The Piano music of Ruth Crawford and Johanna Magdalena Beyer


Sarah Cahill, pianist


"Each individual will have his own preferences in respect to what should be lost, modified, or preserved."


Ruth Crawford and Johanna Beyer

Ruth Crawford and Johanna Beyer knew each other well. Crawford called Beyer "Hannah" Beyer"s music clearly shows the influence of the younger Crawford who, ironically, stopped composing at the same that Beyer began. Both were closely associated with Henry Cowell, who brought Crawford to New York, and to whom Beyer became a kind of de facto personal secretary in the late 1930s. Crawford and her husband Charles Seeger devised a theory of "dissonant counterpoint" which elegantly describes much of AmericaÕs modernist music of the 1930s (Crawford"s, Ruggles", a few others). Beyer, as far as we know, was the only composer to actually name a piece Dissonant Counterpoint. Both women favored clear, monothematic forms (like Crawford"s towering Study in Mixed Accents, and Beyer"s extraordinary solo clarinet suites). Crawford"s work shines with an almost brutal formal clarity (her stepson Pete referred to her as Òthe most honest person he had ever met"); Beyer"s music is tinged with a personal, quirky humor which we may not yet understand.


Clearly a student of Crawford"s music, and the senior of the two by over a decade, Beyer transported Crawford"s ideas to a new, sometimes strange aesthetic terrain. Beyer"s musical transformation was often a softening one Ñ the ferocity of Crawford Seeger"s Sacco, Vanzetti becoming the introspective elipiticality of Beyer"s landmark mid-1930s percussion music. Of all the early percussion music composers, Beyer is unique is approaching the ensemble quietly, as in the almost mystical IV and the Three Movements. While Crawford"s music declares itself — unabashedly, forthrightly, honestly — Beyer"s work whispers, alludes, suggests.


Beyer"s musical world is only recently becoming clear and familiar to us, whereas Ruth Crawford"s has become well-known over the past 20 years. Only as Beyer"s music begins to be performed and recorded will we understand its true historical importance. For example, Beyer"s 2nd String Quartet may well be one of the more interesting quartets of the century, deserving a place in the repertoire. Clearly Òmodeled after" Crawford"s own String Quartet (which has already earned its place, thank goodness), each movement uses a direct, single formal idea. But where Crawford explores cumulative processes and palindromic devices, Beyer unifies her work with Papageno"s lament for a missing soulmate.


In Ruth Crawford"s case, it was many years before musicians saw that the third movement of her quartet, which had always been quite famous, was not anomalous in her output. It was one of many such works of similar genius. Even within that piece, it was many years before the fourth movement began to be appreciated as an equally intriguing formal achievement. The usual latency between compositional vision and public understanding is of course longer (not linearly, but geometrically) for women composers. But if Crawford Seeger"s wait was particularly long (the Piano Study... is from 1930) — what are we to make of Beyer"s?



"... With few exceptions, the singer sets the dramatic mood at the beginning of the song and maintains that mood throughout... The singer does not try to make the song mean more, or less than it does... The tune makes no compromises, is no slower nor faster, nor louder. There is no climax — the song just stops."


Ruth Crawford Seeger

Within the last fifteen years a great deal has been written about Ruth Crawford Seeger. Her work and life are no longer shrouded in rumor, or clouded by misinformation. Judith Tick"s superb recent biography (and Mathilda Gaume"s earlier book) established, with scholarly authority, the breathtaking scope of Crawford"s work. A number of other important writings (Joseph Straus" analytical The Music of Ruth Crawford Seeger, a great many articles, dissertations, including the little known but excellent monograph by Karen Cardullo on the folk music work), many recordings (including the Portrait CD by Oliver Knussen on Duetsche Grammophon, which filled in some important gaps), and frequent performances have established Ruth Crawford Seeger, almost half a century after her death, as one of the century"s great American composers. She has been discovered, and taken her place with Ruggles, Cowell, Varese, Cage and others as a pioneer of the American avant-garde. One might say that a composer"s first wish is to be heard, her second to be understood. Both wishes have been finally granted to Ruth Crawford Seeger.


But, sadly, even in her centenary year, much of her work remains unavailable. The rounds (When, Not If (1933), was recently located and published by Frog Peak Music, the others are still lost), the complete choral work, the early piano scores (notably the Kaleidoscopic Changes, still in manuscript) are still difficult to find, and don"t exist in final editions. The later Preludes have been published for many years — because of their uncharacteristic tonality and expressivity, they have been her most frequently recorded and performed music. But the earlier Preludes are in desperate need of a new, corrected critical edition, as is the Sonata for Violin and Piano, another early, very popular work.


