Ruth Crawford Seeger

Ruth Crawford Seeger

Ruth Crawford Seeger (July 3, 1901 – November 18, 1953), born Ruth Porter Crawford, was an American modernist composer active primarily during the 1920s and 1930s and an American folk music specialist from the late 1930s until her death. She was a prominent member of a group of American composers known as the "ultramoderns," and her music influenced later composers including Elliott Carter (Shreffler 1994).


Childhood and early education (1901–1921)

Ruth Crawford was born in East Liverpool, Ohio, the second child of Clark Crawford, a Methodist minister, and Clara Graves Crawford. The family moved several times during Crawford's childhood, living in Akron, Ohio, St. Louis, Missouri, and Muncie, Indiana. In 1912 the family moved to Jacksonville, Florida, where Clark Crawford died of tuberculosis two years later. After her husband's death Clara Crawford opened a boarding house and struggled to maintain her family's middle class lifestyle (Tick 1997, 8–11). Ruth began writing poetry at an early age and as a teenager had aspirations to become an "authoress or poetess" (Tick 1997, 12). She also studied the piano beginning at age six. In 1913 she began piano lessons with Bertha Foster, who had founded the School of Musical Art in Jacksonville in 1908. In 1917 Ruth began to study with Madame Valborg Collett, who was a student of Agathe Grøndahl and the most prestigious teacher at Foster's School of Musical Art (Tick 1997, 15–19). After her graduation from high school in 1918, Crawford began to pursue a career as a concert pianist, continuing her studies with Collett and performing at various musical events in Jacksonville. She also became a piano teacher at Foster's school and wrote her first compositions for her young pupils in 1918 and 1919 (Tick 1997, 22–23).

Chicago (1921–1929)

Crawford moved to Chicago in 1921 where she enrolled at the American Conservatory of Music, initially planning to stay for a single year, long enough to earn a teaching certificate. In Chicago she attended symphony and opera performances for the first time as well as recitals by eminent pianists including Sergei Rachmaninoff and Arthur Rubinstein (Tick 1997, 28–29). At the Conservatory, she studied piano with Heniot Levy and Louise Robyn. Crawford's focus at the Conservatory quickly shifted from piano performance to composition. During her second year there she began composition and theory studies with Adolf Weidig and wrote several early works, including a Nocturne for Violin and Piano (1923) and a set of theme and variations for piano (1923). Clara Crawford moved to Chicago to live with her daughter in 1923. The next year, Ruth received her bachelor's degree in music from the Conservatory and subsequently enrolled in the school's master's degree program (Tick 1997, 41–43).

While Crawford continued to study theory and composition with Weidig at the American Conservatory of Music through 1929, in 1924 she also began private piano lessons with Djane Lavoie Herz. Herz, one of the most prestigious piano teachers in Chicago at the time, had a profound impact on Crawford's intellectual and musical life. Herz sparked Crawford's interest in theosophy and the music of Alexander Scriabin, and introduced her pupil to an influential community of artists and thinkers. Through Herz, Crawford met Dane Rudhyar and Henry Cowell, composers who would both have a significant impact on Crawford's music and career (Tick 1997, 44–51). During this time, Crawford also met the leading Chicago poet Carl Sandburg whose writings she eventually set to music.

New York and Guggenheim Fellowship (1929–1936)

Crawford spent the summer of 1929 at the MacDowell Colony on a scholarship, where she began a friendship with fellow composer Marion Bauer and began work on her Five Songs set to poems by Sandburg (Tick 1997, 93–101). In the fall of that year, Crawford moved into the New York home of music patron Blanche Walton and began studying composition with Charles Seeger.

In 1930 she became the first woman to receive the Guggenheim Fellowship and went to Berlin and Paris (Hisama 2001, 3; Tick 2001). Despite being in the heart of German modernism, she chose to study and compose alone. Yet, through letters, Seeger’s ideas were crucial to the development of her style and selections. She and Charles Seeger married in 1932 after her subsequent trip to Paris. Notably, at the ISCM Festival in Amsterdam (1933) her Three Songs for voice, oboe, percussion and strings represented America (Tick 2001).

Washington, D.C. (1936–1953)

Crawford Seeger and her family, including Mike Seeger, Peggy Seeger, Barbara, Penny, and stepson Pete Seeger, moved to Washington, D.C., in 1936 after Charles’ appointment to the music division of the Resettlement Administration. While in Washington, D.C., Crawford Seeger worked closely with John and Alan Lomax at the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress to preserve and teach American folk music. Her arrangements and interpretations of American traditional folk songs are among the most respected. These include transcriptions for American Folk Songs for Children, Animal Folk Songs for Children (1950), American Folk Songs for Christmas (1953), Our Singing Country, and Folk Song USA by John and Alan Lomax. However, she is best known for Our Singing Country (1941). She also composed "Rissolty, Rossolty"–An American Fantasy for Orchestra based on folk tunes, for the CBS radio series The American School of the Air.

She briefly returned to her modernist roots in early 1952 with Suite for Wind Quintet (Tick 1997, 314–19). She died the following year, from intestinal cancer, in Chevy Chase, Maryland.


The compositions that Crawford Seeger wrote in Chicago from 1924-1929 reflect the influence of Alexander Scriabin, Dane Rudhyar, and her piano teacher Djane Herz. Judith Tick calls these years Crawford Seeger's "first distinctive style period" and writes that the composer's music during this time "might be termed 'post-tonal pluralism'" (Tick 1997, 65). Music from this first style period, including Five Preludes for Piano, Sonata for Violin and Piano, Suite No. 2 for Strings and Piano, and Five Songs on Sandburg Poems (1929), is marked by strident dissonance, irregular rhythms, and evocations of spirituality (Tick 1997, 65-84).

Crawford Seeger’s reputation as a composer chiefly rests on her New York compositions written between 1930 and 1933, which are concerned with dissonant counterpoint and American serial techniques. During this time period Crawford began to incorporate polytonality and tone clusters into her compositions (Salzman 2002, 140). She was one of the first composers to extend serial processes to musical elements other than pitch, and to develop formal plans based on serial operations (Tick 2001). Her technique may have been influenced by the music of Schoenberg, although they met only briefly during her studies in Germany. Many of her works from this period employ dissonant counterpoint, a theoretical compositional system developed by Charles Seeger and used by Henry Cowell, Johanna Beyer, and others. Seeger outlined his methodology for dissonant counterpoint in his treatise, "Tradition and Experiment in (the New) Music," which he wrote with the input and assistance of Crawford during the summer of 1930 (Seeger 1994, 42). Crawford Seeger’s contribution to the book was significant enough that the possibility of co-authorship was briefly raised (Tick 1997, 131–32).

String Quartet 1931, particularly the third movement, is Crawford Seeger's most famous and influential work. The composer described the "underlying plan" of the third movement as "a heterophony of dynamics—a sort of counterpoint of crescendi and diminuendi. […] The melodic line grows out of this continuous increase and decrease; it is given, one tone at a time, to different instruments, and each new melodic tone is brought in at the high point in a crescendo" (analysis by Ruth Crawford Seeger of the third and fourth movements of the String Quartet 1931, in Tick 1997, 357–58). The dynamic slides thus create the lengthy melody that spans the entire movement and shape the narrative arc.





Unknown date


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