On this day…19 June

On 19 June 1926 Joyce attended the premiere of Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique.

George Antheil (1900-1959) had come to Paris in 1923 determined to establish a reputation as the ‘bad boy of music.’ Sylvia Beach introduced him to Joyce and Antheil planned an opera based on the ‘Cyclops’ episode of Ulysses.

Born in Trenton, New Jersey, of German immigrants, Antheil started studying piano at the age of six. He studied composition under Constantine von Sternberg in Philadelphia where he also became interested in Dadaism and modern art. He moved to Europe in 1922, giving concerts of his music in London, Budapest and Vienna, often at his own expense.

His work was heavily influenced by Igor Stravinsky with whom he met in Berlin in 1922, though the two later fell out. Antheil arrived in Paris in 1923 where Ezra Pound wrote a book, Antheil and the Treatise on Harmony (1924), to promote Antheil’s new music. Antheil and his partner lived in a one-room apartment above Sylvia Beach’s bookshop, Shakespeare & Company, on the rue de l’Odéon, and Beach introduced him to Joyce.

Joyce didn’t have a particular interest in modern music but he attended a concert on 4 October 1923 at which there were performances of Antheil’s Airplane Sonata (1921), Sonata Sauvage (1922-3), and Mechanisms (1923). The concert broke up in a riot (which may have been staged). Among others in the audience were Erik Satie and Darius Milhaud who later praised Antheil’s work.

Antheil started composing his Ballet Mécanique at the end of 1923. Originally intended as the score for a film by Cubist/Futurist painter Fernand Léger, the film turned out to be too short for the music, and the two were never synchronised. The Ballet was scored for pianos, xylophone, bass drums, and tam-tam, to which were added aeroplane propellers (actually large fans augmented with bits of wood or leather to create sounds), electric bells, and a siren. The original plan also included using 16 coordinated pianolas or player pianos, but this plan had to be abandoned and only one pianola was used in the performance. Even so, the Ballet was the first piece scored for multiple automated instruments.

There were some private performances of the Ballet in 1925, and the public premiere took place on 19 June 1926 under conductor Vladimir Golschmann, at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysees. The programme also included Antheil’s Symphonie en Fa. The Joyces had a box for the performance which, like the 1923 concert, ended in a riot.

Antheil planned an opera based on the ‘Cyclops’ episode of Joyce’s Ulysses. Though part of the score was published in This Quarter (Autumn-Winter 1925-6), the opera remained unfinished. Antheil set a poem of Joyce’s, ‘Nightpiece,’ for the Joyce Book (1932) but another planned collaboration – an opera based on Byron’s Cain, which was to be a vehicle for John Sullivan’s singing – never got off the ground.

Antheil moved to Vienna in 1928 and back to America in 1933. He moved to Hollywood where he wrote scores for many films. His autobiography, Bad Boy of Music (1945) was a bestseller.


Sources & Further Reading:

Antheil, George: Bad Boy of Music, New York: Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1945.

Ellmann, Richard: James Joyce – New and Revised edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.