The Contemporary Classical Music Weekly
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Ballet pour instrument mécaniques et percussion or, more simply,
Ballet Mécanique is one of those 20th century masterworks that is
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,
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.
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