Our series of posts about American Mavericks composers featured in a new exhibit at the Rose Museum at Carnegie Hall continues with Henry Cowell—the first American musician to embrace the idea that "serious" music could exist outside Western music.
"I do not see at all why a composer's choice should be limited to the musical material used in Europe for the last 350 years."
Henry Cowell (1897–1965) was born in Menlo Park, California. He began playing the violin at the age of five. By the time he was 16, Cowell had written more than 100 compositions and began formal studies with Charles Seeger (father of Pete Seeger) at the University of California. He was the first American musician to embrace the idea that "serious" music could exist outside Western music, and he incorporated a variety in his works, ranging from Indian ragas to Balinese gamelan. He was credited with inventing the tone cluster, though Ives was simultaneously experimenting in isolation. Cowell caused a sensation in Europe on his 1923 tour, when he used his fists, elbows, and strummed the strings during his piano recitals. Ten years earlier, he had begun experimenting with inserting objects into the strings of the piano.
New Musical Resources—in which he describes his philosophy of music, including polytonality, harmony, dissonant counterpoint, and multiple meter combinations—was published in 1930 and became a guidebook for young composers. John Cage hand-copied portions of the book and hitchhiked across the US to study with him.
In 1925, Cowell established the New Music Society and published New Music Quarterly to promote and encourage new American music. The works of many composers—including Ives, Varèse, and Ruggles—were first exposed through these venues. In 1955, Cowell and his wife wrote the first biography of Charles Ives.
Left: Flyer from Henry Cowell's Carnegie Hall Debut, 1924: Henry Cowell's recital was the first in Carnegie Hall made up entirely of works by an American composer. The public attendance was poor, but because of the sensation he had created in Europe, more than a dozen newspapers covered the event.Right: Portrait of Henry Cowell.Both images courtesy American Music Collection, Music Division; The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.
Portrait of Henry Cowell courtesy American Music Collection, Music Division; The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.
Related:American MavericksRose Museum at Carnegie Hall