Ruth Crawford Seeger

About the Piece

Instrumentation: Chamber Orchestra: 1121-2210, timp, strings
Duration: 3 min

Program Note

Rissolty, Rossolty was commissioned by CBS for Alan Lomax’s folk music radio program, The Wellsprings of America, which during 1940-41 premiered new orchestral arrangements of folk tunes by American classical composers (Aaron Copland and Roy Harris among them). “Ruth worked hard as hell,” Peter Seeger said. “Four hundred dollars for months and mouths of hard work. She did a first-rate job.” For the radio premiere, Lomax paired the old with the new. The Kentucky-born activist Aunt Molly Jackson sang the title folk song, and then she and Alan Lomax talked about the issue of women’s work raised humorously by its lyrics and those of the second folk tune, “Phoebe,” quoted in the middle of the piece.

Crawford Seeger packed a lot of ideas into this very short work. Rather than presenting the melodies as audible themes, she combined elements from them in a sophisticated polyphony. The playful repeated-note figure that opens the pieces conies from the title tune. “Phoebe” emerges briefly in a solo flute section and then as counter- melody in string pizzicato, and later in the horns. The final section of the piece is based on the fiddle tune, “The Death of Callahan,” a tour-de-force transcription she published in the Lomax anthology, Our Singing Country. As “Callahan” is overtaken by fragments from “Phoebe” and “Rissolty, Rossolty,” the compound meter forges ahead to a “one beat per measure” at the climax. Here the composer juggles three tunes at once: “Callahan” dominates wind and high strings; the brass oppose that double-time with “Rissolty, Rossolty”; and the low strings echo the leading idea of “Phoebe.” It is a moment that recalls the spirit of Charles Ives.

Many compositional choices were intended to capture the ethos, not just the sound, of transition. Crawford Seeger transcribed two different versions of Rissolty, Rissolty from field recordings to symbolize the process of change that characterizes oral tradition. The exceptional ending for the work translates another insight about folk music into a modern gesture. Rissolty, Rossolty does not really “end”–it shuts down abruptly as the three tunes mix it up. And then from nowhere we hear a fragment from the opening of the work. Why this whimsical moment? The composer was honoring the way folk musicians did not formalize endings, but rather stopped in readiness to begin anew. To Crawford Seeger, this represented the life-force of tradition, its “keeping-goingness” (to use her term), contrasting to the self-dramatizing cadences in conventional classical music.

Rissolty, Rossolty received few performances in Crawford Seeger’s lifetime, one from the New Orleans Symphony in 1950 and the other from the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington D.C. in 1953. A New York retrospective organized by Joel Sachs and Cheryl Seltzer for the performers’ Committee on Twentieth-Century Music premiered the work here in 1975.

Program Note taken from the American Symphony Orchestra

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Conductor’s Perspective

This work is a real germ and not too hard to play. The biggest challenges are: 1) the parts are written as manuscript (hand written) as opposed to modern notation/engraving, so it takes a while for young players to get used to, and sometimes to read the notes correctly; and 2) the hemiola/syncopation in different grouping could be confusing at first, but after a few rehearsals musicians should be able to understand it clearly.

A very effective work and serves well as a concert opener.

About the Composer

Ruth Crawford was born to an itinerant Methodist minister and his wife. The family resided in Jacksonville, Florida when Crawford’s father died in 1914. Upon graduating high school Crawford entered Foster’s School of Musical Art, studying piano. The Foster School relocated to Miami in 1921, and Crawford enrolled in the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago. Originally planning to take a one-year teaching certificate in piano, she stayed until 1929, studying composition and theory with Adolf Weidig. Weidig encouraged her early efforts, and with her first Piano Preludes of 1924 Crawford had already developed her own unique, “ultra-modern” voice.

In 1926 Crawford composed her Sonata for Violin and Piano, performed often at modern music concerts in the late twenties; critics remarked that Crawford could “sling dissonances like a man”. She was recognized early on as a woman composer who did not fit the sentimental stereotypes associated with the standard profile. In Chicago, Crawford joined the circle of Djana Lavoie Herz, pianist and ex-follower of Scriabin; through Herz she met Dane Rudyhar, Henry Cowell and pianist Richard BŸhlig. Cowell quickly enjoined Crawford’s cause, arranging for performances of her music in New York and publishing it in the periodical New Music Quarterly. Crawford worked as a piano teacher for the children of poet Carl Sandburg; it was he who first interested her in American folksongs. She contributed arrangements to his 1927 book The American Songbag, and later created significant original settings to eight of his poems.

By 1930, Ruth Crawford was a force to be reckoned with in American modernism. Stylistically her work stood out in its uncompromising use of dissonance, contrapuntal ostinati, striking choice of texts and tidy formal construction. In March 1930 Crawford won a Guggenheim Fellowship to travel to Europe; the first woman so honored. In Berlin Crawford composed “Three Chants” set to a wordless text for women’s chorus; this eerie, experimental work has no obvious parallels to any music written before the 1960s. The following year witnessed her most famous work, String Quartet 1931, and with its publication Crawford provided the definitive foil to the old maxim that women “just can’t write” classical music with the strength and seriousness of male composers.

In 1929 she began study with Charles Seeger, a key figure in American music as a composer, theorist and musicologist. They married in 1932, with Ruth assuming responsibility for his children of a previous marriage, including son Pete, soon to become America’s best known folksinger. She likewise adopted several of Seeger’s theoretical methods that mark the works of her most productive period, 1930-33, however, her composing comes to a virtual standstill after 1934.

Among her children with Seeger were daughter Peggy and son Mike, both to become renowned folksingers and teachers in adulthood. In 1936 the Seegers moved to Washington, D.C. to work in folksong collecting for the Library of Congress. Crawford acted as transcriber for the book Our Singing Country and, with Charles Seeger, Folk Song USA, both authored by John and Alan Lomax.

As Ruth Crawford Seeger she published her own pioneering collection, American Folk Songs for Children, in 1948, designed for use in elementary grades. This and the other “Crawford Seeger” books of the kind are yet regarded as key texts in primary music education, and were widely adopted and imitated in the field. Crawford only returned to serious composition with the Suite for Wind Quintet in 1952. By the time it was completed, she learned she had cancer and Ruth Crawford died at the age of 52, ending prematurely a career that had begun with extraordinary promise.

by David Lewis, taken from

Performance Materials

Instrumentation: Chamber Orchestra: 1121-2210, timp, strings
Duration: 3 min

The Fleisher Library owns a set but is unable to circulate the parts as of 2021.

[Update in 2023] Now you can purchase parts and score through Presser – Rental parts are no longer required. Click for Presser Website

Perusal Scores


Recording on Youtube by the Schönberg Ensemble conducted by Oliver Knussen