Ruth Crawford Seeger (July 3, 1901 - November 18, 1953), born Ruth Porter Crawford, was a modernist composer and an American folk music specialist.
In the twenties and early thirties, Crawford Seeger wrote atonal works influenced by Alexander Scriabin. These works favored dissonance and post-tonal harmonies; they also utilized irregular rhythms and meters. Her technique may have been influenced by the music of Schoenberg, although they met only briefly during her studies in Germany. She was encouraged and guided by her teacher-then-husband Charles Seeger's dissonant counterpoint, as well—and also developed her own methods of composing.
Ruth Crawford was born in East Liverpool, Ohio, and began her music education at age 6 with her first piano lesson. Later she studied with her mother. She studied with Madame Valborg Collett later on, who was a student of Agathe Grøndahl. Later, she continued at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago with Heniot Levy and Louise Robyn. She learned composition from Adolf Weidig, whose instruction accelerated her skill. But her study under Djane Lavoie Herz, a disciple of Scriabin, was important for the social and intellectual world it opened for her. During this time, she met Cowell, Rudhya, and the leading Chicago poet Carl Sandburg whose writings she eventually set to music.
Later that year 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 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).
The 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 including transcriptions for: American Folk Songs for Children, Animal Folksongs for Children (1950) and American Folk Songs for Christmas (1953) Our Singing Country and Folk Song USA by John and Alan Lomax. However she is most well known for Our Singing Country (1941.) She also composed Rissolty Rossolty, an ‘American Fantasia for Orchestra’ based on folk tunes, for the CBS radio series American School of the Air.
She briefly returned to her modernist roots in early 1952 with Suite for Wind Quintet. She died the following year, from intestinal cancer, in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
Crawford began her career as an experimental composer, but the label only truly applies to her early works. Her work in traditional music preservation may have come from her interest in Eastern mysticism and the musical complexities of Native American music. Her conceptual palette was affected by American literary transcendentalism as well. As a composer, she may be thought of as the musical bridge between the modern and transcendental movements.
Crawford’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. She was one of the first composers to extend serialism to musical elements other than pitch, and to develop formal plans based on serial operations (Tick 2001).
- Piano Prelude'
Sonata for Violin and Piano, 1926
- Suite, 5 Wind Instrument, 1927, rev. 1929
- Suite No. 2, for Strings, 1929
Nine Preludes for Piano, 1928
Five Songs to Poems by Carl Sandburg, 1929 (Home Thoughts, White Moon, Joy, Loam, Sunsets)
A Piano Study in Mixed Accents, 1930
4 Diaphonic Suites, 1930
String Quartet, 1931
Rat Riddles, 1932
Two Ricercare (H.T. Tsiang): Sacco, Vanzetti - Chinaman, Laundryman, 1932
The Love at the Harp, 1932
Suite for Wind Quintet, 1952
- Adventures of Tom Thumb, 1925
- Music for Small Orchestra, 1926
- Kaleidoscopic Changes on an Original Theme Ending with a Fugue, 1924
- 5 Preludes, 1924–5
- 4 Preludes, 1927–8
- Study in Mixed Accents, 1930
- 3 Chants: no.1, To an Unkind God, no.2 To an Angel, no.3, female chorus, 1930
- Rissolty Rossolty, 1941
Gaume, Matilda (1986). Ruth Crawford Seeger: Memoirs, Memories, Music. Composers of North America, no. 3. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press.
Hisama, Ellie M. (2001). Gendering Musical Modernism: The Music of Ruth Crawford, Marion Bauer, and Miriam Gideon. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-64030-X.
Tick, Judith (1999). "Ruth Crawford Seeger: A Composer's Search for American Music". Ethnomusicology, Vol. 43, No. 1 (Winter), pp. 171–74.
Tick, Judith (2001). "Crawford (Seeger), Ruth (Porter)". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.
Vogel, Scott. (2001). "Composer Chose ‘Life’ over Work: Ruth Crawford-Seeger Never Revived Her Promising Musical Career". Honolulu Star-Bulletin (January 30).