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The Contemporary Classical Music Weekly
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Modern Masterworks

Ballet Mécanique
George Antheil
 

George Antheil's Ballet pour instrument mécaniques et percussion or, more simply, Ballet Mécanique is one of those 20th century masterworks that is famous for 
  being infamous.  Its reputation is based mainly on hearsay since until 1999 no one had ever heard the original version and few    people had heard Antheil's two major  revisions.  What is known is that the piece  caused rioting at its Paris premiere in 1924--a sure sign of success in those days--and was such a huge flop when it  came to New York in 1927 that Antheil's  career as a "serious" composer never recovered during his lifetime. 

  Ballet mécanique came to symbolize the excesses of modernism in the public imagination.  In fact, it was so modern that the original version was unplayable in Antheil's lifetime, calling for three xylophones, four bass drums, a tamtam (gong), two pianos, a siren, three airplane propellors, seven electric bells, and 16 synchronized player pianos.  The problem was that until the advent of MIDI and computerized music recording more than a half century later there was simply no way to synchronize 16 pianos.

  The piece was originally supposed to be a soundtrack to a film of the same name by the French Dadaist painter Fernand Léger, photographer Man Ray, and the American cinematographer Dudley Murphy but it didn't work.  Antheil and the filmmakers had worked separately from each other, and when they finally put the music and the film together, they found that  the music was twice as long as the film.  No matter, the piece had firmly established Antheil as the "bad boy of music."

 Antheil was born in Trenton, New Jersey in 1900 and like so many artists of his age, he began his professional career in Europe,   where he was friends with, among many others, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Ernest Hemingway, Eric Satie, and Igor Stravinsky. 

   In the early '20s, he lived at the literal center of English-language culture in Europe: above Sylvia Beach's legendary Shakespeare & Co. bookstore on the Rue de  l'Odéon, 
in Paris's Latin Quarter.  (Beach was the original publisher of Joyce's Ulysses.) 

 As a young composer, he considered himself  a revolutionary, and his early music was filled with unusual instruments and odd  sounds.  His mature work, much of which  has been resurrected and recorded by CPO  and Naxos over the past couple of years, is more conventionally late Romantic but distinctive and original.

 Antheil left Paris in the late '20s and went to Berlin, and then as German society began to  fall under the influence of the Nazis, returned permanently to America.  After a  period of struggle and odd jobs, he settled in  Hollywood, where he enjoyed successful career as a composer for film and television.  Antheil wrote over 300 musical works in all major genres, including  symphonies, chamber works, film music,  and operas. He died in 1959.

 The Naxos recording follows Antheilís 1953 revision of the Ballet, scored for glockenspiel, small aeroplane propeller, large aeroplane propeller, gong, cymbal, woodblock, triangle, snare drum, tambourine, small electric bell, large electric  bell, tenor drum, bass drum, two xylophones  and four pianos. --JB