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The Pioneering Modernist Who Wrote an Audacious String Quartet

Ruth Crawford Seeger, center, and her family in the 1940s. Credit via Peggy Seeger

“In Europe one can work!” the young composer Ruth Crawford declared with excitement. Traveling abroad on a Guggenheim fellowship — the first woman to receive one — she had arrived in Berlin in 1930 planning to write her first orchestral piece.

Though mostly oblivious to the political upheaval in Germany at the time, she paid close attention to the latest in European musical trends, if only to dismiss them. French Neo-Classicism was “sickeningly sweet inanity,” she wrote to her teacher and lover Charles Seeger back in New York. Although residing in the same city as Arnold Schoenberg, she avoided studying with the master of 12-tone composition.

“To work alone: I am convinced this is what I should do, to discover what I really want,” she decided.

But the intended symphony never appeared. “I began to write down all my fears and was rather appalled,” she wrote to Seeger a few months later. “Fear of having nothing to say musically, fear of not being able to say it, fear, fear, a whole web of it.”

A different sound emerged: “It insisted on becoming a string quartet.” With that new direction, she wrote, “the music came more easily, and after these six months of almost complete silence, it is such a relief.”

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Article by: William Robin

Source: The New York Times

Note: A version of this article appears in print on October 15, 2017, on Page AR10 of the New York edition with the headline: Unusual Life, Astonishing Music.