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Wednesday, February 10, 2016

George Crumb (b. 1929)

George Crumb (b. October 24, 1929, Charleston, WV) began to compose at an early age.

Two Duos (c. 1944), for flute and clarinet

Four Pieces (1945), for violin and piano

Four Songs (1945), for voice, clarinet, and piano

Piano Sonata (1945)

Three Early Songs (1947), for voice and piano

Seven Songs (1946), for voice and piano

Gethsemane (1947), for small orchestra

Alleluja (1948), for unaccompanied chorus

Violin Sonata (1949)

He studied music first at the Mason College of Music in Charleston, where he received his Bachelor's degree in 1950.

A Cycle of Greek Lyrics (c. 1950), for voice and piano

Prelude and Toccata (1951), for piano

String Trio (1952)

Three Pastoral Pieces (1952), for oboe and piano

Viola Sonata (1953)

String Quartet (1954)

Diptych (1955)

Sonata for Solo Cello (1955)

He obtained his Master's degree at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and then studied briefly in Berlin before returning to the United States

Although his scores and recordings sell steadily, Crumb has earned his living primarily from teaching. His first teaching job was at a college in Virginia, before he became professor of piano and composition at the University of Colorado in 1958.

He received a D.M.A in composition from the University of Michigan, in 1959.

Variazioni (1959), for large orchestra

Five Pieces (1962), for piano

Night Music I (1963, revised 1976), for soprano, piano/celeste, and two percussionists

Four Nocturnes (Night Music II) (1964), for violin and piano

In 1965 he began a long association with the University of Pennsylvania,

Madrigals, Book I (1965), for soprano, vibraphone, and double bass

Madrigals, Book II (1965), for soprano, flute/alto flute/piccolo, and percussion

Several of Crumb's works, including the four books of madrigals he wrote in the late 1960's and Ancient Voices of Children, a song cycle of 1970 for two singers and small instrumental ensemble (which includes a toy piano), are settings of texts by Federico García Lorca. Many of his vocal works were written for the virtuoso singer Jan DeGaetani.

Eleven Echoes of Autumn (Echoes I) (1966), for violin, alto flute, clarinet, and piano

Echoes of Time and the River (Echoes II) (1967)

I. Frozen Time

Crumb has been the recipient of a number of awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1968 for his orchestral work Echoes of Time and the River

Songs, Drones, and Refrains of Death (1968), for baritone, electric guitar, electric double bass, amplified piano/electric harpsichord, and two percussionists

After initially being influenced by Anton Webern, Crumb became interested in exploring unusual timbres. He often asks for instruments to be played in unusual ways and several of his pieces are written for electrically amplified instruments.

Madrigals, Book III (1969), for soprano, harp, and percussion

Madrigals, Book IV (1969), for soprano, flute/alto flute/piccolo, harp, double bass, and percussion

I. Por que naci

Night of the Four Moons (1969), for alto, alto flute/piccolo, banjo, electric cello, and percussion

Ancient Voices of Children (1970), for mezzo-soprano, boy soprano, oboe, mandolin, harp, amplified piano (and toy piano), and percussion (three players)

Ib. Dances of the Ancient Earth

III. Dance of the Sacred Life Cycle

IV. Todos las Tardes en Grenada (Each Afternoon in Granada)

(continued from above)

Crumb's music often seems to be concerned about the theatre of performance as much as the music itself. In several pieces he asks players to leave and enter the stage during the piece. He has also used unusual layouts of musical notation in a number of his scores. In several pieces, the music is symbolically laid out in a circular or spiral fashion.

Black Angels (Images I) (1970), for electric string quartet

I. Night of the Electric Insects

II. Sounds of Bones and Flutes

III. Ancient Bells

IV. Devil Music

V. Danse Macabre

(all above continued from above, and recapitulated in video below)

Black Angels (1970) is another piece which displays Crumb's interest in exploring a wide range of timbres. Written for amplified string quartet (referred to as "electric string quartet" by the composer in the score, although the instruments called for are acoustic ones), the players are required to play various percussion instruments and to bow small goblets as well as to play their instruments in both conventional and unconventional ways. It is one of Crumb's best known pieces, and has been recorded by the Kronos Quartet and others.


