Joel Sachs’s long-awaited book on one of America’s most notable musical mavericks offers a rich discourse not only on the life of Henry Cowell (1897–1965), but also a commentary on the many prolific figures close to him. As such, it charts a history of American music in the early twentieth century and reflects on several interconnected areas of musical life, including the publication and reception of new music, advances in ethnomusicology, the community of composers, and the reach of American music beyond its geographical borders.
That this book was long in coming can hardly be any surprise, as it becomes clear from the outset that Sachs was faced with an extraordinary array of resources from figures who were exceptionally well-intentioned but not always fully acquainted with specific details, among them Cowell himself. However, through extensive cross-referencing, Sachs has developed a cogent narrative that is brimming with new factual details, written across sixty-one chapters, and enveloped in six parts.
Of the many figures, familial, social, and collegial, with whom Cowell interacts, his relationships with three women come to the fore: Clara/Clarissa Dixon Cowell (his mother), Olive Thompson Cowell (his second stepmother), and Sidney Robertson Cowell (his wife) (p. 3). Sidney Cowell was alive until shortly before the book’s publication and much of the material is cross-referenced through her notes. However, she too could also be a fruitful source of both reliable information and misremembered and embroidered memory.
Although it would be tempting to consider everything about Cowell’s personal life in tandem with his relationship with his mother, Sachs presents the information on both his home schooling, his mother’s attitudes to relationships and religion—including standing in church at seventeen and renouncing her membership (p. 12)—in such a fashion that readers will draw their own conclusions. One can see obvious resemblances to his mother, such as a tremendous independence of spirit that manifested itself in Cowell’s being significantly self-taught, reading “Stainer on harmony, Mason on orchestration, and Prout on musical form” (p. 33) at a young age.
Clarissa’s tenacity in her own career is a further point of reference as she scraped by to make ends meet as a writer. While Cowell was a teenager, she became ill and he became the sole provider, working as an assistant janitor for a school and cleaning out a neighbor’s chicken house (p. 35). However, in 1910 Cowell’s horizons were broadened through his work with the Stanford professor Lewis M. Terman, who began to meet with him three times a week to conduct intelligence tests (p. 37). Terman later noted that what impressed him most was Cowell’s intellectual versatility (p. 43). Through Stanford connections the young Cowell developed a coterie of supporters that increased in number throughout his life, including the English professor Samuel S. Seward, who helped organize a fund that would allow him to be free of the financial burden of caring for his mother while providing resources for lessons (pp. 55–59). Cowell eventually [End Page 135] encountered the twenty-six-year-old Charles Seeger, who ultimately took him on as his first student in composition, allowing Cowell to “pursue free composition and academic disciplines concurrently” (p. 60). As the young composer’s interests were not confined to a single style, this was a logical development. A staunch nonbeliever, he nonetheless became a theosophist, and the effect of his interactions with the Halcyon community stayed with him throughout his life. As a composer his interests soon focused on new theoretical approaches, especially concerning tone clusters and rhythm. His ideas would eventually emerge many years later in the publication New Musical Resources.
His enlistment during the Great War resulted in a posting to Camp Crane, Pennsylvania, which was within easy reach of New York City (pp. 81–82). During this period he developed strong friendships with fellow musicians Carl Ruggles and Leo Ornstein. Ever industrious, Cowell formed a band and interviewed all the men who...