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Biography

Henry Cowell was born on March 11, 1897 in Menlo Park, California, near Palo Alto.  His father, Harry Cowell, a native of Ireland, was in his thirties at the time and his mother, Clarissa Dixon, was already in her mid-forties at Cowell's birth.  Both aspiring writers, Harry and Clarissa lived bohemian lifestyles, splitting their time between San Francisco and a cottage Harry built in Menlo Park, but by the time Cowell was five years old they had separated. 

Henry spent much of his childhood in and around San Francisco where he encountered a variety of musics: Chinese, Japanese, Irish folk tunes from his father and American folk tunes from his mother.  When the San Francisco earthquake hit in 1906, Cowell and his mother had to leave California.  They had been living in Chinatown at the time, which was up in flames due to the earthquake, but fleeing to their cottage in Menlo Park was also out of the question.  Residents there were “living in tents and sheds or at best in the undamaged parts of their houses.” 1 From roughly the age of eight to thirteen, Henry lived with friends and family of Clarissa around the Midwest and later in New York City. Clarissa’s career as a writer was never lucrative and once they returned to San Francisco,  she was often ill.  This situation left Henry to make money for them which he did through various odd jobs such as picking and selling flower bulbs, janitorial work and farming. 

For a number of reasons, Cowell had very little formal education.  While living in Iowa, he briefly attended third grade where his teacher evaluated him "below his grade in drawing and penmanship, at the fifth grade level in math, the sixth in geography, and at a fully adult level in reading." 2 He was very well read, thanks in no small part to his mother's intermittent home schooling. In 1910, he caught the attention of Louis Terman, Professor of Education and Psychology at Stanford.  One of the first developers of the modern IQ test, Terman was conducting a study on childhood prodigies and enlisted Cowell as a test subject. "No. 40. Henry. Illustrating the relative independence of IQ and schooling.  Scientific ability overshadowed by musical genius.  Extreme poverty." 3  Over several years, Terman tested Cowell and measured his vocabulary at an amazing 15,500 words by age fourteen. 4 Although he was disappointed by Cowell's IQ of 132, Terman stated that "the limit of the scale was inadequate to measure his ability.  There is little doubt that in actual intelligence he was well within the range of our gifted group." 5         

Cowell saved what money he could and at the age of fifteen bought a piano for  $60. 6 Although Cowell had been composing since the age of nine or ten, the piano was a tremendous aid to his compositional output and by 1914, he had composed over 100 pieces. 

Also in 1914, at the age of 17, Cowell began studies at Berkeley with renowned musicologist Charles Seeger.  In Seeger's words, they embarked on "concurrent but entirely separate pursuit[s] of free composition and academic disciplines." 7 Seeger obtained special status for Cowell at Stanford and in addition to their meetings, Cowell studied harmony with E.G. Strickland and counterpoint with Wallace Sabin.

Seeger recommended that Cowell try formal training at the Institute of Musical Art (later the Juilliard School) in New York City.  Cowell lasted less than six months (from October 1916 to January 1917).  He found the academic atmosphere stifling, but what did pique his interest was the work of Russian pianist and composer Leo Ornstein. 8 Ornstein was known in New York as a wild, futurist composer. With titles like Danse Sauvage and Suicide in an Airplane, his works left lasting impressions on the audience.  One reporter commented, "I never thought I should live to hear Arnold Schoenberg sound tame; yet tame he sounds--almost timid and halting--after Ornstein who is, most emphatically the only true-blue, genuine, Futurist composer alive." 9 In early 1917, Cowell met with Ornstein and upon studying Cowell's scores Ornstein said, "These are the most interesting compositions I have seen by any living American." 10  