Black Angels (Edition Peters, New York, no. 66304, c. 1971), subtitled Thirteen Images from the Dark Land was composed over the course of a year and is dated "Friday the Thirteenth, March 1970 (in tempore belli)." Crumb is very interested in numerology and numerically structured the piece around 13 and 7.

Crumb was commissioned by the Stanley Quartet (then in residence at his alma mater the University of Michigan) to create the work. Sure that he wanted to avoid writing a typical piece for string quartet, Crumb looked to experimental piano music from the early 60's for inspiration, and decided to explore the contemporary world's religious strife in his composition. Black Angels reflects these haunting and mystical undertones; Crumb meant for the violin to embody the devil's music, and cast the cello as "the voice of God."

The image of Black Angels is an archetypical convention used by artists to represent an angel banished from Heaven. The "Dark Land" refers to Hell, with consistent references to Diablo, via Diabolus in Musica, the Trillo del diavolo ("Devil's Trill", from Giuseppe Tartini), and the Dies Irae (quoted in section 4 Devil-music, and as a Duo Alternativo in section 5 Danse Macabre). Crumb also makes references to other tonal works that incorporate death, such as Schubert's Death and the Maiden (quoted in section 6 Pavana Lachrymae and section 13 Threnody III).

"Black Angels" was not originally intended to refer to wartime, and Crumb only associated his work with Vietnam towards the end of its composition. "I came to recognize that there was something of the feeling of that strange time. That's when I called it music in tempore belli, in time of war," he said in an interview with Philadelphia City Paper. After making the connection between his piece and war, Crumb also connected it to another contemporary wartime piece, Penderecki's Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima. Both pieces open with high pitched extended technique on violin, and Black Angels features three important threnodies which divide it.

The first part, Departure, begins by establishing the dark mood of Black Angels and introducing the primary death theme. In the second part, Absence, the fallen angel's themes are heard. Finally in part three, Return, God prevails over evil, as presented in section 10 God-music.
Each of these parts is built around the primes 7 and 13 in some way. This might be reflected in the length of the section, its phrases, its note values, patterns of motifs, or pitch (in accordance with set theory). Crumb himself forgets how the numbers play in to every section, and warns not to read too much into their significance, as he "got carried away with the Friday the 13th thing." He views the numerology as more of a "technical, structural" experiment, and has played down the numbers' significance increasingly in the years since 1970.

I. Departure

1. THRENODY I: Night of the Electric Insects 13 times 7 and 7 times 13
2. Sounds of Bones and Flutes 7 in 13
3. Lost Bells 13 over 7
4. Devil-music 7 and 13
5. Danse Macabre 13 times 7

II. Absence

6. Pavana Lachrymae 13 under 13
7. THRENODY II: BLACK ANGELS! 7 times 7 and 13 times 13
8. Sarabanda de la Muerte Oscura 13 over 13
9. Lost Bells (Echo) 7 times 13

III. Return

10. God-music 13 and 7
11. Ancient Voices 7 over 13
12. Ancient Voices (echo) 13 in 7
13. THRENODY III: Night of the Electric Insects 7 times 13 and 13 times 7


Black Angels is primarily written (in unusual and very detailed notation) for (in Crumb's words) "electric string quartet." Though generally played by amplified acoustic instruments, the work is occasionally performed on specially constructed electronic string instruments. The music uses the extremes of the instruments' registers as well as extended techniques such as bowing on the fingerboard above the fingers and tapping the strings with thimbles. At certain points in the music, the players are even required to make sounds with their mouths and to speak.
Each of the string players is also assigned a set of instruments to play throughout the piece. Some of the equipment requires specific preparation, such as the crystal glasses, which are tuned with different amounts of water.

