Special Collections

Henry Cowell Collection

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Henry Cowell (1897-1965)

Many facets of Cowell's remarkable personality resulted from the unusual circumstances of his upbringing. His father, Image of young Henry Cowell in a suit leaning over a machine, possibly an early theremin.upper-class Irish immigrant Harry Cowell, drifted to California after the failure of an orchard in British Columbia, given to him by his own father, the Dean of Kildare Cathedral. There he married Clarissa Dixon, who had fled to the West Coast from her Midwestern farming family. The couple have been characterized as philosophical anarchists: both were writers, and neither believed in conventional schooling. Their home was a cottage in a rural area southeast of San Francisco; Henry Cowell was born there, and it remained his principal base until 1936.

After showing early musical talent, from the age of five Cowell received violin lessons, with the idea that he might become a prodigy. The pressure proved too great however, and with the onset of juvenile chorea, the lessons stopped after three years. His parents divorced in 1903, and following the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, he and his mother lived (mainly with relatives) in Iowa, New York and eventually Kansas, where he had access to a piano. Three decades later, he recalled this period in the Old American Country Set (1939). By the time of their return to Menlo Park, probably in 1910, Clarissa Cowell was ill with cancer. After her son had been bullied at school in third grade (during his sole, brief period of public education) she had chosen to teach him at home; now he became their main wage-earner, working variously as a janitor, cowherd and wildflower collector. Concurrently, the dishevelled boy came to the attention of Stanford University psychologist Lewis Terman, who was amazed by his breadth of knowledge, conversational abilities, poor arithmetic and wretched spelling. Terman noted that, 'Although the IQ [of 131] is satisfactory, it is matched by scores of others. . . but there is only one Henry.'

Around 1912, Cowell somehow saved $60 and bought a second-hand piano. He had been composing spasmodically since 1907, but from 1913 onwards (when he started keeping a list of his pieces) he experienced a major creative spurt. In order that his blossoming talents be properly nurtured, a fund was organized in 1914 by Samuel S. Seward, a Stanford English professor. The fund, whose contributors included Terman and Jaime de Angulo, supported Cowell until the mid-1920s and helped with his mother's medical expenses, prior to her death in May 1916. Cowell's formal début as a composer-pianist took place on 5 March 1914, in a concert promoted by the San Francisco Musical Club; included in the programme was Adventures in Harmony(1913). Perhaps in response to press notices one suggested that he needs a thorough schooling. Harry Cowell took his son to the University of California, Berkeley in the fall of 1914. Tuition in harmony and counterpoint was arranged with E.G. Stricklen and Wallace Sabin, while weekly discussions on contemporary music were held with Charles Seeger, who recognized in Cowell the first brilliant talent of my teaching experience. A remarkable exchange of ideas ensued (though in later years Seeger felt his contributions went unacknowledged by Cowell). The products of this association included the rhythm-harmony quartets (1917-19) and the first draft of New Musical Resources (written with the literary assistance of Seward, and published, after much revision, in New York in 1930). The wealth of possibilities contained in this self-styled theory of musical relativity has influenced several generations of radical composers, in both America and Europe.

Apart from a brief sojourn in New York in late 1916, during which he studied at the Institute of Musical Art and met Leo Ornstein, Cowell remained on the West Coast until 1918. A second important influence there, after Seeger, was John O. Varian, a Theosophist poet and mystic, who in some ways became a surrogate parent to Cowell, especially after Clarissa's death. A regular visitor to the Theosophist community at Halcyon, near Pismo Beach on the Pacific coast, Cowell set several of Varian's texts (the earliest is The Preludec1914), wrote a number of piano pieces influenced by his tales of Irish mythology, and provided music for his mythological opera The Building of Bamba (1917), whose introductory number is 'The Tides of Manaunaun.'

After 15 months in the army (1918-19), an experience that triggered his interest in wind band music, Cowell began his career as a crusader for ultra-Modernism. Performing his own piano works, he undertook five European tours (1923, 1926, 1929, 1931, 1932); he also visited Cuba (1930), gave frequent American performances (formal New York début at Carnegie Hall, 4 Feb 1924), and was the first American composer invited to the USSR (May 1929). His tone clusters and direct manipulation of the piano's strings scandalized audiences, established him as an international figure of notoriety, and generated terrific publicity ('Cowell displays new method of attacking piano', as the New York Tribune put it in 1924). But European Modernists, including Bartòk and Schoenberg, took him more seriously: the former, around 1923, asked Cowell's permission to use clusters, while the latter invited him to perform for his Berlin composition class in 1932. Dynamic Motion (1916) was probably among the pieces Cowell played.