In February of 1917, instead of waiting to be drafted, Cowell enlisted in the army hoping to avoid combat. He served a year in the ambulance training facility at Camp Crane, PA, and, in fact, never saw combat and even served as assistant band director. In October of 1918, Cowell was transferred to Fort Ontario in Oswego, New York.  Although he contracted chicken pox in New York (never having it as a child), he luckily escaped an outbreak of influenza at Camp Crane that killed thirteen men between September 1918 and 1920, part of a Spanish flu epidemic that killed twenty to fifty million people worldwide. 11

While studying with Seeger, Cowell showed his teacher some of his compositions using clusters.  In 1916, Seeger urged Cowell to write a formal explanation of his tone clusters.  By 1919, Cowell completed the first draft of his book New Musical Resources (although it remained unpublished until 1930) with the help of Samuel S. Seward, Jr., a friend from California and later a professor of English at Stanford University, who coincidentally was stationed at Camp Crane at the same time as Cowell.  In the book, Cowell discusses the overtone series including "the influence [it] has exerted on music throughout its history, how many musical materials of all ages are related to it, and how, by various means of applying its principles in many different manners, a large palette of musical materials can be assembled." 12 In particular, Cowell extends the musical possibilities of the overtone series beyond pitch to rhythm as well.  (For more information on New Musical Resources see Rhythmicana.) The book had a direct influence on many composers like John Cage, who hand-copied the book and then hitchhiked across the country in order to study with Cowell. 13 Conlon Nancarrow was also greatly influenced by the book.  Living in Mexico City since 1940, he had trouble finding performers there that were able to play the complex rhythms in his works.  He found an answer to his problem in New Musical Resources. "Some of the rhythms developed through the present acoustical investigation could not be played by any living performer; but these...could easily be cut on a player-piano roll." 14 In reading the book today, we also see the future innovations of many twentieth century composers.  Elliot Carter’s use of metric modulation is suggested in Cowell’s section on tempo.  Cowell states, “Applying now the principles of relating time to musical tone, we see at once that if a given tempo, say M. M. 24 (metronome marking), is taken as a base, a tempo of M. M. 48 represents the octave, and M. M. 96 the octave next higher.  The interval of a fifth is represented in tempo by the ratio M. M. 72, against the octave 48; the interval of a third by 120 against 96, etc…” 15

From his teenage years through 1931, Cowell was involved with the theosophist colony of Halcyon in California. Theosophy is difficult to describe (or understand, for that matter).  The word theosophy simply translates as “god wisdom,” theo and sophia are the Greek words for God and wisdom, respectively. In the most general sense, the religion of theosophy encompasses ideas from many faiths and sees itself as one of the oldest belief systems in the world.  Cowell became involved in theosophy when he befriended John Varian, a neighbor of his in Menlo Park and then-leader of Halcyon.  Varian, a native of Ireland, was well-versed in Celtic legends, and because of Cowell's father's heritage, Cowell was drawn to Varian, these stories, and subsequently the theosophic philosophies. 16   Although the residents at Halcyon embraced liberal viewpoints on many subjects, their choices of music were fairly conservative.  Varian described the music at Halcyon as “sangtified raggtime [sic]” and “rehymnified hymn music [sic].” 17 During Cowell's time at Halcyon he convinced members that they should perform his music saying, “You ought not to be singing those hymns.  They have nothing to do with the oneness of man and the universe.  You ought to sing my music.”  After playing some of his “elbow music” for them, they agreed. 18 Throughout his early career, Cowell also wrote several works with Irish themes, many of which were written for and performed at Halcyon.

