"At thirteen, she wanted it all."
Some people grow up fast. They have an awareness of themselves that is more keen than normal at an early age. By the age of 13, Ruth Crawford Seeger already new herself, her desires for life, and many of her strengths and limitations. As her biographer, Judith Tick, put it, “a thirteen-year-old projected multiple citizenship: poetess, keyboard diva, singing mother. At thirteen, she wanted it all.” This maturity set Seeger off early on an independent path, both as a woman and a composer.
Though throughout her career Seeger is compared to Scriabin and later Schoenberg, she is constantly focused on finding her own styl and specifically avoiding imitation of other composers. Matilda Gaume, another biographer, surmises “It is a measure of her talent and her artistic integrity that she developed very early her own individual and personal approach to the world of sound which she would continue to perfect and to intensify.”
Even early in Seeger’s writing, we can see this process develop. Her first orchestral work, Suite for Small Orchestra (1926), uses direct dissonance, multiple strains of ostinato running simultaneously, and tone clusters, all common to Seeger’s sound. Later, from what is probably her most well known work, the 3rd movement Andante of her String Quartet (1931) stands out as a high mark among Seeger’s compositions. I list it here as Seeger states in the score the movement can be performed by full string orchestra. This of course increases the dynamic range and richness of sound. The movement expands from a single pitch, expanding outward by chromatic steps and dissonant jumps. As the tonality thickens, the dynamic level intensifies, sustaining in one long arc, and just as the basses enter, expanding the tonal range to its max, the tension overflows in a cascade of tonal clusters and dynamic swells, the pitch center eventually settles back at the bottom as the volume disappears to nothing, just as the piece began. Reviewing a performance of this piece as only he can, Virgil Thomson wrote that
[it] was striking for intensity and elevation. Consisting entirely of long notes closely juxtaposed in slowly changing chords of high dissonance content, the piece seemed scarcely to move at all. And yet it was to this listener and I am sure, many others thoroughly absorbing. It is in every was a distinguished, a noble piece of work. It is also a daring one and completely successful.
Once again, there is much more music by Seeger to be heard. I hope to give you a sense of her intensity and individual drive to find her particular sound, separate from all influence, and the courage to question if that is even possible. Similar to Amy Beach, Seeger met external social forces that likely limited her work. Her body of work significantly adds to the flavor and vast variety of American music. If there were any “rules” about women writing music, Seeger was then and always will be a welcome exception.