George Antheil, A Jazz Symphony

by Matthew Mugmon

Written for the concert New York Avant-Garde, performed on Oct 3, 2013 at Carnegie Hall.

Antheil born Jul 8, 1900 in Trenton, NJ; died Feb 12, 1959 in NYC
A Jazz Symphony composed in 1925; Premiered on Apr 10, 1927 at Carnegie Hall
Approximate performance time: 8 minutes
Instruments: 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 1 soprano saxophone, 1 alto saxophone, 1 tenor saxophone, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, percussion, drum set, 2 pianos, 2 banjos (1 doubling guitar), strings, and solo piano

George Antheil’s A Jazz Symphony (1925, rev. 1955) was one of many attempts by composers in the 1920s to blend jazz with the prestigious symphonic tradition. The most famous of these attempts—and one of which the New Jersey native was all too aware—was George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (1924). Antheil initially planned his Jazz Symphony for Paul Whiteman’s orchestra, the group that introduced Rhapsody in Blue. What’s more, Antheil predicted that the Jazz Symphony would “put Gershwin in the shade.”

That forecast missed the mark, but the one-movement, highly episodic Jazz Symphony tackles the intersection of popular and highbrow more boldly than Gershwin’s better-known work, audaciously interweaving divergent sounds and styles. The work begins with a lilting Mariachi-flavored theme, soon followed by a piano solo that fuses ragtime with strident tone clusters. Throughout, banjos—commonly used at the time to signify African-American music—participate in rhythmically complex and intense passages that could appear in the music of Igor Stravinsky. Toward the end of the piece, an improvisatory passage for solo trumpet transitions into a sugary waltz heard in the piano before being repeated and amplified by the orchestra. Meanwhile, in several places, wind instruments riff comedically on the signature opening clarinet trill and wail of Gershwin’s Rhapsody.

A Jazz Symphony was first performed by blues pioneer W.C. Handy’s orchestra of African-American musicians. The premiere took place in a concert that also featured Antheil’s better-known Ballet Mécanique. (The latter composition, which included airplane propellers and a siren, had sparked riots at its own premiere the year before in Paris, where Antheil lived at the time. The ASO performed this piece at Carnegie Hall on October 6, 2010.) Almost 30 years later, in 1955, Antheil shortened and tamed the Jazz Symphony, but continued to stake a place for it in music history. Noting that it appeared “only slightly” after Rhapsody in Blue, he called the Jazz Symphony “one of the very first symphonic expressions which attempted to synthesize American jazz as a legitimate symphonic expression.” The original version is the one heard at this concert.

Matthew Mugmon is assistant professor of musicology at the University of Arizona. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 2013.