Newsletter Archives

January 2002 - Return of the Bad Boy

George Anteil left New Jersey for Europe in 1922. In his autobiography Bad Boy of Music (Hollywood: Samuel French Trade, 1990) he states that he left "to find a girl by the name of Anne Williams". He had fallen in love with her, but their plans to marry were thwarted by her mother. The mother "made inquiries about [Anteil]", then whisked the daughter away, "to either Italy or Germany, probably the latter". Anteil determined that the best way to find the young woman was to "go to Europe as a concert pianist...It would enable [him] to travel all over Europe, [to] investigate every probable hideaway".

Had Mrs. Williams' inquiries turned up information that Anteil was unsuitable for her daughter? It would seem so. In any event, the incorrigible Anteil soon forgot about Anne Williams and began writing radical musical compositions as well as performing them. By the time he returned to the United States in 1927 to perform at Carnegie Hall, he was widely known as the "Bad Boy of Music".

One only has to listen to the University of Massachusetts Lowell Percussion Ensemble's recording of Anteil's 1924 version of "Ballet Mécanique" to appreciate this notoriety. While listening to it one cannot help but ask, "Is this the music of a madman? Or of an impudent boy pounding on the piano?"

The music is foreboding and must certainly make listeners feel ill at ease. Indeed, his piano performances of "Mechanisms", "Airplane Sonata" and "Sonata Sauvage" on October 4, 1923 at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées caused a riot. In Paris, this was the best thing that a new composer could hope for. In his autobiography he said of the concert, "I remember Man Ray [an American photographer living in Paris] punching somebody in the nose in the front row. Marcel Duchamp [a French painter] was arguing loudly with somebody else in the second row…In the gallery the police came in and arrested the surrealists [a rowdy bunch of artists and writers] who, liking the music, were punching everybody who objected".

Antheil composed "Ballet Mécanique" to accompany a motion picture of the same name produced by American cinematographer Dudley Murphy in collaboration with French painter Fernand Léger and the photographer Man Ray. Perhaps because of lack of unity among the parties, the film had its premier in Vienna in 1924 without the musical accompaniment. Recently, programmer and producer Paul Lehrman coded the music of the Lowell performance using a MIDI- and audio-sequencing program, joining it to the film. The film with the sound track will be shown in some two dozen museums around the world between now and 2005. In France, it is scheduled to be shown in 2004 at the Georges Pompidou center in Paris and at the American Museum in Giverny.

Thus, the music of the "bad boy" will return to Paris, some 75 years after Anteil left the city to perform at Carnegie Hall. May his music "rock the house" again!

For more information about the life and works of George Anteil, click here. Music aficionados who wish to know more about this American composer who "had Paris by the ear" may also consult his autobiography, still in print.

Paris Panorama Newsletters for 2002