Her folk music material is in still worse condition in terms of its availability. Until recently the brilliant monograph The Music of American Folksong, which she considered to be one of her finest works (and, as composer Eric Richards points out,  a kind of composition textbook in disguise) has remained in fragmented manuscripts, known only to a few people. It is, happily, due out within the year. Its companion work, the folk song book Our Singing Country (where her transcriptions are on a par with Bartok"s in terms of sensitivity, nuance, accuracy and musical erudition) has finally been reissued, and hopefully, her extraordinary work in this project will begin to be given the credit it is so rightfully due. Her many other folk music arrangements and transcriptions are still under-appreciated and a number of works remain out-of-print, unpublished, or unknown. Not just the well-known 19 (22?)American Folk Tunes, and the hundreds of subtly beautiful piano arrangements in the three children"s books, but more significantly the joyous children"s book Let"s Build a Railroad, the magnificent settings in Carl Sandburg"s American Songbag (anybody who likes the Piano Preludes should listen to these short piano settings!), the many unpublished transcriptions originally done for Our Singing Country, and the monumental 1001 American Folk Songs (never finished, done in collaboration with Duncan Emrich).

"... one and the same notation can be given such diverse readings by brilliant virtuosi as to throw considerable doubt upon the original intent of the composer."

Piano Preludes

The nine Piano Preludes, written between 1924-1928, have been, prior to the tremendous revival of interest in Ruth Crawford Seeger"s work in the last decade or so, one of her few regularly performed and recorded works. They have been written about at some length (the section on these pieces in Judith Tick"s recent biography is highly recommended). Often described as expressionist, or examples of expanded tonality, the Preludes are really two sets of distinct pieces (1-4, and the later 5-9), the latter published by Henry Cowell in New Music Editions. They show the young Ruth Crawford at her best. The economy of idea, the open, almost brutally honest harmonic fabrics, the clarity and austerity of line, and the singular focus on one generative gesture prevision much of her later work. The last, #9, is emblematic of the whole set, particularly fascinating in its evocations of the distinctive piano music of Dane Rudhyar (a friend and influence of Crawford"s, and one of the few great early American experimentalists who remain relatively unknown). The ninth prelude also gives us an explicit early example of the Taoist inspiration that shows up time and again, directly, and indirectly, in Ruth Crawford Seeger"s work and ideas.



"With few exceptions, the singers of these songs maintain approximately the same level of loudness or softness from phrase to phrase and from stanza to stanza throughout the song."


IV. Ruth Crawford: Piano Study in Mixed Accents

Crawford"s Piano Study in Mixed Accents, is, in my opinion, one of the great works of the 20th century. Minimalist (retronymically), formalist, un-analysable (Mark Nelson's and my own work to the contrary) and unassailable, it is a diamond — brilliant, complex, nearly impossible to cut, the product of immense conceptual pressure. Five long phrases, separated into smaller, three to seven note gestures (giving the piece its name), all in octave unison. It is a single, atonal melody, ascending from the lowest register to the highest (and of course, back again in quasi-palindrome) whose chromatic genesis, though similar in character to pieces like the Diaphonic Suites, the 4th movement of the String Quartet, and Chinaman, Laundryman, transcends her own rules of dissonant counterpoint. The piece is "intuitionally" atonal: "once you use a pitch, avoid it for as long as possible."


The compositional integrity of a young woman composer in 1931, writing a fast and loud (or soft, the performer chooses between three dynamic Òplans") single melody which lasts a minute and a half is not just notable, it is downright awe-inspiring. Sarah Cahill has performed this piece widely and for a long time. She elegantly synthesizes the raw energy, exacting detail, and fluidity of line in a way few other pianists have. It is a mature performance — fast, accurate, and lyrical — Sarah takes a kind of virtuosic joy in its technical difficulty.


"It has further been observed that two singers, singing the same tune simultaneously, may at certain points employ two levels of Ôblueness" .... With a larger group, such as that in Go Down, Ol" Hannah this heterophony is striking"

Johanna Beyer

Johanna Magdalena Beyer  was born in Leipzig in 1888, and died in NYC of Lou Gehrig"s disease (ALS) in 1944. The majority of her music (at least, all we have at this point) was written between around 1930 and 1940. The few works after 1940 are simpler tonal exercises, possibly the result of unknown external factors. At present, there are no known photos of Beyer, although we have both birth and death certificates. She is buried in a community cemetery outside of New York City. Very little is known about her life.


She was active in the 1930s in the circle of musicians around Henry Cowell, whom she revered, and whose works she energetically promoted. After her death she was almost completely erased from history. Her manuscripts were discovered in the early 1960s by Charles Amirkhanian, who brought them to the attention of a few other composers. But she remained largely unknown until the late 1980s and early 1990s when the composer/performer John Kennedy, director of the ensemble Essential Music, began performing the pieces. Around that time, along with an introductory article written by John and myself for the Musical Quarterly (which contains a complete catalog of her known work), the composers" collective Frog Peak Music began publishing annotated performance editions of her scores. To date, about a quarter of the pieces have been released, and many more have been distributed in manuscript to performers around the world.


