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Star-Bulletin Features

Tuesday, January 30, 2001

Composer chose
‘life’ over work

Ruth Crawford-Seeger
never revived her promising
musical career

By Scott Vogel
Special to the Star-Bulletin

There are moments in the life of a new parent -- after a long night spent consoling a baby with an intractable ear infection, say -- when the enormity of the task of raising a happy and healthy child is nothing short of overwhelming. And as ear infections give way to stomachaches and a thousand other emergencies, you quickly realize that doing it "right" (parenting, that is) requires every ounce of strength you have.

Your priorities change. But even as the carefree, childless days begin to seem like ancient history, nagging questions assert themselves. "Where is the life that late I led?" you might ask, with apologies to Shakespeare and Cole Porter. And what about that youthful desire you once had to make a mark on the world? Perhaps you'll be one of the lucky few to broker a harmonious compromise. Then again, old age could find you whining about abandoned goals and missed opportunities to Oprah. Which will it be?

On stage

The Juilliard String Quartet performs the rarely heard 1931 Quartet by Ruth Crawford-Seeger (right); Mendelssohn's Quartet in F minor, Op. 80; Beethoven's Quartet in E-flat, Op. 127; and Kurtag's "Officium Breve":

Bullet Date: 8 p.m. Thursday
Bullet Place: University of Hawai'i Orvis Auditorium
Bullet Tickets: $24 general, $19 for students and seniors
Bullet Call: 956-8246
Bullet Also: Meet the artists for a pre-concert chat at 7 p.m. in Music Department Room 36.

It is perhaps unavoidable that the life and career of Ruth Crawford-Seeger -- in this context, at least -- would take on the character of a cautionary tale. Born in 1901, the pianist-turned-classical-composer produced works of stunning originality, none greater than her string quartet of 1931, which the Juilliard String Quartet will perform at the University of Hawaii's Orvis Auditorium Thursday night.

Once pronounced a "modernist classic" by the composer Virgil Thomson, this challenging piece signaled the arrival of a major talent almost from the moment it was first played publicly. And yet, just a few months later, Crawford-Seeger traded music for motherhood, later confiding to her diary that writing a quartet was a useless occupation when compared to ironing babies' dresses.

Judith Tick, in her Crawford-Seeger biography, quotes the composer's stepson, folk singer Pete Seeger, as saying, bluntly, "She gave up everything in life to be a good mother."

One wonders at the seeming ease with which Seeger made her choice, especially given the remarkable, fairytale quality of her early life. Raised in Jacksonville, Fla., she was a music teacher with hopes of a career as a concert pianist. One day, she began improvising on the simple pieces found in her students' instruction books. The pleasure she took in musical invention, and later composing original works, was immediate and took her by surprise. Yet, in an age when serious female composers were almost unknown, she took the further surprising step of moving to Chicago to study composition at the American Conservatory of Music.

Her early works found admirers as various as poet Carl Sandburg and composer Henry Cowell, and in 1930 she became the first woman to receive a Guggenheim fellowship in composition.

Given such accolades, one would think that Seeger's future course would be clear. Her diaries, however, expressed a growing duplicity.

"I must discover for myself whether it is a 'career' or life that I want," she wrote, before the die was cast. "I can have a career and life too, but even though the former will be enriched by the latter, there must be sacrifices. I am beginning to think life is what I want. That it is richer."

Life, as defined by Seeger, is what she got by marrying her music teacher in 1932 (they fell in love over a lesson in counterpoint) and producing four children. Though she would later author several books, most notably a bestselling collection of American folk songs, Seeger's career as a serious composer was essentially over. Samuel Rhodes, the Juilliard String Quartet's violist, views this self-imposed silence as a great loss for American music.

"She had a lot of potential and who knows where it would have gone," he said. Calling her latter work "revolutionary" and "visionary," Rhodes and his fellow Juilliard musicians have become Crawford-Seeger's champions.

This year alone they plan to play the quartet all over the world, from Pasadena to Hamburg to Seville, part of a rigorous itinerary of 70 to 80 concerts during the coming 12 months. It's a schedule that raises the question of whether Rhodes and company have their own career/life conflicts. But teaching at the renowned Juilliard school keep the quartet happily tethered to the New York area, which is perhaps a good thing for their personal lives.

"When we concertize, we do it in short trips," he said. "None are longer than two weeks, and with certain exceptions we don't play during the summer." Summer is devoted to extra-quartet musical activities, of course, but also to family life.

One can't help but wish Crawford-Seeger had attempted such a juggling act, especially as there is evidence she later regretted her choice. Years later, her children grown and the exigencies of parenthood far behind, she once again turned her attention to serious music, but time ran out on her. Intestinal cancer cut short a life that might have come full circle.

"It isn't fair," she told her son, just before her death in 1953. "I am just getting back into composing."

Listening now to the early string quartet, filled as it is with both originality and aural complexity, one is particularly struck by the third movement, an austerely beautiful andante that draws strength from the friction created by the various musical lines. ("She described it as an interlocking Oriental rug kind of pattern," Rhodes said.)

The movement has a ruminating, resigned quality, even as tensions generated by violins, viola and cello never resolve. It wouldn't be quite fair to draw a line from the quartet to the conflicts with which Seeger wrestled in her private life. Still, you might find it hard to ignore the composer's fundamental dilemma -- career vs. life -- during Thursday's concert. The question, after all, never goes away; it's as insistent and eternal as Seeger's music may yet prove to be.

But then, even as I write the last words of this article, a stirring is heard in the next room. My infant son is waking from a nap. I go to him, almost without thinking, whereupon I am greeted by what is hands-down the most beautiful smile in the world. And at that moment the question evaporates, perhaps forever.

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