Ruth Crawford Seeger ‘Suite for Wind Quintet’: A Playful Return to Music

Welcome to Day ‘C’ of my October Alphabet Challenge! A really exciting composer awaits us today in the form of Ruth Crawford Seeger. Again, it has been very difficult to choose which work of hers to write about, but I have decided to look into her Suite for Wind Quintet. Sit back and relax on this Wednesday afternoon, and enjoy the delights that await.

Born on July 3rd, 1901, Ruth Crawford spent her early life in East Liverpool, Ohio. Throughout her childhood, the Crawford’s moved around a lot, from Ohio to Missouri to Indiana. In 1912, the Crawford’s moved to Florida, where Ruth’s father passed away two years later. As well as music, Crawford was also interested in poetry, and at a young age she began writing her own poems. At age six, Crawford began learning the piano, and further took up lessons with Bertha Foster, who had founded the School of Musical Art in Jacksonville, Florida. After advancing her studies in piano performance, Crawford then began lessons with Madame Valborg Collett, who was regarded as the most prestigious teacher at the school. After graduating, Crawford began pursuing a career as a concert pianist, and also a piano teacher at the arts school.

By 1921, Crawford had enrolled at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, where she began studying for a teaching certificate, but ended up staying much longer to pursue a career in composition. Whilst in Chicago, Crawford was able to visit concert halls and see recitals from young up and coming musicians, such as Sergei Rachmaninoff and Arthur Rubinstein. Whilst at the conservatory (where she studied for a bachelor’s and a masters degrees), Crawford received tutelage from Adolf Weidig. After graduating from the conservatory, Crawford was able to work and travel around America, winning a range of scholarships. In 1930, she was the first woman to receive the Guggenheim Fellowship, which took her to Paris and Berlin. After visiting Paris, Crawford married musicologist, Charles Seeger in 1932.

Often described as a ‘modernist’ composer, Crawford’s style is interesting and unique. It is, however, often noted that Crawford’s style often reflects that of the musical style of Alexander Scriabin, however this is open to interpretation, of course. Crawford’s development of dissonance and irregular rhythms are resonant in many of her works, with Suite for Wind Quintet, being no different. Crawford’s style is reflective of serialism, with Schoenberg being a big influence for her compositional style whilst she was in New York. Crawford died from cancer in Maryland, 1953.

Suite for Wind Quintet was composed in 1952, a year before Crawford passed away. The National Association for American Composers and Conductors (NAACC), announced a competition for a new chamber work to be commissioned in 1951. Crawford put aside much time, so that she could enter this prestigious composition. And from this, Suite for Wind Quintet  was composed, and then subsequently won the NAACC competition. Ironically, after winning the competition, Crawford gained more confidence (as she was ill with cancer at this time), and said “I will work again – I will live to 99” – sadly this was not the case.

Suite for Wind Quintet is a quintessential Crawford composition, with its lively nature, busy melodic lines and persistent ostinato bass lines. Scored for flute, clarinet, horn and bassoon, this suite is in three short movements, totalling to about 10 minutes in length. The first movement begins with an ostinato rhythm played by the bassoon. Throughout, there is a sense of conversation between the different instruments, and this climaxes at points where the ensemble comes together to play lines in unison. You can hear Crawford’s application of the twelve-tone technique, which is resonant through the dissonant passages. The feel of the first movement is playful and rather pleasant.

The second movement is slower and highlights all the instruments by passing around a main solo melodic line. It is also interesting to see Crawford’s layering of the accompaniment instrument, such as the bassoon and horn. This movement is slightly more mysterious and menacing in places, which shows a good contrast between the first and second movements. The final movement begins with a fast-paced unrelenting melodic line introduced by the bassoon and flute in unison. This kernel of music is then passed around the ensemble. I find this movement is the happy medium between the first and second movements, due to its playful, yet somewhat reserved feel to it. The conversational feel comes to an abrupt end, as if a conversation with someone was stopped suddenly (I’m sure we have all been there!).

Suite for Wind Quintet is a complex and very pleasant work, which was the penultimate composition Crawford offered before her death in 1953. Her return to music at this point can be translated into the programme for this work – like a person coming back to what they love after a brief time away. A wonderful way to celebrate Day ‘C’ of my October Alphabet Challenge! I do hope you have enjoyed this instalment, join me tomorrow for Day ‘D’!

Happy Reading!

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