonard Bernstein regarding Gustav Mahler’s assertion that “my time will come”: it did. Mahler’s music did not change, but the way it was perceived and interpreted underwent a radical reevaluation.

Henry Cowell may be due for such a reevaluation. Despite the skepticism of those who consider themselves “in the know,” the response of American Symphony’s loyal audiences since the founding of the orchestra by Stokowski to new repertoire has been one of delight. They, like the musicians in the orchestra, respond to excitement, character, substance, and surprise in music. We hope this continued attitude will give a reprieve to music unfairly neglected and forgotten by the self-styled arbiters of taste who pronounce summary judgment based on criteria worthy of a beauty contest or quiz show.

Henry Cowell, Symphony No. 11, “Seven Rituals of Music”

By Richard Teitelbaum

Written for the concert An American Biography: The Music of Henry Cowell, performed on Jan 29, 2010 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

“I Want to Live in the Whole World of Music” -Henry Cowell

Henry Cowell was a true American original, and one of the most important figures in American music of the Twentieth Century. Born in Menlo Park California in 1897 to a family of philosophical anarchists, he was recognized early on as an uncommonly gifted child. Cowell studied the violin and mastered the piano at an early age and read extensively in many fields, but was largely home schooled by his mother Clarissa. He therefore received little or no formal education until, at the age of seventeen, he had the good fortune to be sent to study with Charles Seeger, recently appointed Chairman of the Music Department at UC Berkeley. A brilliant theorist, musicologist, composer and pater familias of one of America’s great musical families (father of Pete, Mike, and Peggy, teacher and husband of composer Ruth Crawford), Seeger immediately recognized Cowell’s extraordinary gifts, and took the young man under his wing, introducing Cowell to the latest modernist compositional techniques from Europe and the US. In the early 20’s he helped Cowell write a groundbreaking theoretical book, New Musical Resources, which was published in 1930 and became one of the seminal texts of twentieth century music.

Cowell began to compose at the age of ten. Among the early techniques for which he became most famous were the tone cluster (thick chords made up of major and minor seconds) which he notoriously played all over the piano with his forearms and fists (Bartok later wrote to ask Cowell’s permission to compose with them) and a variety of groundbreaking methods of stroking, strumming and plucking inside the piano, directly on the strings. He also developed a complex pitch-rhythm system (detailed in his book) that correlated the mathematical ratios of the pitches of the overtone series with rhythmic proportions, thereby anticipating similar concepts and procedures used by Conlon Nancarrow, Elliot Carter, Karlheinz Stockhausen and many others decades later. Because he considered the rhythms he composed to be unplayable by humans, Cowell proposed programming them on a player piano, and a passing comment to this effect in his book later set Nancarrow on his lifelong exploration of the instrument in his extraordinary Studies for Player Piano. Cowell also sought out the help of the brilliant Russian inventor, Leon Theremin (creator of the electronic instrument that still bears his name) in New York to construct an instrument he called the Rhythmicon to realize his complex rhythmic relationships. One of the two Rhythmicons that Theremin built still exists in the Smithsonian Institute.

Throughout his life, Cowell worked tirelessly on behalf of the music of other composers, founding the New Music Society of California in 1925, which presented premieres of many American and European modernist works, published New Music, a quarterly publication of a broad range of contemporary works, and then New Music Quarterly Recordings. When Cowell arrived in New York in the twenties, he organized and ran the Pan American Association of Composers (with some assistance from Edgar Varèse and Carlos Chávez among others), which promoted inter-American performances. One of its main achievements was to arrange for the first performances of American orchestral music in Europe, which were conducted by Nicolas Slonimsky, Anton Webern and others. To support these activities, Cowell had attracted the discreet but generous financial and moral support of Charles Ives, whose biography he later co-authored with his wife Sidney—the first such study of Ives to be published. In 1933, he published another book, American Composers on American Music, in which Cowell invited a variety of composers to write on each other’s music, that remains an invaluable document of the period.

An extraordinary pianist, Cowell toured the U.S. and then Europe to great acclaim and notoriety beginning in the 20s, coming into contact with such luminaries as Schnabel, Bartók, Berg, Webern and Schoenberg. He was also the first American composer invited to the Soviet Union, and although initially not permitted to perform by the committee that made final judgments about visiting artists, he was finally permitted to give semi-public performances in Moscow and Leningrad, including three days of successive four-hour performances for wildly enthusiastic students at the Moscow Conservatory. Amazingly, the State Music Publishing Company also published two of his piano pieces.

In addition to his invention and employment of new, ultra-modernist techniques, another side of Cowell’s music was nurtured early on by growing up on the edge of the large Asian community in the Bay Area, where Cowell was exposed to traditional non-western music from his earliest years. He later said that he heard Chinese opera before he even knew of Italian opera. He studied and learned to play a number of Asian instruments, including the Japanese shakuhachi (endblown bamboo flute) for which he wrote the first piece by an American. Cowell’s interest in the music of other cultures continued to grow throughout his life. He was invited in 1928 to teach at the New School for Social Research in New York, where, in addition to teaching contemporary music, Cowell offered a course entitled “Music of the World’s Peoples,” the first “world music” course taught in this country. In 1930, he received a Guggenheim grant to study at the famous Hornbostel Archive at the University of Berlin, where he devoured the huge collection of non-western music recordings, as well as taking lessons on Javanese and Balinese gamelan instruments and, at Schoenberg’s invitation, attended his composition seminar.

