George Crumb

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Crumb, performed on April 19, 2012 at Carnegie Hall.

We have become accustomed to assuming that composers who are employed by universities deserved the designation “academic.” Indeed, with the exception of John Adams and Philip Glass, since the 1960s composers who were not also performers (e.g. Bernstein and Foss) and who did not have the good fortune of independent means, relied on employment by colleges and universities for their livelihood. The expansion of university activity to include the teaching of composition (which began quite late with John Knowles Paine’s formal appointment at Harvard in 1875) has indeed been a great gift to music. The list of composers who have taught in the halls of academe rather than conservatories since the 1940s is extensive and impressive.

At the same time, the rift between the audience and modernist music during the mid-20th century has led to some suspicion about music fostered within the university. On the one hand, commercial and popular music of all kinds has flourished since 1945. On the other hand, seemingly impenetrable and abstruse music has been written under the non-commercial (if not anti-commercial) aegis of the university. Consequently, the use of the term “academic” to describe music or a composer does not connote flattery or praise. The idea of the “academic” has been hijacked and misleadingly turned into a pejorative. What has made that possible is the fact that serious scholarship and expertise often defy common sense. They are hard to understand and made even more daunting by the use of jargon. Music is no exception. Furthermore, some of the composers we readily associate with the American university during the second half of the 20th century include quite complex, brilliant, and rather forbidding personalities whose music is equally complex, brilliant, and forbidding. One thinks of Milton Babbitt, Roger Sessions, and Leon Kirchner.

It is therefore refreshing and delightful to realize that George Crumb, whose music burst on the scene in the late 1960s, was for his entire career a distinguished member of a university faculty. He taught in Virginia, Colorado, and for most of his career at the University of Pennsylvania. His compositions, however, marked a powerful shift in the history of 20th-century music. It reached the public at first hearing. Crumb can be compared in this regard to Ligeti and Kurtag. Crumb’s music, economical and elegant from the start, has mesmerized and enchanted broad audiences as well as fellow composers and musicians. He has made us think about time and sonority in new ways and has forged contemporary links between music, sentiment, and ideas, without the off-putting philosophical and conceptual verbiage in which many fine composers have sought justification and refuge.

Yet some of Crumb’s greatest contributions have come from his teaching. The fact that so many of his students have become the leading composers of their generation is a tribute to his generosity of spirit, and his kind and disarmingly modest manner. His students include Osvaldo Golijov, Jennifer Higdon, and Christopher Rouse. Crumb has also, not surprisingly, been a generous colleague. David Burge and the late Jan DeGaetani are two remarkable performers who worked closely with Crumb. Crumb offered a welcome alternative to the tense and testy relationships between performer and composer that came to dominate the new music scene, first after World War I (one thinks of Schoenberg) and after World War II (one thinks of Babbitt). Finally, Crumb as a person and in his demeanor is one of the few composers and indeed professors on our campuses (in any subject) entirely lacking in pretension and a sense of self-importance. There is a directness, grace, wit, and down-to-earth quality to George Crumb that is unforgettable. In Crumb, these attributes are not without their mischievous and subtle aspects. But meeting George Crumb for the first time, one might not guess that one was meeting one of the most original, profound, and important composers in all of 20th-century music, whose influence on the music of today has been historic. Crumb, working with the impetus provided by his encounter with the music of Schoenberg, Webern, and Dallapiccola (especially Webern’s approach to pitch, sonority, silence, and the economy of form) made something uniquely American out of a European tradition in an entirely novel way.

If I may be permitted a personal note, this concert is the realization of a dream I have harbored for a long time. I will never forget the impact Crumb’s Echoes of Time and the River made on me when I first heard it. It was 1967, and I was 19 years old and an undergraduate student at the University of Chicago. We were lucky to have a terrific music department, with Easley Blackwood, Ralph Shapey, and Richard Wernick on the faculty, alongside a group of music historians (including Howard Mayer Brown, Leo Treitler, and H. Colin Slim), many of whom were active performers.

I was the assistant conductor and concertmaster of the University Orchestra and a student of Richard Wernick’s. Through him, I was invited to the rehearsals taking place in Mandel Hall in 1967 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a special series devoted to contemporary music. The piece in rehearsal was Crumb’s Echoes, and the performance was to be a premiere. The members of the orchestra refused to do the processionals, as I recall, and only reluctantly agreed to play the antique cymbals. I do remember Victor Aitay, the great concertmaster, gingerly putting down his violin to play an antique cymbal when called for in the piece. I still possess and cherish the score of Echoes I was given to study.

