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

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.