Music Monday: Seeger: Suite for Wind Quintet

Sometimes, when there's been a lull in my compositional activity, I begin to fret that I'll lose the ability to write music at all, or, if I remember the basics, that my higher-level abilities — my formal conceptions, my motivic facility, my harmonic sensibility — will have withered away, and I'll be back muddling around where I was several years ago instead of carrying forward with my artistic development. But then I remember that Ruth Crawford Seeger wrote today's piece after sixteen years of inactivity, and then I don't feel so bad.

East Liverpool, Ohio isn't exactly the most famous burgh in the country, but it's where Seeger was born in 1901 to a Methodist minister. Her family moved several times during her childhood, at first staying mainly in the midwest, but ultimately winding up in Jacksonville, Florida, where her father died of tuberculosis in 1914. She remained there for a few years after her high school graduation, working to make a career as a concert pianist (she had been playing the instrument since the age of six), but in 1921 moved to Chicago to study at the American Conservatory of Music. Altho she initially only planned to study there for one year, she would ultimately stay for eight, earning her Bachelor's and Master's degrees and soaking up various musical influences, including Alexandr Skriabin and his musical theosophy.

Exceptionally gifted and hard working, Seeger spent the summer of 1929 at the MacDowell Colony, and, in 1930, became the first woman to win a Guggenheim Fellowship, allowing her to study in Paris and Berlin. (This, at a time when critics still wrote that she could write music “like a man”, a full 48 years before Aaron Copland would opine that “the female mind doesn't like to concern itself with abstract things, and that's what music is.”, despite having worked with numerous female composers, including Seeger herself.) It was in the brief window between 1930 and 1936 that she wrote most of her best known pieces, most notably the string quartet from 1931, which is one of the first pieces in the Western musical tradition to explore integral serialism (i.e. subjecting rhythm, timbre, loudness, and even formal structures to the same techniques that regular serialism applies to pitch).

Given her avowed modernist style, it may be somewhat surprising that her next move was to start collecting and arranging folk songs at the Library of Congress as part of a New Deal arts program. During the next sixteen years, she composed almost nothing, tho the arrangements she did in this time are held in high regard. In 1952, she composed one last work in her uncompromising modernist voice, before her life was cut short by her untimely death from intestinal cancer the next year. It is that work that we feature today.

Even tho the suite for wind quintet is an intricately constructed atonal affair, its outlines are quite easy to follow, to the point of being catchy. Case in point, the ostinato that launches the first movement, presented jauntily at the outset by the bassoon. The melodies that begin to pile up in the other winds may at first seem random, but each of the other instruments only changes pitch to the note that's currently being played by the baseline. The music accelerates into a frenzied swirl, at the end of which the ostinato figure has migrated from the bassoon to the oboe and somehow managed to turn itself upside down. As other voices sneak in around this altered motive, the rest of the movement reveals itself as an extended fugue, where sinuous gestures abound. Towards the end, the bassoon gets ahold of the original ostinato again, grounding the movement until its final, sighing bar.

Rigid, impassive gestures announce the second movement, stern and severe. The music is still decidedly contrapuntal — as are most of Seeger's works — but here the densely intertwining lines seem more aware of each other's existence, even coming together for a strident climax in rhythmic unison before slinking back into shadowy silence. The finale is a rondo, one that takes a maddening corkscrew of a theme as its recurring theme. (Johann Straus's analysis of this movement (available in this partly redacted Google Book — not for the faint of heart!) finds that this theme has important musical connections to the theme in the last movement of her string quartet, suggesting a long continuity in her musical thought, despite her long silence.) The long central interlude, considerably slower in tempo, has the air of a diseased chorale, including pungent comments from the clarinet and horn. But, being a rondo, the breathless opening theme, still in octaves between bassoon and flute, returns twice more to lead the work inexorably forward to its impassioned conclusion.