I got to sit behind Crumb as he followed along, with his friend Richard Wernick beside him. I met Crumb again a few years later when I was in graduate school while visiting the Wernicks, who had moved to Media, Pennsylvania, where the Crumbs also lived. Wernick had joined the Penn faculty. I recall playing the Schubert “Trout” Quintet with Crumb playing the double bass part on a second piano. For several years, Jan DeGaetani and her husband Phil West were artists in residence in New Hampshire at Franconia College while I served as president there in the early 1970s. I recall many memorable evenings with George Crumb who came several times for concerts and visits. Among the most unforgettable was a long evening séance at the Franconia Inn, during which a table—at which sat Jan deGaetani, George Crumb, Joel Thome, Phil West, and I—was said to have “levitated.”

When I moved to Bard College in 1975, George Crumb and Richard Wernick kindly came to do a mini-residency at the college. I was once again reminded of the grace, humor, reserve, and intelligence of George Crumb. It is so refreshing to encounter a genuinely great gift for writing music that means something, engages the audience and fellow professionals, and says something new but is neither imitative nor manipulative. That rare gift resides in Crumb, an individual without airs and affectation. It is indeed a miracle when an artist exists who does not relish appearing as one.

George Crumb has taken his place alongside the greatest of American composers. His unmistakable American voice and intuition for innovation, all in a manner immune from commerce and the politics of fame, has earned him international renown. The American Symphony Orchestra is truly proud to honor George Crumb by presenting three of his greatest works in its ongoing tribute to great American composers, which has recently included Henry Cowell, Walter Piston, and will continue next season with John Cage.

Progressive Trailblazer, Experimental Pioneer

By Robert Carl

Written for the concert Crumb, performed on April 19, 2012 at Carnegie Hall.

George Crumb is a rare artist: on the one hand, he projects an immediate, gripping poetry in his music. On the other, he has also developed a rich and innovative toolbox of extended instrumental and notational techniques that has been enormously influential on successive generations of composers. In short, he communicates directly and immediately to listeners of all sorts, yet he is also a progressive trailblazer, an experimental pioneer. Few composers combine these traits successfully, yet Crumb has pulled off the trick.

When one thinks of the composer’s output, though, the first things that come to mind are his masterful vocal cycles (in particular settings of Federico Garcia Lorca in the 1960s and 70s), and music for chamber ensembles (not only for the vocal works such as Ancient Voices of Children, but the Makrokosmos piano series and Black Angels for string quartet, all now solid repertoire items). What we don’t always immediately think of is his orchestral output. Crumb is very much a poet of sound, and his voice has always been one of intimacies, often whispered—tender, melancholy, sinister, fragile. The grander rhetoric of the orchestra and the so-called “symphonic argument” would seem antithetical to his temperament. Yet tonight we have almost all of the composer’s orchestral works (only missing is A Haunted Landscape from 1984), and what emerges is one of the most visionary re-imaginings of the medium possible. Crumb’s orchestral music is not just “chamber music writ large” (even though there are definitely aspects of that to it). Rather, it is a new world of sounds and relationships between large communities of musicians who happen to inhabit this remarkable institution we call “the symphony orchestra.”

It’s appropriate that we begin with the 1959 Variazioni, written as Crumb’s doctoral dissertation piece at the University of Michigan (indeed, this is one of the few dissertation works that actually has had a life beyond its academic function, because we look in the piece for fingerprints of the artist he was to become). Crumb studied from 1954—55 in Berlin with Boris Blacher, and the influence of the Second Viennese School is evident. The work’s theme consists of twelve tones—but afterwards is used intuitively as a resource for motives and harmonies, not as a strict serial construction. The transparency and pointillistic precision of the orchestration suggests Webern, but Crumb also quotes Berg’s Lyric Suite at one point (I also hear the close of Wozzeck in the piccolo’s descending perfect fourth of Fantasia I). Crumb himself has written in the work’s instructions page that he had not yet found his personal voice, but also indicates that there are clues to his future development in “my almost obsessive interest in timbre and texture.” Certainly the use of string harmonics, tremoli, glissandi, and divisi weave a distinctive sonic fabric, as does the large and varied percussion section’s writing. But the most radical sonic exploration occurs in the three Fantasias, which interweave with the variations (between numbers 2 and 3, 5 and 6, and at the work’s end). Each is built around a trio of celesta, harp, and mandolin (the last a distant memory of the composer’s West Virginian upbringing; no “classical” composer has written more evocatively for the instrument). In the second Fantasia, Cadenza, the music consists entirely of the trio and percussion in a dreamy dialogue where unpitched sound takes on as important an expressive role as pitched. According to the composer, the concluding Elegia projects “suspended time and a rather surrealistic manner of distributing sounds in space,” though these disparate elements coalesce in a natural way into a climax that in turn reveals the wistful final statement of the theme. This sense of a layering, almost an implosion of the work’s elements as a culminatory gesture, is a trait of all three pieces on the program, and becomes increasingly ambitious and visionary as Crumb moves forward.

