Ruth Crawford Seeger: Musical Ultra-Modernist and Folklorist

Alan Westby, Librarian, Art, Music & Recreation Department,
Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-1953)

Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-1953) is widely recognized both as the most important American woman composer of the Twentieth Century, and as a major figure in the study and preservation of American folk music. She was born Ruth Porter Crawford on July 3, 1901 and raised in the small towns in the mid-West and Florida to which her father, a Methodist minister, traveled for work. Crawford's mother saw that Ruth began piano lessons at the age of 11. Crawford excelled in her musical studies and decided to pursue formal music studies to get training to work as a piano teacher. She began her studies at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago in 1921. Her piano teacher, Madame Djane Lavoie Herz, had been a student of the Russian pianist, composer, and mystic, Alexander Scriabin, whose novel musical ideas she imparted to her own students. While experiencing a more musically and culturally active life in Chicago, Crawford changed her focus first to becoming a concert pianist, and then to composition.

Crawford's early compositions, such as Music for Small Orchestra (1926), already reveal a notably experimental, formalist compositional style. She became associated with the circle of composers who called themselves "ultra-modernists", including Henry Cowell, Carl Ruggles, Dane Rudhyar, and Edgard Varèse. The main focus of Crawford's compositional studies at this time were serialism and dissonant counterpoint. Charles Seeger, Crawford's teacher, promoted dissonant counterpoint, in which the composer avoids the intervals traditionally considered consonant in Western music—thirds, sixths, fifths and octaves—and also seeks to make other parameters of music, such as rhythm and dynamics, sharply contrasting and independent.
Serialism was then being explored by Arnold Schoenberg and other composers of the Second Viennese School. In twelve-tone serialist composition, the composer arranges the twelve pitches of the chromatic scale into a tone row. Each pitch of the tone row is played in order before a pitch returns. Through transposition, retrograde and inversion of the row, the composer arrives at a multitude of permutations of the row with which to work with during composition. For a more in-depth discussion of serialism in music, see "Chapter 45. Serialism" in Prof. Phillip Magnuson's Sound Patterns, A Structural Examination of Tonality, Vocabulary, Texture, Sonorities, and Time Organization in Western Art Music.
Except for Anton Webern, composers of the Second Viennese School applied serial principles mainly to pitch order. Crawford was innovative in extending serial controls to musical parameters other than pitch, such as duration, dynamics and form. Such an extension of serial principles would not become common in music until the "Total serialism" or "Integral serialism" compositions of the 1950s. Such composers as Milton Babbitt, Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen pursued extended serialist techniques following ideas of extended control employed in the second of Olivier Messiaen's Quatre études de rythme (1949-1950), "Mode de valeurs et d'intensités".
In 1930 Crawford won a Guggenheim Fellowship to study in Europe, becoming the first woman to do so, later receiving a second of these prestigious awards. With the Guggenheim Fellowships Crawford traveled to Paris and Berlin and consulted with prominent musicians including Béla Bartók and Alban Berg. Despite her interest in serialism, she did not express a desire to study with Schoenberg, as her individual use of the technique had already matured. She went to Europe planning to write an orchestral piece, but instead started work on three pieces, Three Chants (1930) for women's chorus, Three Songs to Poems of Carl Sandburg (1930-32), and what is now considered her greatest and most influential work, a four-movement String Quartet. From the time of its composition, the String Quartet was recognized by the musical community as a major achievement. A full performance of Crawford's String Quartet can be heard as the first piece performed on a 2016 concert by the Del Sol String Quartet Concert at the Library of Congress website.
Arguably the most significant movement of the String Quartet, and the one which has garnered the most critical commentary is the third. Throughout this four-minute piece, all four instruments are together in tight, overlapping dissonant harmony while the dynamics ebb and flow independently of each other. In an analysis of the String Quartet, Crawford herself described the third movement as a "...heterophony of dynamics—a sort of counterpoint of crescendi and diminuendi... No high point in the crescendo in any one instrument coincides with the high point in any other instrument... The melodic line grows out of this continuous increase and decrease..."
