George Carl Johann Antheil was born on 8 July 1900 in Trenton, New Jersey, the son of William and Wihelmine Antheil, owners of a small shoe store. Antheil began his composition studies at the age of sixteen with Constain von Sternberg, a pupil of Liszt, and later with...
George Carl Johann Antheil was born on 8 July 1900 in Trenton, New Jersey, the son of William and Wihelmine Antheil, owners of a small shoe store. Antheil began his composition studies at the age of sixteen with Constain von Sternberg, a pupil of Liszt, and later with Ernest Bloch. Studies with Bloch ended prematurely in 1921 when a lack of money sent young Antheil to Philadelphia in search of a patron. He was directed to Mrs Edward Bok, who in 1924 would found the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Having found a patron, he began to formulate his plan to tour Europe as a concert pianist and composer.
In 1923, Antheil moved to Paris where he entered into the center of the artistic avant-garde. James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, Man Ray, Léger, Satie, Picasso and many others were to become his friends and colleagues. On 4 October 1934 Antheil made his public début in Paris, at the Champs Elysées Theatre, and as a result of the ensuing riot, achieved his goal and was solidly established as the enfant terrible du jour.
In 1926, Antheil premièred the work that was to become the zenith and nadir of his career, Ballet Mécanique. Notorious for its orchestra of pianos, percussion, electric buzzers and airplane propellers, with Ballet he had reached the end of an important period in his musical development. The Piano Concerto of 1926 was one of his first large-scale essays in his new neo-classic style and when given its first performance in Paris in 1927 it signaled the halt of Antheils popularity. Later that same year, the disastrous American première of Ballet Mécanique left him financially and emotionally bankrupt. The deliberately sensationalist and provocative promotion that preceded the concert alienated his audience and marred his reputation in America well into the 1940s.
Antheil returned briefly to Europe, where he began work on his opera, Transatlantic. Despite an enthusiastic reception at the operas première in Frankfurt in 1930, the worldwide economic collapse forced him to return to the States, where he found a new populist impulse had taken root with composers, painters, writers and film-makers endeavouring to reach a wider public. Antheil resonated with the new movement and became involved in the musical-theatre and film music communities in New York.
The 1930s was a difficult period for Antheil, who sought employment as a lonely-hearts columnist, a contributor to Esquire magazine, an author of several articles on endocrinology and later as a war correspondent. He would later write: here in early 1941, I could at last label myself a complete failure.
Following a move to Hollywood, Antheil experienced a musical re-birth, resulting in the composition of his Symphony No. 4(1942), inspired by his work as a war correspondent. By 1946, he had reconciled his work as a film composer with his composition of serious music and completed The Plainsman and the Lady (1946), Spectre of the Rose (1946), Sonatina for Violin and Piano (1945), Violin concerto (1946), Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6 (both 1947-48), McKonkeys Ferry (1948), Violin Sonata No. 4 (1948), Piano Sonatas Nos. 3 and 4 (1947 and 1948, respectively), The Fighting Kentuckian (1949), Knock On Any Door (1949), and Tom Sawyer (1949). Stokowskis successful premiére of Antheils Symphony No. 4 on 13 February 1944 helped to re-establish him as an important artistic voice and the MCA Artist survey for 1947 listed him as one of the most performed American composers.
The last decade of Antheils life was busy and reasonably successful. A steady flow of film and television scores was accompanied by a renewed interest in musical-theatre. His four late operas, Volpone (1949-1952), The Brothers, Venus in Africa and The Wish (all 1954) succeeded in synthesizing artistic discipline with a popular tunefulness, but despite enthusiastic reviews have failed to find a place in the standard repertoire.
Antheil died in New York City on 12 February 1959 of a heart attack.