All this extraordinary activity was tragically and shockingly interrupted in 1936, when Cowell was arrested in California and pleaded guilty to a single act of oral sex with a consenting young adult man. Initially sentenced to fifteen years, Cowell was finally paroled after serving four years in San Quentin, during which he continued to compose, wrote a book on melody and taught and conducted ensembles of inmates. Through the efforts of his new wife Sidney Robertson, a brilliant folklorist and pianist, Cowell was finally pardoned by the governor of California, which enabled him to accept a job with the Office of War Information. During the postwar period, he made several State Department-sponsored trips abroad as a goodwill ambassador. The State Department and the Rockefeller Foundation made possible his visits to Japan, India and Iran, where his interaction with local traditional musicians inspired a number of his most notable pieces.

Cowell numbered a broad range of major figures among his students, notably John Cage, who proclaimed him the “open sesame of new music in America”; Lou Harrison, who called him the “mentor of mentors”; George Gershwin and Burt Bacharach. Later in life he taught at several institutions, including Columbia University, Eastman School of Music and Peabody Conservatory.

Miraculously, while carrying out all these activities, Cowell managed to compose almost one thousand pieces in every conceivable genre. The works on this evening’s program offer a broad sampling of his orchestral music from different periods and in different styles.

Henry Cowell died in 1965 at the charming house where he and Sidney lived for many years in Shady, New York, composing almost to the very end.


Hymn and Fuguing Tune No. 3 (1944) is one of 18 such works Cowell wrote between 1944 and 1964, for forces ranging from solo cello to full orchestra. They reflect his interest in forms and techniques of early American music—in this case (according to Cowell) “of Southern Revival meetings in which popular minstrel show rhythms were turned to religious purposes…. The tunes of course are my own.”

Atlantis (1931) is one of Cowell’s most unusual and experimental pieces. The libretto is by Alice Barney and was commissioned by her for the noted dancer/choreographer Doris Humphrey, who accepted it, but later abandoned it as being too expensive to stage. Scored for three voices and small orchestra, the piece was premiered by the San Francisco Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas in 1996 and later recorded in London on the Mode Records album “Dancing with Henry.”

Variations for Orchestra (1959) was written for Thor Johnson and the Cincinnati Symphony, and the revised version for Leopold Stokowski and the Houston Symphony.

Cowell described it thus: “The Variations are based upon a brief, simple and melodious theme of twelve different tones (first announced in unison) but the work is not developed according to Schoenberg’s twelve-tone row technique. Nor is it in conventional theme and variations form: rather, each variation is a kind of independent mini-movement that develops ideas from the theme, freely used.”

Symphony No. 2, “Anthropos” (1938) was actually completed while Cowell was still imprisoned. The four movements are entitled 1) Repose 2) Activity 3) Repression 4) Liberation. It was premiered on March 9, 1941, at the Brooklyn Museum by the New York Civic [WPA] Orchestra, conducted by the composer.

Concerto for Harmonica and Orchestra (1962) was commissioned by the harmonica virtuoso John Sebastian to be played and recorded in Rome, but was not performed by him due to illness. The premiere was not given until after Cowell’s death in1986 by tonight’s soloist, Robert Bonfiglio, with the Brooklyn Philharmonic, Lukas Foss conducting. According to Cowell’s widow Sidney, “the composer was particularly interested in this work because in it he introduced Japanese elements such as the sound of the sho, the chambered reed organ on which tone clusters, sustained and without the ictus of piano clusters can be produced.” Thus Cowell combined two of his longstanding interests, his ultra-modernist “invention” of tone clusters with similar chords inspired by the ancient Japanese gagaku court orchestra.

Symphony No. 11 (1953) “Seven Rituals of Music.” About the Symphony, Cowell has written: “There are Seven Rituals of Music in the life of man from birth to death.

The Symphony opens gently (Andantino), with music for a child asleep. Before the movement, ends there is a moment’s premonition of grief in the music that will later close the Symphony with a lament. The second is a busy movement (Allegro) with percussion; this is music for the ritual of work, and there is a prophetic hint of war. The third movement (Lento) is a song for the ritual of love, with the premonition of magic.

The fourth movement (Presto) is music for the ritual of dance and play, with some reminiscence of the music for work. The fifth (Adagio) is for the ritual of magic and the mystical imagination, with some remembrance of the music for the magic of love.

The sixth (Vivace) is for the ritual dance that prepares for war and includes man’s work.

The introduction to the last movement (Andante) is a fugal exposition of the themes of the preceding six movements; it leads into the music of the ritual of death, which begins as a lament and grows in intensity until the Symphony comes to an end.”

Special thanks for fact checking to Professor Joel Sachs, whose biography of Cowell is due to be published by Oxford University Press in spring, 2011.