Biography of Henry Cowell
great acclaim and notoriety. While in Europe, he had contact with leading performers and composers such as Schnabel, Bartok, Berg, Webern and Schoenberg. He was the first American composer invited to the Soviet Union, performing his piano music in 1929 in Leningrad, and in Moscow to an audience of wildly enthusiastic students at the Conservatory. Two of his piano pieces were published there as well.
Another side of Cowell’s musical personality was his interest in traditional and non-western musics. Growing up on the edge of the large Asian community in the Bay Area, Cowell was exposed to Asian music in his earliest years. He later said that he heard Chinese opera before he knew of Italian opera. He learned to play a number of Asian instruments, including the Japanese shakuhachi (endblown bamboo flute) for which he wrote The Universal Flute in 1940, the first known piece for that ancient instrument by an American.
Cowell’s interest in the musics of other cultures grew throughout his life. In 1928 he was invited to teach at the New School for Social Research in New York, where, in addition to teaching contemporary music, Cowell offered a courses entitled “Music of the World’s People’s,” probably the first “world music” course taught in this country. In 1930 he received a Guggenheim Fellowship to study at the famous Hornbostel Archive at the University of Berlin where he devoured the huge collection of recordings of non-western music. While there he took lessons on Javanese and Balinese gamelan instruments and attended Schoenberg’s composition seminar at the latter’s invitation.
Cowell’s extraordinary activity in the 1930s was shockingly interrupted in 1936, when he was arrested in California and convicted of a trumped up morals charge involving a consenting young adult man. Initially sentenced to fifteen years, Cowell was released after serving four years in San Quentin, where, remarkably, he had continued to compose, wrote a book on melody and taught and conducted ensembles of inmates. Through the efforts of Sidney Robertson, a brilliant folklorist and pianist whom he later married, Cowell was pardoned by the governor of California.