George Antheil

American avant-garde composer, pianist, author and inventor

George Antheil (June 8, 1900, Trenton, New Jersey12 February 1959, New York City) was an American avant-garde composer and pianist.


  • From Bad Boy of Music, on his life as a concert pianist:
The sweat—great slithering streams of it—pours down you. It runs down your legs, down the leg that is pedalling the sostenuto pedal, down the other leg. It oozes out all over your chest, flows down the binding around your middle where your full-dress pants soak it up. It flows everywhere, down your arms, down your hands.
You become afraid lest too much perspiration will wet your hands too much, make them slide on the black keys, which are too narrow; you are playing at about a hundred miles a minute. But somehow they don't. As long as they don't you know you're all right. You're going good, well-oiled like an engine. Not too much sweat, not too little.
It's only when you suddenly stop perspiring that your forearms go dull.
This is the one thing that every concert pianist dreads, has nightmares about. You never can tell when it's going to happen; it happens once in a hundred concerts, but it happens. When it happens it starts with a stiffness in the upper forearm. Then it travels down the forearm to your wrist, your hand, your fingers. The Bach fugue or the Chopin sonata beneath those fingers commences developing faults—little ones, then big ones. You feel the sudden surprise of the audience, its unfavourable reaction. The sweat all over your body, inside of that heavy woollen black suit with a stiff shirt and collar beneath it, freezes.
You crawl over the onrushing piano passages in slow motion. Your fingers are in ten little steel strait-jackets....
But to-night, thank God, you are sweating, sweating "like a hog". As you turn the corner on the Bach fugue and near the home stretch, you think, "What a way to make a living!" Later, when the piece is finished and you've gotten up and bowed and sat down again and mopped up your brow and your all-important hands, you think, "I wish I were a prize-fighter. This next round with the Steinway would be a lot more comfortable in fighting trunks...."
In the intermission, between group one and group two, you go to your dressing-room and change every stitch you have on you: underwear, shirt, tie, socks, pants and tails. Your other clothes are soaking wet.
You are twenty-two years old, trained down to the last pound like a boxer. You do not over-eat, smoke or drink and you work six to eight hours a day at a piano with a special keyboard in which the keys are so hard to press down that when you come to your concert grand at night you seem, literally, to be riding a fleecy cloud, so easy is its keyboard action. Before each concert, of course, you eat nothing at all.
Your pianos travel with you. So does your manager. You have no time for girls. Your manager sees to it that no young predatory females get very far.
You are a concert pianist. That was my life when I was twenty-two years old.
  • From Bad Boy of Music, on dealing with unruly audiences:
... I bought a small thirty-two automatic, and when I arrived in Berlin I went to a tailor with a sketch for a silken holster which was to fit neatly under my arm. (I had read about Chicago gangsters wearing their guns in this fashion.) Arching a brow, my Berlin tailor made the holster, which was comfortably padded. From then on my thirty-two automatic accompanied me everywhere, especially to concerts.
Quite a number of observers have commented on my coolness during various riotous concerts which I performed at during those first tumultuous years of the armistice between World War I and World War II. The reason is very simple: I was armed.
In early 1923 I once played a return engagement in Budapest which years later earned me the highly valued friendship of Ben Hecht. Several weeks earlier I had played a concert at the Philharmonie in Budapest and the audience had rioted. That did not disturb me so much as the fact that because of this bedlam they had heard none of the music. So, at my second appearance, I walked out on the concert platform, bowed and spoke up:
"Attendants, will you please close and lock the doors?"
After this was done I reached in under my left armpit in approved American gangster fashion and produced my ugly little automatic. Without a further word I placed it on the front desk of my Steinway and proceeded with my concert. Every note was heard and, in a sense, I suppose I opened up the way in Hungary for modern music of a non-Bartók–Kodály variety.
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