Ruth Crawford: An Interview with Dr. Nancy Yunhwa Rao
Video Credits: Chief WAM Researcher: Nathan Bishop; Producers: Nathan Bishop, Tracey Crystal Miller; Videography: Gregory Mueller; Video/audio editing: Arlyn Jimenez; Faculty advisor: Rebecca Cypess
Music credit: Excerpts from Ruth Crawford’s “String Quartet 1931,” courtesy of the Playground Ensemble.
The name of Ruth Crawford has long been associated with the revival of American folk music. This association stems in part both from her own work in this area from the late 1930s through the 1950s, but perhaps even more from her family connections: she was the wife of Charles Seeger and mother of folk legend Pete Seeger. As a result, her work as a classical composer has long been overshadowed. Even at the peak of her career as a practitioner of the American ultramodernist school, Ruth Crawford represented a paradox–a woman in a man’s world–and some critics felt the need to validate her writing by suggesting that it was more “masculine” than might be assumed. Her lasting influence on American composers such as John Cage and Elliott Carter is only now being recognized.
Dr. Nancy Rao, Professor of Music at Rutgers University, has worked and published extensively for years to understand Ruth Crawford’s place at the cutting edge of American classical music in the 20th century. Situating Crawford within the complex web of musical personalities around her–almost all of them men–Dr. Rao seeks to uncover how Crawford’s work resonated with her contemporaries and her successors, how they learned from her and paid tribute to her in their work.
July 3, 1901: Ruth Porter Crawford was born in East Liverpool, Ohio.
1921: Crawford enrolled as a pianist in the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, but her focus soon shifted to composition. She was heavily influenced by the American modernists whom she encountered in Chicago.
1929: She began composition lessons with Charles Seeger.
1930: Crawford was the first woman composer to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship, which enabled her to study in Paris and Berlin.
1931: Crawford composed her monumental first string quartet.
1932: Crawford and Seeger married.
1936: Charles Seeger began work for U. S. government agencies, preserving the American folk music tradition. Ruth Crawford worked extensively in the archives of the Library of Congress on the preservation and transcription of American folk music.
1952: Crawford returned briefly to modernist composition.
November 18, 1953: Ruth Crawford died in Washington, D.C.
Further Reading and Listening
Allen, Ray and Ellie M. Hisama, ed. Ruth Crawford Seeger’s Worlds: Tradition and Innovation in Twentieth-Century American Music. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2007.
Rao, Nancy Yunhwa. “Allegro scorrevole in Carter’s First String Quartet: Crawford and the Ultramodern Inheritance.” Music Theory Spectrum 36, no. 2 (2014): 181-202.
Seeger, Ruth Crawford. “The Music of American Folk Song” and Other Selected Writings on American Folk Music. Edited by Larry Polansky and Judith Tick. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2001.
Straus, Joseph N. The Music of Ruth Crawford Seeger. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Tick, Judith. Ruth Crawford Seeger: A Composer’s Search for American Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Transcript of the video:
Ruth Crawford, also known by her married name, Ruth Crawford Seeger, was among the foremost composers of art music in 20th-century America. As a composer and theorist, a proponent of the avant-garde “ultra-modern” style, and a transcriber and arranger of folk music, Crawford left an indelible mark on the American musical scene. Widely admired during her own lifetime, she nevertheless encountered challenges that stemmed from her status as a woman, and her place within the narrative of American musical development in the twentieth century has never been secure. She is often passed over in histories, her influence downplayed, and she is sometimes relegated to a place of secondary importance in relation to her husband, Charles Seeger, who was also her one-time composition teacher and collaborator, or in comparison to her musical children.
Dr. Nancy Rao:
In the 1930s, Ruth Crawford really was a very important person who had come across to many ultra-modernists as a really original composer, and her music was fabulous. But by the time that her music entered into music history, it became a little more difficult for people to place her. So oftentimes you hear her talked about as someone who writes serial music. And that’s actually a good thing and a bad thing. It’s a good thing because she became part of music history. But it’s a bad thing because, her method–if you analyze it through the methods of twelve-tone technique or serialism as developed by Milton Babbitt, it seems rudimentary. And that puts her music in a strange place. In fact her music developed a kind of serialism that’s really American. And that requires a different kind of understanding, and a different kind of framework to understand her music. So I think it is the first step to write her into our history. The next step is to try to adjust our categories and adjust our analytical approach to understand how best to understand her sound world. Because that was a new sound world that, even to this day, is new. Most importantly, for example, in the 1970s, when her music was really recorded in full length, it was hard for some of the composers, like James Tenney, to suddenly realize, that’s a part of America they didn’t know about. And they adopted her at that time, in the 1970s, as part of their lineage.
Born on July 3rd, 1901, Ruth Crawford began piano lessons at the age of 6, later pursuing her education as a concert pianist at the American Conservatory in Chicago. Although she continued playing after a muscular injury limited her technical endurance, she turned her aspirations to a career in composition. Heavily affected by her interaction with Henry Cowell, she soon joined the ranks of the “ultra-moderns.” In 1929, at Cowell’s suggestion, she began studying composition with Charles Seeger, though Seeger was at first reluctant to teach her. In an interview decades later, he recalled that he was working with “other women students at the time, and none was particularly interesting.” Yet the relationship with Crawford proved fruitful, as the two worked together on a treatise, later published under Seeger’s name alone, entitled Tradition and Experiment in (the New) Music. The ultramodern school, with which both Crawford and Seeger were associated, used so-called “serialist” techniques, in which sound was not organized according to traditional tonal harmony, but rather by other factors and procedures. Their music was avant-garde, as they and other (predominantly male colleagues) sought to forge a new path in American composition.
