George Carl Johann Antheil (June 8, 1900, Trenton, New Jersey – 12 February 1959, New York City) was an American avant-garde composer and pianist.
Antheil grew up in a family of Lutheran immigrants from Ludwigswinkel, Germany. Antheil was not Polish, as he claimed, nor Jewish, as others thought. His father owned a local shoe store.
Starting in 1916, Antheil studied piano under Constantine von Sternberg of Philadelphia and then Ernest Bloch of New York. Here, Antheil received formal instruction in composition. In 1922, Antheil was invited by agent Martin H. Hanson to replace the injured Leo Ornstein, playing Chopin on a European tour.
Reactions to his first performances were cool at best; His technique was loud, brazen, and percussive. Critics wrote that he hit the piano rather than played it, and indeed he often injured himself by doing so. Audiences in Budapest got so restless sometimes that Antheil would pull a pistol from his jacket and lay it on the piano to make people pay attention.
Around this time, von Sternberg introduced the young Antheil to his patron of the next two decades: Mary Louise Curtis Bok, founder of the Curtis Institute of Music. As critical as she was to his livelihood however, Antheil never acknowledges her in his autobiography. He briefly alludes to her, saying how unfortunate it was that a musician’s art should be interrupted by a constant need to ask for financial support.
By 1923, Antheil had married Böski Markus (of Jewish Hungarian descent, met in Austria) and moved to Paris. There, he found many influential friends, including his idol Igor Stravinsky, James Joyce, and Ernest Hemingway, among others. These young artists would attend Antheil’s performances and yell support if the crowd was rude. In fact, the director Marcel L'Herbier filmed one incident in Paris, when Man Ray supposedly slapped a protester. The clip was taken for the movie, L'inhumaine. Friends like Ezra Pound and Natalie Barney helped produce some original works, including the First String Quartet in 1926. Pound’s mistress, Olga Rudge, performed Antheil’s violin sonatas.
Antheil’s best-known composition is Ballet Mécanique (1924). The “ballet” was about 30 minutes long, originally conceived as the musical accompaniment to the film of the same name by Dudley Murphy and Fernand Léger. Eventually the film makers and composers chose to let their creations evolve separately, although the film credits still included Antheil. Nevertheless, Ballet Mécanique premiered as concert music in Paris in 1926. The onstage airplane propeller blew off toupees and hats, which caused some scuffles, but critics produced positive reviews anyway. Antheil became known as the “bad boy of music.”
Antheil took Ballet Mécanique to Carnegie Hall in New York the following year. The Americans seemed less enthusiastic: they expressed mild amusement, but they would not accept Antheil as a “serious” composer. Antheil remained in France as a Guggenheim scholar for a few more years, during which time he wrote his opera Transatlantic, but the Depression brought him back to the US in 1932. He went to Hollywood in 1936 and became an established film composer. He led a relatively tame career after that.
It is likely that Anthiel's most frequently heard composition was the theme he wrote for the 1957-1970 CBS television program The Twentieth Century, which was narrated by Walter Cronkite. The theme was heard in many American homes every Sunday night for 13 years at the opening and closing of the program.
Antheil composed until he died of a heart attack in New York. His legacy included two accomplished students, Henry Brant and Benjamin Lees. His children were Peter and an illegitimate son, Chris Beaumont.
Large collections of Antheil works exist at the Music Division of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, Princeton University, Columbia University, UCLA, and Stanford University.
Death In the Dark, a crime novel edited and published by T. S. Eliot (1930)
Everyman His Own Detective: A Study of Glandular Criminology, New York City: Stackpole Sons (1937)
"The Shape of the War to Come", a pamphlet (1940)
Bad Boy of Music, Garden City, New York: Doubleday (1945; various reprints and languages)
The Buccaneer (1938)
The Spectre of the Rose (1946)
In A Lonely Place (1951)
The Juggler (1953)
Dementia / Daughter of Horror (1953)
The Werewolf (1956) (uncredited)
The Pride and the Passion (1957)
20 Million Miles to Earth (1957) (uncredited)
The Young Don't Cry (1957)
The Twentieth Century (1959; opening and closing credits of the television series)
Transatlantic (aka The People's Choice) (1930)
Helen Retires (1930-31)
Volpone — A Satire in Music (1949-52)
The Wish (1954)
The Brothers (1954)
Venus in Africa (1954)
Ballet mécanique (1924 original, 1953 reduction)
Airplane Sonata (1923)
Sonate Sauvage (1923)
Woman Sonata (1923)
La Femme 100 Têtes (1930s)
Collected Violin Sonatas (1923, 1940s)
6 symphonies (actually 8, due to 2 being unnumbered; there are two versions called 5)
Operas (particularly Transatlantic, the most successful and daring)
Varied Choral and Orchestral Works