Henry Cowell included the Third Movement of the quartet in the first recording issued by his New Music Society Recording Series, writing to Charles Ives that this movement was "...perhaps the best thing for quartet ever written in this country. This is my unqualified opinion..." Composer and music theorist George Perle later credited the quartet with anticipating the musical innovations of the 1950s and '60s. Besides the extended use of serialism, the dissonant overlapping of all four instruments in tight, narrow pitch ranges anticipates the tone clusters of the sound mass compositions of the 1950s and 1960s in the works of such composers as Iannis Xenakis, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Witold Lutosławski, Krzysztof Penderecki, and György Ligeti.
Ruth Crawford and Charles Seeger with their son Mike and daughter Peggy, ca. 1937
Ruth Crawford and Charles Seeger performing with their son Mike and daughter Peggy about 1937
After composing the String Quartet, the most important work of her career, at the age of 31, Crawford married her teacher, Charles Seeger in 1932. The couple struggled to make a living during their first years together. When Charles was given a government job involving American folk music, Crawford switch the focus of her musical attention. She abandoned her compositional work and joined him in the collection of American folk music. She later commented on this change in her career from concert music to folk music, "I have descended from the stratosphere, folded my wings and breathed good friendly dust."
Despite the modernist style of her concert compositions, Crawford had shown interest in folk music earlier her musical career. While a student in Chicago, she had met poet Carl Sandburg and contributed to his highly popular folk song anthology The American Songbag (1927). She later set some of Sandburg's writings to music. Among her politically-charged compositions of this time was the song Sacco, Vanzetti (1932). Crawford was not the only one of the modernists of the 1920s to turn to more politically- and socially-relevant work during the years of the Depression. Crawford commented, "It became almost immoral to closet oneself in one’s comfortable room and compose music for its own delight."
In 1936 Ruth and Charles moved to Washington, D.C. with their family where they worked enthusiastically and prolifically with American folk music, hoping to establish a national heritage of folksong for the country, creating a point of unity for Americans of diverse social backgrounds and class. Working closely with John and Alan Lomax, Crawford collected, transcribed and arranged songs for the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress. She served as the editor for the Lomaxes' book of folk song transcriptions and arrangements, Our Singing Country (1941). An example of the folk music collection that was done by the Lomaxes and Crawford Seeger can be heard at the Library of Congress website:  Crawford's transcription of this 1937 recording of William Hamilton Stepp's performance of Bonaparte's Retreat was used by composer Aaron Copland for the "Hoe Down" section of his 1942 ballet Rodeo.
Crawford also became active as a music educator during the years of the Depression, teaching folk songs to children, and publishing several collections for use for children in preschool and elementary school. Her well-known American Folk Songs for Children (1948) helped bring American folk music to generations of school children. In her family life, also, Crawford became matriarch to a generation of folk musicians. Charles' son—Crawford's stepson—Pete Seeger, was one of the best-known folk singers and social activists from the 1940s until his death in 2014. All four of her children with Charles also became folk singers.
Though her compositional voice was silent during her years working with folk music, her compositions, especially the String Quartet, exerted an influence on the younger generation of American composers. The influence of Crawford's quartet on the First String Quartet (1951) of Elliott Carter was obvious. As a major figure in American music for the rest of his life, Carter continued to build on ideas present in this work until his death at the age of 103 in 2012.
Having devoted herself to raising her family, and working almost exclusively with the traditional harmonies of folk music for almost two decades, Crawford Seeger felt the pull of experimental composition. She commented, "I had been thinking about writing some music that had nothing to do with folk song. I have thought about some things and Ruth Crawford is still there."
In 1952 she fully returned to her ultra-modernist roots with the composition of her Suite for Wind Quintet. What direction her career may have gone from there cannot be known, as she succumbed to cancer within a year of writing this last major piece, at the age of 52. In the years since her death—particularly in the 20 years since the publication of the first major biography, Judith Tick's Ruth Crawford Seeger: A Composer's Search for American Music (1997)—Ruth Crawford Seeger's reputation as an influence on American musical life has solidified and grown. As an influential and visionary composer, and through her work in preserving and disseminating American folk music, her legacy and influence survive in the concert hall, in the world of folk music, and in the classroom.

Library & Online Resources Related to Ruth Crawford Seeger

Scores in the Library

Concert Music
Folk Songs
Scores Available Online


Books in the Library

Online Articles

Children's Books



Further Reading