History Hunt: Ruth Crawford Seeger

This week, we’re meeting another pianist from the first half of the 20th century! However, she’s someone who composed music in a very different style from last week’s featured musician, Florence Price.

Ruth Crawford Seeger (born Ruth Porter Crawford) was born on July 31, 1901 in East Liverpool, Ohio. Because her father was a travelling minister, she spent her childhood moving from place to place. Her mother, Clara, however, made sure she had the opportunity to learn to play the piano, starting when Seeger was six. Clara herself was a pianist whose parents hadn’t been at all supportive of her love of music, and so she wanted to be sure her daughter got the chances she didn’t. She became one of Seeger’s piano teachers as well while Seeger was young.

Seeger also sang with her family and composed on her own, but it seems that, at first, music wasn’t her greatest passion. In fact, when she was a teenager, like some of our previous History Hunt musicians, she wanted to be something other than a composer or performer when she grew up. In Seeger’s case, she wanted to be a writer!

When she graduated from high school, she took a job at Foster’s School of Musical Art in Jacksonville, Florida. Bertha Foster, who ran the school, had been Seeger’s piano teacher for years; when money had grown too tight for Seeger’s family to pay for lessons any longer, Foster had kept teaching her for free.

However, soon Foster moved her school to Miami, and Seeger left Florida to study at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, Illinois. Her plan had been to stay in Chicago for one year–just long enough to get her teacher’s certificate for piano. But Seeger fell in love with composing, and her one-year stay became eight full years of learning.

During this time, Western art music was undergoing serious changes. Composers wanted to completely break away from the musical traditions of the past and experiment with new ways of composing, using new sounds and new forms. Seeger was one of those musicians. She wrote music that sounded very strange to many people’s ears–but those who understood the new way of writing music also understood her brilliance.

While she was still studying in Chicago, she was one of six featured younger composers in a concert put on by the League of Composers, whose current goal is “to engage audiences by presenting performances of new music of the highest caliber written by emerging and established living composers in the context of 20th and 21st-century masterpieces.” It was an honour indeed, though certainly not the last she would receive.

A year after she graduated from the American Conservatory of Music, in 1930, she became the first woman to win a Guggenheim Fellowship, a prize that let her travel to Europe for a year to compose. While there, she wrote her most famous composition, String Quartet 1931, which the Encyclopædia Britannica calls “astonishing.” Small wonder she’s often called “the most significant American female composer of the twentieth century” (American Folklife Centre).

After she returned to the United States, another phase in Seeger’s life began. With her new husband, she turned to recording American folk songs for the Library of Congress, to preserve this unique music for future listeners. She also wrote arrangements of this music and put together a short series of songbooks for children, which are still in use today.

Toward the end of her life, Seeger returned to composing–it’s never too late to return to something you love, after all. Though she still isn’t nearly as famous as she deserves to be, through her website and in interviews her daughter, Peggy, is making sure that her mother isn’t forgotten.

Below is an example of the new music of the 20th century that Seeger was so fond of, the Prelude No. 2 that she wrote while studying at the American Conservatory of Music. If you’d like to hear more of her works, Youtube has a number of examples, including her String Quartet 1931.

If you’re enjoying the History Hunt series, why not drop me a tip or subscribe to me at Patreon? History Hunt will always be free–this is just an option for my readers to show their appreciation.

To Learn More (Sources):
Ruth Crawford Seeger: A Composer’s Search for American Music by Judith Tick
Ruth Crawford Seeger Biography by David Lewis
Ruth Crawford Seeger Children’s Books & CDs on Peggy Seeger’s official website
Ruth Crawford (Seeger) on Naxos.com
Ruth Crawford Seeger on Encyclopædia Britannica
About the Seeger Family at the American Folklife Centre
Review of Ruth Crawford Seeger: A Composer’s Search for American Music by Larry Starr
Ruth Crawford Seeger – Andante for Strings by Phillip Huscher
Ruth Crawford Seeger on Wikipedia.org
Ruth Crawford Seeger Press Kit (Image Source)

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