Ruth Crawford Seeger: A Composer's Search for American Music, by Judith Tick

October 1, 1998

Ruth Crawford SeegerRuth Crawford Seeger: A Composer's Search for American Music, by Judith Tick. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. xiv + 457 pp. ISBN 0195065093.


This fine biography by Judith Tick might well be entitled The Several Lives of Ruth Crawford Seeger, for in it Tick has deftly and beautifully unraveled the multiple strands of the achievements of this very gifted and complex woman who was not only composer, arranger, editor, and compiler of music, but was also a dedicated wife, mother, and teacher. Such simple enumeration of Crawford's activities may seem to suggest an answer to the oft-repeated question of why so gifted a composer wrote so little and has been so neglected until recently. The solution is much more complex.

With admirable clarity and sensitivity Tick leads the reader to explore the tensions and conflicts in Crawford's life that provide some answer to these questions. The daughter of a born-again Methodist minister and a mother of staunch New England upbringing, Ruth grew up feeling displaced in her environment, as she was drawn more and more to the very secular activity of performing at the piano. Despite her seeming rebellion against the rather puritanical constraints of her early life, she would, even later on, question her capacity to love and be loved, and experience painful anxiety over the dichotomy between womanly dedication to marriage and motherhood and a career as composer.

In the 1920s when she set out for Chicago to study music, the question of whether a woman could be both a composer and a mother was far more troubling than now. In 1929 Crawford moved to New York where she met, studied with, and fell in love with Charles Seeger, renowned musicologist, composer, critic and conductor. The aristocratic, Harvard-educated Seeger was fifteen years older than Ruth and their relationship vacillated between a hierarchical kind of teacher/pupil, father/daughter, association and that of lovers. Even before their marriage Ruth began working for him, throwing herself ever more fully into his projects, especially the collecting and editing of folk music. In the many compilations of song that she produced over the years, she consistently demonstrated the same careful attention to detail in the editing of folk music that marked her perfectionistic approach to composition. Tick characterizes Crawford as a straddler of two worlds, dancing around the edge of this dichotomy, behaving as if love and work were rivals rather than twins . . . . The struggle to balance marriage and motherhood with her work as composer, along with the increasing need to assume more financial responsibility for the family, ultimately resulted in the neglect of her own career.

In 1935 the Seegers moved to Washington, D.C., where Charles in time became director of the Federal Music Project of the Works Progress Administration. His activity increasingly took him outside the home, while Ruth became very active in early childhood education and also attracted a large number of piano students to her studio. Though restless over her neglected career, she loved her husband deeply. It is only fair to say that Seeger indeed loved her too—in his own way—though Blanche Walton once described him as a most hopelessly selfish man. But make no mistake, this is not a bleeding heart chronicle of a sacrificial victim, defeated by the public's failure to understand her music, or even by the apparent unwillingness of her husband to acknowledge her contributions to his work in the form of joint publication. The same determination that drove her as a young woman composer to compete in a very male-dominated arena saw her through the fluctuating fortunes of her personal life.

While examining Crawford's music, Tick never loses sight of the bigger picture, and as any good biographer should, she manages to weave the extraordinary interplay of ideas and personalities that recreates the world in which her subject lived and worked. As Crawford's major compositions are examined in context, so too are the influences of her human relationships, the most significant of which was, of course, that with her patrician husband. Other friendships of real consequence, personally and professionally, were with Carl Sandburg, John and Alan Lomax, Marion Bauer, and Blanche Walton.

Most of Crawford's compositions come from her earlier life and only recently have begun to receive the recognition they deserve in the canon of twentieth-century American music. Her works, often described as abstruse and cerebral, are models of clarity and organization, sometimes using such devices as sprechstimme, tone clusters, and her own unique system of serialization. These techniques, along with her avowed pursuit of dissonant counterpoint—as encouraged by Charles Seeger—have placed her alongside such innovative American composers as Henry Cowell and Carl Ruggles, whose remarkable achievements presaged developments that only years later would become current. Sadly, it was only near the end of her life, when her energies were drained by her battle with cancer, that Crawford was able to return to composition.

This is a meticulously researched and beautifully written book, full of the sort of telling details that enliven our perception of the person Crawford. It is a work of exemplary scholarship built solidly upon the careful study of diaries and letters, and supplemented by interviews with people who actually knew Crawford. Tick's book provides a sensitive, complete, and often subtle portrait of her subject and the world in which she functioned, and should go a long way toward elevating Ruth Crawford Seeger to her rightful place among the truly significant American talents in our century.

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