Ruth Crawford Seeger’s Three Songs to Poems by Carl Sandberg for Voice, Oboe, Piano, Percussion, and Optional Orchestral Ostinato

By Judith Tick, Department of Music, Northeastern University

Written for the concert American Modernism Seen & Heard: The Abstract and Geometric Tradition in Music and Painting, 1930-1975 performed on Dec 20, 1992 at Carnegie Hall. 

As a composer in the 1920s and early 30s, Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-1953) was regarded as one of the “most independent, able and promissory of the new American composers,” in new music, according to the leading modernist critic, Paul Rosenfeld. She was discovered by Henry Cowell in Chicago around 1925, where she was studying composition and piano at the American Conservatory of Music. Compressing her training in theory and composition into four years, Crawford wrote a set of piano preludes in 1924-1925 that convinced Cowell to put her on the board of his New Music Society; by 1927 she had appeared on the League of Composers concert for “young Americans” and, in 1930, she won a Guggenheim Fellowship in composition, the first awarded to an American woman (and the only one for the next fifteen years.)

In Chicago, Ruth Crawford met Carl Sandburg around 1925 or 1926, and she was a great admirer of both the man and the artist, using his poems as texts for eight of her ten solo songs. His artistic use of vernacular inspired her own acute observations of dissonance and asymmetric rhythms in nature. “One can draw a kind of rhythmic and dramatic pleasure from the very smallest things,” she wrote in 1927; and she affectionately parodied Sandburg’s poetic aesthetic by describing how his “spirit goes swooping into byways, pinching a piece of dust and asking ‘Are you a fact or a fancy? Have you a little dust-soul somewhere? Where are you going and what for?”

In 1930 she preserved this wry wit in her setting of a Sandburg poem that asked similar questions–“Rat Riddles” in which Rat asks “who do you think you are and why is a rat?” Crawford’s vocal line is intended more as declamation than as lyrical melody, interacting most with the oboe, which darts and scurries about, depicting Sandburg’s wise hyperactive rat. “Rat is joined by a Bee,” Crawford wrote about her setting of “In Tall Grass” (1932), which describes the frenetic “honey-hunting” in the third section of the poem by activating the piano and persistent buzzing drones through “dynamic” writing for the string ostinati, in which the pitches should scarcely be audible as single tones, submerged instead in the waxing and waning of crescendo and decrescendo and glissandi. “Prayers of Steel” (1932), a text of simultaneous construction and deconstruction, punctuates its severe declamatory vocal line with percussive hammer-blows.

Beneath the surface of these expressions pictorial devices is an avant-garde aesthetic build on paradox–on the one hand the ideal of “heterophony,” that is to say, a texture of non-relationship among the parts, depending primarily on Charles Seeger’s method of dissonant counterpoint; and on the other hand, the ideal of pre-compositional organization. From 1929-1930 Crawford studied with Seeger, whom she later married, and the songs reflect his influence. They are prophetic tours de forces of the application of serial thinking to elements other than pitch–including rhythm, articulation and dynamics–in an approach to composition that would later move to the forefront of a post-war generation of composers.

The scoring of these songs is also quite progressive. According to Charles Seeger, he suggested to Crawford that she add an orchestral component to the original instrumentation when she readied them for publication in Cowell’s New Music Quarterly in 1932. Therefore the original group of instruments was designated the soloistic “concertanti” and Crawford added two groups of optional orchestral “ostinati” to each song, one of clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, horn and trombone, and the other composed of strings, to be placed apart from the concertanti, and “if possible at the rear of the stage,” in order to underscore through spatial relationship their “other-soundingness” and their ambiguous relationship to the main material.

Along with the String Quartet 1931 Crawford’s Three Songs brought her the most recognition in her lifetime. She regarded their acceptance for the annual festival of the International Society of Contemporary Music in Amsterdam in 1933 as a high point of her career.