Cowell's efforts on behalf of other contemporary composers were many: he founded the New Music Society of California in 1925, and controlled the Pan American Association of Composers for much of its existence (1928-34). Through these and other organizations, he helped to promote concerts throughout America and Europe. In 1927, he founded the quarterly score publication New Music, which later expanded with an orchestra series, various special editions and a record label. Among the numerous composers to benefit from his activities were John J. Becker, Carlos Chàvez, Ruth Crawford, Wallingford Riegger, Carl Ruggles, Varèse and particularly Ives, who (anonymously) financed both New Music and many of the concerts. Partly to bolster his promotional and publishing efforts, Cowell wrote a stream of articles, gave countless interviews and edited the symposium American Composers on American Music (Stanford, CA, 1933). He also taught, both publicly (for instance at New York's New School for Social Research) and privately: his students during this period included Cage, Lou Harrison and Gershwin.

In apparent contradiction to his ultra-Modernism, Cowell was interested in world musics. As a child, he had been exposed less to Western art music than to Appalachian, Irish, Chinese, Japanese and Tahitian music. Subsequently he became acquainted with Indian music, and from the late 1920s regularly taught courses, in New York and elsewhere, on Music of the World's Peoples. In 1931 he was awarded a Guggenheim Foundation grant to study comparative musicology with Erich von Hornbostel in Berlin; he also studied gamelan with Raden Mas Jodjhana and Ramaleislan, and Carnatic theory with P. Sambamoorthy. His 1933 article Towards Neo-Primitivism proved a turning-point in his career: as Ostinato Pianissimo(1934) and the String Quartet no.4 United (1936) show, he increasingly followed his own advice in drawing on those materials common to the music of the peoples of the world, [in order] to build a new music particularly related to our own century.

Despite his many professional successes, Cowell's private life was consistently unsatisfactory. A bisexual, he had twice been involved in serious (though tragic) relationships with women: Edna Smith was killed in a car accident in 1922, and Elsa Schmolke was unable to leave Hitler's Germany. He had also had relationships with men, including one at Halcyon in 1922; in May 1936, he was arrested at his Menlo Park home on a morals charge and spent the next four years in San Quentin Penitentiary, where he taught, composed, wrote two unpublished textbooks (The Nature of Melody and Rhythm) and rehearsed the prison band. In 1940, after a vigorous campaign led by his step-mother Olive Cowell and the folk-music scholar Sidney Hawkins Robertson, he was released on parole. After moving to White Plains, New York, as Percy Grainger's assistant, in September 1941 he married Robertson, who for the next 25 years provided the emotional security he had previously lacked. At the end of 1942 he was pardoned by California governor Cuthbert Olson, primarily to allow his promotion to Senior Music Editor within the overseas branch of the US Office of War Information.

Although now based on the East Coast, Cowell was able to pick up many of the threads of his earlier life. Having relinquished control of New Music in 1936, he edited it again for four years (1941-5). Teaching and related activities at the New School for Social Research (1941-63) were supplemented by positions at Columbia University (1949-65) and the Peabody Conservatory (1951-6), and by many guest lectureships; among his postwar pupils were Dick Higgins, Philip Corner and Burt Bacharach. A fresh stream of articles, many of them reviews (an indeterminate number of which were co- or ghost-written by his wife), appeared under Cowell's name. In 1955, the couple published Charles Ives and His Music (New York, 1955, rev. 3/1983) a classic study of a composer Cowell had championed for nearly 30 years. After the 1940s, Cowell's appearances as a concert pianist were increasingly rare, but in 1963 he recorded 20 of his piano works for Folkways Records. Although somewhat shunned by establishment performance bodies (who were perhaps flummoxed by the increasing eclecticism of his music) Cowell was lauded in other ways: he was the recipient of several honorary doctorates, was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1951, vice-president 1962), was president of the ACA (1951-5), and was awarded the Henry Hadley Medal by the National Association of American Composers and Conductors (1962).

Plagued by ill-health for much of his last decade, Cowell nevertheless pursued a punishing schedule. Nine of the 20 completed symphonies date from this period, as do nearly 150 other works, many of them substantial. The Cowells undertook a world tour in 1956-7, sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation and the US State Department, which included lengthy stays in Iran, India and Japan; among the palpable results were thePersian Set (1957), Symphony no.13 Madras (1956-8) andOngaku (1957). In 1961, Cowell returned to Iran and Japan as President John F. Kennedy's representative at the International Music Conference in Teheran, and the East-West Music Encounter in Tokyo. After his death in 1965, there was an increasing realization of his importance not only as a Modernist maverick, but also as a postmodern prophet. The centenary of his birth was celebrated at several major events, including a festival and conference in New York, and on 16 March 1997, Kofi Annan, secretary-general of the United Nations, paid tribute in a special address to his contributions to intercultural music.

David Nicholls: 'Cowell, Henry', The New Grove Dictionary of Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 5 September 2002), http://www.grovemusic.com.

Images Courtesy of Theremin.info
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