Leipzig music lovers gasped when Henry Cowell sat down at the piano: the young American composer was slamming the keys with his forearms. When he continued the attack with forearms, fingers and fists, Leipzigers got to their feet, and the anti-forearm group tangled with the let's-hear-him-out crowd. The police, that evening in 1923, finally led a score of the noisiest demonstrators away.
Since those days, pioneer Modernist Cowell, now 56, has run up his own musical scores to more than 800, including eleven symphonies, and his music has been played around the world. None of his performances has ever caused so much public excitement as the Leipzig affair, but, as composer and teacher, Henry Cowell has had an undoubted influence on the music of the past three decades. Last week, for the 25th anniversary of his first regular teaching appointment, Manhattan's New School for Social Research staged a retrospective concert of his music. To mid-century ears, Cowell's once-daring innovations sounded misty and soothing. His forearm "tone clusters'' (in Trumpet of Angus Og and Deep Tides) aroused no indignant gasps. When he reached into the vitals of the piano to stroke and pluck the strings (in How Old Is Song), the effect was gently harplike. One movement of his Violin Sonata sounded rather like a Danny Boy whose melody had been opened out like the parts of a dismantled Swiss watch. The Cowell impact was both easy and light.
It was heavier on other composers during the '20s. When Cowell was studying in Germany, both Bartok and Berg asked permission to use tone clusters in their own music. Cowell happily told them to go ahead"The more the better." In the U.S., his Hymns and Fuguing Tunes, with their solemn and lilting melodies, hollow-sounding harmonies and simple, wide-spaced polyphony, became part of the foundation of a new "American school."
Composer Cowell says his folklike melodies come from his childhood in San Francisco, where his Irish-born father and Iowa-born mother brought him up on folk songs. He turned to unusual piano techniques, he thinks, because he had no composition teacher to tell him they were wrong. Later, he gravitated naturally to teaching because composing was expensive. Even now, when most of his music is commissioned, he has to earn his keep teaching: it costs hundreds of dollars to turn out a symphony score and parts.
Today he is more productive than ever (he has written six of his eleven symphonies in the past two years), and his music is more widely performed. Of his symphonies, the seventh was introduced in Baltimore, the eighth at Wilmington (Ohio) College, which commissioned it, the ninth in Green Bay, Wis., the tenth by the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, and the eleventh will be presented by the Louisville Orchestra this winter. Cowell is no staple on major orchestra programs, but he no longer has to stage one-man shows to get his music heard.