Cowell made a number of trips to Europe in the twenties and thirties, often leaving significant impressions on his audiences.  A review by the London Times, reported that "...that this was the world's loudest piano music and [Cowell] was the world's loudest pianist." 19 In 1923, during his first trip to Europe, Schoenberg invited Cowell to speak in his classes in Berlin, and Béla Bartók asked Cowell's permission to use his tone clusters.  In 1931, Cowell traveled back to Berlin on a Guggenheim Fellowship and studied world music with Eric von Hornbostel.  Cowell also visited the Soviet Union in 1929, causing quite a stir.  During a concert given at the Moscow Conservatory, the audience refused to let Cowell play the second piece on the program until he repeated the first several times.  The Russian students, certain they would never hear this music again, insisted on hearing it until they could understand it.  In this manner, his hour long concert actually continued for over four hours. 20  

In 1925, Cowell founded the New Music Society.  For the first two years, the society consisted of periodic concerts first in the Los Angeles area and later in the San Francisco area.  In 1927, Cowell also began the New Music Quarterly, a subscription periodical that published works by composers seen as unprofitable by mainstream publishers.  Largely subsidized by Charles Ives, the Quarterly printed works by Ives, Carl Ruggles, Dane Rudhyar, Ruth Crawford, George Antheil, and later Lou Harrison, John Cage, Elliot Carter and many others.  In the thirties, Cowell expanded New Music to include recordings.  The first release, in 1934, included works by Adolph Weiss and Ruth Crawford and recordings continued to be released, sometimes three or four a year, until 1949.  Most of the activities of the society, particularly in the beginning, were run by Cowell. 21

In 1936, Cowell was arrested on a "morals" charge. Essentially, he was charged for having sexual encounters with a seventeen year-old boy. 22 He was sentenced to fifteen years and sent to San Quentin prison.  Many biographies of Cowell gloss over this period in his life.  Frederich Koch’s biography skips from 1933 to 1941 stating, “His next book American Composers on American Music – symposium, was published in 1933 by Stanford University Press.  In 1941 Cowell marries Sidney Robertson, whom he had known before the war.” 23 Many others simply make mention of it without details or seem to be trying to lessen the crime.  The book American Mavericks states, “Four years later saw the beginning of an unfortunate interlude in [Cowell’s] life when in 1936 he was convicted of a charge of homosexual conduct and sentenced to time in San Quentin.  The efforts of fellow composers secured his release in 1940.” 24  

Michael Hicks has done more than any other to bring these events of Cowell’s life to light.  Regarding the attempts by others to cover up these events, he states "Scholars have treated [Cowell's] life in a way that goes beyond tact.  Seeking to polish his image in an age of suspicion toward artists, they have repressed the facts of his crucial encounter with the justice system, leaving their readers either to believe untruths or imagine the worst." 25  

Outside of San Quentin, responses to his imprisonment from Cowell's friends and colleagues were mixed.  Ives told his wife, "I thought [Henry] was a man, but he's nothing but a g-- d--- sap!," but his disdain for Cowell may have been inflated by Ives' wife Harmony. 33 As Ives was ill, she wrote most of his correspondence, possibly editing it as she saw fit. 34 Other friends and colleagues remained loyal to Cowell including Johanna Beyer (1888-1944), the enigmatic German composer. "From 1936 to 1940 ... Beyer worked as Cowell's secretary and liaison in what appears to have been an informal capacity (although in several letters she refers to herself as his "agent"). She helped manage the affairs of the New Music Editions, tried to arrange for the publication of his book on melody, coordinated friends in the effort to have Cowell released, handled Cowell's correspondence, took care of various administrative tasks, and advocated his work." 35   Many of his other colleagues and friends supported Cowell, but did not delve too far into the details of his arrest.  Schoenberg said, “One will understand how distressed I was when I learned he was arrested and convicted…I could not believe that [he] could be capable of such violations.  But when I had to realize it was true, I understood what the great interpreter of the human soul and passions, William Shakespeare, said: ‘There are other things in heaven and earth/Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’” 36   Further, Cowell received much support from Henry and Olive Cowell, his father and stepmother, with whom he was close. Olive Cowell in particular helped to keep Cowell’s affairs in order.  She aided Gerald Strang in assuming responsibilities of New Music, 37 was a mediator between the problematic relationship of Cowell and Ives 38 and led the charge to get Cowell released, “presenting to the board of pardons no fewer than eighty-seven testimonials by prominent citizens on Henry’s behalf.” 39

While in prison, Cowell was an active musician. He taught music classes to over a thousand students, supervised other classes and teachers, conducted the band, started an orchestra and composed dozens of “inside” and “outside” pieces.  In addition, he learned to play the flute and shakuhachi, took Japanese and Spanish classes and drafted a new book titled, The Nature of Melody.  Some of the prison works include Rhythmicana, Hilarious Curtain Opener and Celtic Set, many chamber works and a variety of pieces for the prison ensembles and solo musicians.