In the last few years there have been several festivals of Beyer"s music in Europe and Australia, and any performances of single works. But prior to this CD, other than Essential Music"s recording of IV (on Non Sequitur), there have been no releases of her music (with the small exception being the one movement of a lesser work released in the 1930s on New Music Edition Recordings. IV was also published by New Music Editions). She had few performances during her brief and hermetic compositional career, so it is quite possible that many of her works have still not been premiered! There are no critical studies of her work, no biography, and very little attention — yet she remains an American experimentalist of great importance. She was among the first composers to write music for percussion ensemble, as well as a unique and delicate proponent of the signature atonal style of the NYC group of composers that included Cowell, Crawford Seeger and Ruggles. It is easy to suspect other, non-purely musical reasons for her eclipse. Consequently, it"s hard not to want to do something about it. We should be glad that Sarah Cahill has.


This CD is, by definition, a landmark project. It is the first commercial recording of Beyer"s music, and certainly the first of the piano music. For Beyer, we"re still working on that first wish (Òto be heard").


"Rough edges are not tolerated."

Dissonant Counterpoint and Gebrauchs-Musik

Dissonant Counterpoint (193?, probably before 1935) and Gebrauchs-Musik (1936) are two suites of short movements, similar in style and form. Both are highly dissonant, heterophonic (in ways reminiscent of Crawford"s Diaphonic Suites), graceful, subtle, highly pianistic, and beautiful pieces. They are important early examples of the influential ideas of Charles and Ruth Crawford Seeger, yet they also show Beyer"s unusual tendency towards minimalist, single-minded formal procedures. Dissonant Counterpoint (like the earlier clarinet suites) uses the "phrase structure" technique discussed by Charles Seeger. GebrauchsÐMusik tends to be slightly more freer, mor lyrical, sedate, and pensive.


Beyer"s European background is heard perhaps, in a poetic restraint and almost imperceptible emphasis on expressive nuance, distinguishing these pieces from the works of most of her contemporaries. Her music doesn"t proclaim so much as embody its modernism. In its understated approach to heterophony, Beyer"s music is as reminiscent of Schoenberg (or maybe Krenek) as it is of Crawford Seeger. A German-trained musician under the spell of the American avant-garde, her two piano works are wondrous hybrids. They are difficult, both to play and to understand, and the casual listener may not hear the rich musical detail embedded in the straightforward, two-part invention piano style.


It is possible that Beyer may not have drawn as fine a line between these pieces (which she seemed to refer to as "piano suites") as has been done in the editions. The manuscript and historical sources are somewhat ambiguous. Nonetheless, the works were clearly important to Beyer. She was a pianist, and she played them, in some form, in a number of documented NYC performances. They are, in my opinion, Beyer at her most beautiful and finely crafted.


Beyer wrote a number of other significant works for the piano, including Bees (part of a book of piano pedagogy book), Movement for Two Pianos (for Henry Cowell), and Clusters (or New York Waltzes). All of these have now been performed, and the first two published. An edition of the remarkable Waltzes is being prepared for Frog Peak by the pianist Claudia Ruegg.


"A great deal depends upon just how this bridge is built"


Beyer, Crawford, Cahill

Sarah Cahill has been instrumental in the renascence of all this music. One of the first contemporary pianists to perform Bees, Gebrauchs-Musik and Dissonant Counterpoint, she also arranged for what may have been the premiere of Movement... (on her Henry Cowell Festival, in Berkeley, a few years ago). She has made her mark on this music not just as a performer but as an editor (working closely with Frog Peak on all of the editions) and advocate. It is rare to find a pianist with the courage to take on difficult, obscure music with little or no public relations "hook," and even rarer for that pianist to play it so well and with such commitment. Sarah has, as Ruth Crawford might say, ensured that the "breath" of a previously unheard composer is heard.


In fact it takes a pianist like Sarah Cahill, devoted to both of these composers" music, to be the "bridge" not only between two radically different (but in some ways, remarkably similar) contemporaries, but also, between our ears and their imaginations. This CD, where these two composers" works are played together for the first time (so beautifully), allows us to visit a new world of idea. We hear both the young Crawford and the two composers at their modernist peak. This CD should (must!) make us rethink what we thought we understood about American avant-garde music in the 1930s, and about our compositional heritage.



All quotations are from Ruth Crawford Seeger"s 1941 monograph The Music of American Folk Song, forthcoming from University of Rochester Press Musicology Monograph Series. In accordance with current convention, the name Ruth Crawford is used when referring to authorship of works prior to her marriage to Charles Seeger, Ruth Crawford Seeger in the more general sense and specifically for works written after her marriage.


Many of the Beyer works mentioned are published by Frog Peak Music ( The Frog Peak editions of GebrauchsÐMusik and Dissonant Counterpoint are copied and edited by Carter Scholz and David Fuqua, respectively, with myself, Series Editor and John Kennedy, Series Associate Editor. A catalog of Beyer"s work is included in an article about Beyer by John Kennedy and myself: "Total Eclipse" The Music of Johanna Magdalena Beyer, Musical Quarterly, Winter, 1996, Vol. 80, No. 4.