Rissolty Rossolty (1939)

By Judith Tick, Author, Ruth Crawford Seeger: A Composer’s Search for American Music

Written for the concert Dreams & Realities: Reinventing American Music performed on March 12, 1997 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

After the concert on April 6, 1938, Ruth Crawford Seeger took questions from an audience which had just heard several works she had composed between 1927 and 1932 (the String Quartet 1931, the Piano Study in Mixed Accents, and Three Songs on Poems by Carl Sandburg). The place was New York City, home of the Federal Music Project’s Composer-Forum Laboratory series, whose audiences typically “put composers on the grill,” as one critic wrote. And this composer did not have an easy time of it. She was caught in the middle of one of the most dramatic stylistic shifts of the century. Within a few short but traumatic years, so much had modernism retreated in the face of the new Depression-inspired goal of “accessibility,” that her audience felt entitled to challenge her past. Issues that we still debate echo in this exchange:

Question: “Won’t you please write some music that a greater number of people can listen to: this seems like music for the very few.” Answer: I will. I have become convinced daring the past two years that my next music will be simpler to play and to understand. At the same time we should not forget that it is also important to write music for the few. I regret that I could not follow out more completely the direction indicated in the works performed tonight.”

The orchestral fantasia Rissolty, Rossolty was this “next music” written just three years later. By then she had chosen a new path, helping to link the Seeger name with the folk-music “boom” (as she once termed it) of the early 1940s, which in retrospect marks the first stage of the urban folk song revival. Crawford Seeger was the “matriarch,” (a word she would have Resisted) of one of its pioneering families (with her husband Charles active in Federal Music Projects and her stepson Pete just beginning his professional life. Her two children Mike and Peggy became professional folk revival musicians as well in the 1950s).

Ruth Crawford Seeger played many roles in the folk revival. While Rissolty, Rossolty remains her only work in the stile of “new simplicity,” during the 1940s and early 1950s she transcribed field recordings (often collaborating with John and Alan Lomax) and arranged folk music for piano. Nineteen American Folktunes for Elementary Piano was only recently published, but her two classic anthologies, American Folk Songs for Children (1948) and Animal Songs for Children (1951) are still in print.

Rissolty, Rossolty was commissioned by CBS for Alan Lomax’s folk music radio program, The Wellsprings of America, which during 1940-41 premiered new orchestral arrangements of folk tunes by American classical composers (Aaron Copland and Roy Harris among them). “Ruth worked hard as hell,” Peter Seeger said. “Four hundred dollars for months and mouths of hard work. She did a first-rate job.” For the radio premiere, Lomax paired the old with the new. The Kentucky-born activist Aunt Molly Jackson sang the title folk song, and then she and Alan Lomax talked about the issue of women’s work raised humorously by its lyrics and those of the second folk tune, “Phoebe,” quoted in the middle of the piece.

Crawford Seeger packed a lot of ideas into this very short work. Rather than presenting the melodies as audible themes, she combined elements from them in a sophisticated polyphony. The playful repeated-note figure that opens the pieces conies from the title tune. “Phoebe” emerges briefly in a solo flute section and then as counter- melody in string pizzicato, and later in the horns. The final section of the piece is based on the fiddle tune, “The Death of Callahan,” a tour-de-force transcription she published in the Lomax anthology, Our Singing Country. As “Callahan” is overtaken by fragments from “Phoebe” and “Rissolty, Rossolty,” the compound meter forges ahead to a “one beat per measure” at the climax. Here the composer juggles three tunes at once: “Callahan” dominates wind and high strings; the brass oppose that double-time with “Rissolty, Rossolty”; and the low strings echo the leading idea of “Phoebe.” It is a moment that recalls the spirit of Charles Ives.

Many compositional choices were intended to capture the ethos, not just the sound, of transition. Crawford Seeger transcribed two different versions of Rissolty, Rissolty from field recordings to symbolize the process of change that characterizes oral tradition. The exceptional ending for the work translates another insight about folk music into a modern gesture. Rissolty, Rossolty does not really “end”–it shuts down abruptly as the three tunes mix it up. And then from nowhere we hear a fragment from the opening of the work. Why this whimsical moment? The composer was honoring the way folk musicians did not formalize endings, but rather stopped in readiness to begin anew. To Crawford Seeger, this represented the life-force of tradition, its “keeping-goingness” (to use her term), contrasting to the self-dramatizing cadences in conventional classical music.

Rissolty, Rossolty received few performances in Crawford Seeger’s lifetime, one from the New Orleans Symphony in 1950 and the other from the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington D.C. in 1953. A New York retrospective organized by Joel Sachs and Cheryl Seltzer for the performers’ Committee on Twentieth-Century Music premiered the work here in 1975.