The Seegers AGAIN and the Challenges of being a 20th Century Modernist

05 Ruth mit Carl Sandburg

Ruth Crawford Seeger with Carl Sandburg, from

Having enrolled in a graduate seminar about 20th century Mexican music, I had no idea I would be seeing so much of the Seegers. I started the journey with a blog about the relationship of the Seeger family to 20th century developments in the fields of musicology and ethnomusicology. Now, in investigating the modernist avant-garde circle of composers that included Carlos Chavez and Silvestre Revueltas, I have rounded a corner and run smack into them again.

It turns out that Henry Cowell, one of the founding members of the Pan-American Composer’s Association, was a protégé of Charles Seeger back in 1914. Later, he would convince Charles Seeger to take on  another member of the Pan-American Composer’s Association, a young woman composer named Ruth Crawford, as a student. Charles Seeger and Ruth Crawford would eventually marry, and Ruth would become stepmother to Charles John and Pete and and give birth to Peggy, Penny, Barbara and Mike.

Henry, Ruth, Silvestre and Carlos,  along with Edgar Varese, Carl Ruggles, Charles Ives, Howard Hansen, William Grant Still among others, banded together to from the PAAC to promote their own works and the works of other twentieth-century composers on the American continent. The world had changed dramatically for composers during the political upheaval of the late 19th and early 20th century. The world of aristocratic patrons and court composers was long gone, in some cases replaced by government support and sponsorship. For composers who did not have or did not want this kind of sponsorship, funding and promoting their music was clearly a challenge.

The composers of the PAAC dealt with the challenge creatively and effectively for a time, in a way that was mutually beneficial, but even the most creative concert promoter still needs funding. Surprisingly, in this case one of the main providers was a composer himself: Charles Ives. 20th century music was a hard-sell, especially in the early 20th century. PAAC’s first New York concert was largely ignored by critics. Taking their music to Paris in 1931, the PAAC composers were called “radicals” and “wild-eyed anarchists” by a writer for the Boston Globe, who suggested that it would have been better off to stick with Loeffler , Hill, Deems-Taylor or Foote, composers who were still writing in the romantic and impressionist tradition.

Listening to some of the works perfomed in those first PAAC concerts, it is funny to think of them as radical and anarchic. Looking from the other end of a century that saw John Cage who expanded the definition of music to include any sound source,  and Easley Blackwood  who made up new scales with different divisions of the octave (13 instead of 12, for instance), they really don’t seem all that radical.  Alejandro Caturla’s Dos Danzas Cubanas are not particularly dissonant, though occasional jarring harmonies are used for accent. There are strong rhythms and syncopations, and the rhythms and tonal colors seem influenced by Cuban popular music and Afro-Cuban music. Rhythmic drive propels the music forward and dynamic contrasts and textural changes mark the different sections. Use of heavy drums at one point suggests a primitivistic style, but this device is only used in one section. Carlos Chavez’s Sonatina for piano also sounds quite pan diatonic; while there is dissonance it is mostly within a key and not at all jarring, what I would call “light” dissonance. Heitor Villa-Lobos’ O Ginete do pierrozhino has a great deal of rhythmic excitement, pan-diatonic dissonance, dynamic and tempo contrasts.

The composers of PAAC were drawn together by a modernist perspective that involved rejection of the old European models of the 19th century, a perspective that (ironically) came straight from Europe. Many of the group’s members had traveled to Europe or had connections with European modernism, and their approach to modernism was very much in line with that taken by the composers of Satie’s circle in Paris: a rejection of the European musical tradition and its institutions on one hand, and a  blending of classical composition with popular music and other elements of every day life.

The PAAC composers were also united by the drive to find outlets for their music, and the understanding that their connections with each other and their wider connections were their most valuable assets. Though one of their most brilliant performers and conductors, Nicholas Slonimsky, always felt he had been a failure due to his inability to better promote 20th century music, PAAC’s achievements are remarkable. Though they were fighting an uphill battle in the endeavor to get audiences in Europe and America to accept modernist compositions, the bursting cornucopia of styles now entertained under the heading of 20th century music owes a great deal to them. Yes, we still fight the battle to some extent in the 21st century but where would we have been without the vanguard that usurped the dominance of the 19th century European canon.

-Flora Newberry


Caturla, Alejandro. Alejandro García Caturla: Tres Danzas Cubanas (1927)., accessed March 28, 2017.

Chavez, Carlos. Sonatina., accessed March 28, 2017.

Loeffler, Francis.  2 Rhapsodies, performed by Camerata Pacifica., accessed March 28, 2017.

Perloff, Nancy. Popular Entertainment and the Circle of Erik Satie. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1991.

Root, Deane L. “The Pan American Association of Composers (1928-1934).” Anuario Interamericano De Investigacion Musical 8 (1972): 49-70. doi:10.2307/779819.

Villa-Lobos, Heitor. Carnaval das criancas. 1 O Ginete do Pierrozinho., accessed March 28, 2017.

Wechsler, Lawrence. “Slonimsky’s Failure”, from A Wanderer in the Perfect City. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.




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