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.