By 1968, Echoes of Time and the River shows us a composer in full command of his technique and understanding of his aesthetic. It won that year’s Pulitzer Prize in Music, and is one of the most radical re-imagining of the orchestra as a performative instrument, thanks to the “processionals” that glide through the physical space of the ensemble. There is something profoundly mysterious about seeing players we are used to viewing seated slowly marching across the stage, chanting, executing precise steps and gestures (though it’s something utterly familiar to most Americans with marching bands!). There is again an extremely elaborate mandolin part. Percussive techniques include pitch bending on the vibraphone, a water gong, and piano strings played by a percussionist with hard mallets to create a dulcimer effect. The work is a constant layering of prolific detail, but the careful choice of sounds and their placement guarantees transparency. It’s a very personal sort of counterpoint, based more on timbre and texture than line. But there also is counterpoint that’s more than just color: the “circle musics” in “The Collapse of Time” (stunningly rendered in the score, in Crumb’s immaculate calligraphy) that allow winds and brass to perform with precise cueing of one another, yet to preserve soloistic freedom.

The texts are varied and surreal: the West Virginia state motto, stated as a question (“Mountaineers are Free?”), Lorca (“The broken arches, where time suffers”), and Aristophanes’ The Frogs (“Krek tu dai!”). After the cataclysm of the third movement, the final “Last Echoes of Time” brings back the preceding elements of the piece. The music reaches a gentle climax by suggesting that all its materials have found their proper space in relation to one another, and coexist outside of ordinary time. And there’s perhaps no more poignant moment in the literature than the final whistling chorus of the orchestra, a gentle march receding into silence.

In 1977, on commission from the New York Philharmonic, Crumb made his grandest single statement, Star-Child. Its instrumentation is Mahlerian in size and scope, including soprano, solo trombone, children’s choir, a male speaking choir that also plays handbells, organ, and enlarged sections that include six horns, seven trumpets, and eight percussionists. It’s also Ivesian in simultaneities: first in the slowly repeating chords of the Musica Mundana for strings and percussion, which, along with the trombone soloist, evokes the Unanswered Question; later in multiple instrumental “circles” that create a swirling multiplicity of musics. Through a precise spatial arrangement, it allows multiple musical levels to coexist and be heard in a manner that would not be possible in a traditional configuration. It is the grandest attempt by the composer to create a cosmology, one that mixes apocalyptic fervor with Romantic ecstasy. Using Latin liturgical texts it charts a progression from darkness to light, reflected in shifts of register, timbre, and textural meaning.

Star-Child is Crumb’s most expansive and complete depiction of his vision of time. It’s vast, over half an hour long. On the one hand, it moves at a stately pace that refuses to be rushed—the opening duet of the soprano and trombone, while increasingly intense, grows gradually, until the tension broken by the climactic entrance of the children’s choir is nearly unbearable. As this suggests, the music moves ever forward (and upward), and the eruption of the Dies Irae in the “Musica Apocalyptica” is irresistibly propulsive. But also, the strings continue on their celestial rotation throughout the entire piece, and by the final section, “Hymnus Pro Novo Tempore,” a series of additional “circles” emerge that create a swirling texture that suggest universes beyond our own immediate perception. This is a time of multiple times, multiple dimensions, ever growing and ever still. It is the space where redemption remains possible, and where the final whispered choral words resonate into infinity: “Libera me.”

Dr. Carl is chair of the composition department at the Hartt School, University of Hartford. He is the author of “Terry Riley’s In C” (Oxford University Press) and studied with George Crumb at the University of Pennsylvania in 1977.