Dr. Nancy Rao:
She was educated in Chicago and had this really great sense of dissonance, which was really ultra modern for composers of the time. But what’s interesting is that she got the opportunity to study with Charles Seeger, who wrote a very big manifesto about counterpoint–dissonant counterpoint–and after that she became this composer who had several compositions that were really renowned. So a very typical narrative about Ruth Crawford is that she learned from Charles Seeger, and then applied Charles Seeger’s composition technique in her compositions. And I have actually studied the class notes, or lesson notes, that Ruth Crawford had with Charles Seeger, and in my study I realized that particular narrative about her applying Charles Seeger’s method is actually incorrect, because Charles Seger’s concept of dissonant counterpoint was different at the start of her studying with him. And by the time they worked for a year or so, the manuscript for Dissonant Counterpoint was completed, and by that time it had already had a lot of different changes and a different focus in terms of how one goes about with this technique. And so I attribute that to the imagination that Ruth Crawford had as a composer, and I actually think Charles Seeger was rendering into words what Ruth Crawford was rendering into notes in her compositions.
1930s was the time that her modern music–her writing, especially the Andante of the string quartet–just blew everybody’s mind. And when music like that, which used dynamics, rather than pitch structure, to orient how we listen to the sound, the sonority–a new way of expressing oneself–it didn’t go away. It became part of the contemporary music sound world. And many people like Henry Cowell, Elliott Carter, John Cage, all were part of the crowd that was exposed to that kind of imagination. So, even though her music was not heard literally in concert, her ideas were carried by various composers who later became very successful and influential. I think that’s the reason why, even in this kind of rupture of her presence in the 1940s and 50s in the composition world, she maintained a kind of significance. And that’s why, in the 1970s, when people rediscovered her, they started to connect the dots, and realize that her sound, her sonority in the 1930s was so influential for so many people.
In 1931-1932 Ruth Crawford held a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship–the first woman composer to have that honor. She and Seeger were married in 1932. By 1933 she was a new mother, and at the same time she stopped composing her ultramodern music. In 1935 she began work at the Archive of American Folksong, and she devoted most of the rest of her career to transcribing, preserving, and writing about American folk music. Her treatise on the subject, “The Music of American Folk Song” and Selected Other Writings on American Folk Music, was not published until 2001.
Dr. Nancy Rao:
Charles Seeger got an appointment in the Library of Congress and became this folk music expert. And she went with it too. And also at that time, there was this sense of responsibility from these composers, whereby they felt that elite music (which they thought modern music was) should not be given full attention; they should write music for the people. So there’s that sense of social responsibility that made them feel that art music, concert music, should not just exist on its own. So this whole idea of moving into the people–the folk–became a very practical thing, and also ideologically sound. So I think as an original, Ruth Crawford just plunged into the collecting of folk music. And she would transcribe music in such a way that it’s almost impossible to perform from it, because all the detail, the grace notes, the delay, and all that stuff, is all in her transcription. And she had very sensitive ears, so she asked the really great folk musicians to come back and sing. So she really valued that and really threw herself into it, and even tried to make it into a children’s songbook, so that it could really be disseminated and enjoyed by people.
Ruth Crawford attempted to return to the composition of art music in the last years of the 1940s, and her 1952 Suite for Wind Quintet garner ed attention and another prestigious award. This was Crawford’s last work, however, as she died in 1953, at just 52 years old.
Dr. Nancy Rao:
People who study Charles Seeger respect him as a founder of ethnomusicology. And I think he did a lot of important work during that time. And to this day, people have high respect for the body of work that he created at that time. But people who study Ruth Crawford all felt that Ruth Crawford was a victim of her time, in the sense that she was a very lonely composer among all the male composers. She had a few people who she was really able to connect with that were women. Marion Bauer was one of them, who introduced her to the world of modern music when Ruth Crawford first arrived in New York. And there’s Vivian Fine, who was a student who studied with Ruth Crawford. So these are the little group of women that she could feel free to engage fully without this kind of patriarchal hierarchy in the modern music world. And I always like the story that Morton Feldman recounted in one instance, that Ruth Crawford was the only woman in a social gathering of modern composers, and for Morton Feldman to feel that he wanted to be this alternative to this patriarchal world, his way was to sit down and talk to Ruth Crawford.
She was also singled out by some people as someone who composed in a masculine style. And that unfortunately became this double-edged sword, where she was being discriminated against because she was a woman, but then she was double-discriminated against because didn’t compose like a woman.
As a young woman, in 1927, Ruth Crawford had reflected privately on the status of women, angrily noting that “beastly men, not satisfied with their own freedom, encroach on that of women, and procure in them a kind of necessitous fear which binds them about.” While Crawford rarely spoke about her status as a woman in the predominantly male field of composition, there can be little doubt that the multiple roles that she played–performer, student, composer, wife, mother, teacher, scholar, and author–both competed with one another and enriched her complex perspectives and her artistry.
Dr. Nancy Rao:
To study women composers’ work is very important for all of us, and it’s partly because–for a lot of students today, they ask why? Why do we need to study women’s work? So there’s this sense that, if you have not heard of a composer, they must not be good. But I think if everyone makes an effort to study women composers and tries to make space for women composers, we may end up with a view about history that’s different from the dominant one. And I think the worst question people can ask is “How is a woman’s composition different from a man’s?” That’s such a wrong-headed question that will not have a good answer. Because the point is not that women’s composition is different from men’s; it’s that women’s composition was just not talked about. They weren’t given an opportunity to fully explore their potential. So if we continue to think that this two-gender divide is something that we need to keep, then there’s no way for us to really be able to have a more inclusive kind of music history. So I would say, be daring, and allow the composer’s work to call forward analytical categories; and stylistic categories are things that we can change because we study women’s compositions.