In 1940, Cowell was paroled and released into the custody of Percy Grainger.  He moved to White Plains, New York and worked as Grainger's personal secretary. In 1941, Cowell married Sidney Robertson, an old friend and a respected ethnomusicologist.  With her help, and the help of other friends and relatives, Cowell received a full pardon in 1942.  Now free to apply for visas, Cowell began a job working for the overseas branch of the Office of War Information (OWI).  Advocating for the OWI, Cowell writes that the purpose was "to wage psychological warfare against the enemy, thus shortening the war and saving American lives.  It was at first assumed that music would have little or no part in a program whose objective was to present information...[but] It saves time.  In broadcasting to enemy-held territory, the first few notes of Yankee Doodle have identified the programs as ours more quickly than you could say, ‘This is the United States of America, one of the United Nations.’” 40

Cowell's compositional output from 1940 until his death in 1965 encompassed a wide variety of styles and musics, but never again embodied the experimental tendencies of his early career.  In the words of Steven Johnson, “[Cowell] clearly embraced the experimental tradition with far less fervor than in earlier years...Cowell’s music of this time was more likely to feature simple forms, diatonic materials, conventional melodic and accompanimental textures, and exceedingly regular phrase syntax.” 41  Did Cowell’s imprisonment affect his compositional style?  In a re-release of his book, American Composers on American Music, Cowell wrote, "If I were undertaking a book like this today, I would undoubtedly be less brash about it, and this is probably equally true of others who wrote for the volume between 1929 and 1932.  But I have not felt that the book's character should be watered down by the mild afterthoughts of "mature consideration."" 42 If we extend these sentiments to Cowell's compositions, perhaps the prison years did contribute to a more conservative style.  Yet, what composer becomes more brash with age? 

Whether or not Cowell’s compositional style was affected by his imprisonment, Cowell had an active career from the end of World War II to his death in 1965.  He wrote most of his twenty symphonies, including sketches for a twenty-first, all of the nineteen Hymn and Fuguing Tunes and a number of chamber works such as eastern influenced compositions like Ongaku and Homage to Iran.  He taught at a variety of schools, mostly on the east coast.  For the year of 1951-2 alone, he was involved with eighteen classes at the New School, Peabody and Columbia. 43 Throughout his career he also taught at Eastman, Mills College and Stanford, among others.  In 1955, with his wife Sidney, Cowell published the first biography of Charles Ives, a labor of love for the man he always considered, "the same as a father." 44 In 1956, with money from the Rockefeller Foundation, Henry and Sidney traveled to Iran, India and Japan. In 1961, President Kennedy chose Cowell to represent the U.S. at conferences in Tehran and Tokyo. 

Perhaps most telling of Cowell’s character are the hundreds of works he wrote throughout his career dedicated to friends and relatives.  He remains one of the few composers who was selfless in so many endeavors, not publishing a single work of his own in New Music Quarterly.  He practically saved Charles Ives from obscurity and provided an audience for modern American composers with his New Music Society and other activities.  Cowell influenced countless composers and performers through his works, his teaching, his writings and his performing, and his legacy lives on not only in his own work, but in the work of those he inspired.
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         2. Hicks, 23.

         4. Hicks, 32.

         14. Cowell, 64-65.

         17. Johnson, 15-16.

         34. Harmony Ives, 474-486.

         37. Mead, 363-366.