Violin 1

7 crystal glasses
6" glass rod
2 metal thimbles
metal pick (paper clip)

Violin 2

15" suspended tam-tam and mallet
contrabass bow (for use on tam-tam)
7 crystal glasses
6" glass rod
2 metal thimbles
metal pick (paper clip)


6 crystal glasses
6" glass rod
2 metal thimbles
metal pick


24" suspended tam-tam, soft and hard mallets
contrabass bow

Crumb's score includes a diagram that places the four musicians in a box-like formation. Electric Violin II and Electric Cello are located near upstage right and upstage left, respectively, with their tam-tams between them. Electric Violin I and Electric Viola are near downstage right and downstage left, respectively, but are slightly farther apart than the other two musicians in order to allow full sight of the quartet. Violin I, Violin II and Viola have a set of crystal glasses downstage of them, while Violin I and Cello have maracas upstage of them. Each of the four musicians has a speaker next to him or her.

Kronos Quartet, which specializes in new music, was originally formed when violinist David Harrington heard "Black Angels" over the radio.

He thought Crumb's piece was "something wild, something scary" and "absolutely the right music to play."

It was the first composition Kronos performed.

"Threnody I: Night of the Electric Insects" is featured on the soundtrack of The Exorcist.


Lux Aeterna (1971) for soprano, bass flute/soprano recorder, sitar, and percussion (two players)

Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale) (1971), for electric flute, electric cello, and amplified piano

I. Vocalise (...for the Beginning of Time)

Makrokosmos, Volume I (1972), for amplified piano

VIII. The Magic Circle of Infinity

XII. Spiral Galaxy

Makrokosmos, Volume II (1973), for amplified piano

VIII. A Prophecy of Nostradamus

Another of Crumb's best known works are the four books of Makrokosmos. The first two books (1972, 1973), for solo piano, make extensive use of string piano techniques; the third, known as Music for a Summer Evening (1974), is for two pianos and percussion; the fourth, Celestial Mechanics (1979), is for piano four-hands. The title Makrokosmos alludes to Mikrokosmos, the six books of piano pieces by Béla Bartók; like Bartók's work, Makrokosmos is a series of short character pieces. Apart from Bartók, Claude Debussy and Frederic Chopin are other composers Crumb acknowledged as influence heres, although the works call for techniques beyond what any of those composers ever employed. The piano is both amplified and prepared by the placing of objects on and between the strings (Crumb has referred to string and prepared piano techniques collectively as "extended piano"). On several occasions the pianist is required to sing or shout certain words as well as playing. Makrokosmos was premiered by David Burge, who later recorded the work.

Music for a Summer Evening (Makrokosmos III) (1974), for two amplified pianos and percussion (two players)

VI. Myth

V. Music of the Starry Night

Dream Sequence (Images II) (1976), for violin, cello, piano, percussion (one player), and off-stage glass harmonica (two players)

Star-Child (1977, revised 1979), for soprano, antiphonal children's voices, male speaking choir, bell ringers, and large orchestra

Apparition (1979), for soprano and amplified piano

Celestial Mechanics (Makrokosmos IV) (1979), for amplified piano (four hands)

A Little Suite for Christmas, A.D. 1979 (1980)

Gnomic Variations (1981)

String Trio (1982)

Pastoral Drone (1982), for organ

Processional (1983)

He became Annenberg Professor of the Humanities in 1983. Some of his most prominent students include Margaret Brouwer, Uri Caine, Osvaldo Golijov, Jennifer Higdon, James Primosch, and Gerald Levinson.

A Haunted Landscape (1984)

The Sleeper (1984), for soprano and piano

Federico's Little Songs for Children (1986), for soprano, flute/piccolo/alto flute/bass flute, and harp

An Idyll for the Misbegotten (Images III) (1986), for amplified flute and percussion (three players)

Zeitgeist (Tableaux Vivants) (1988), for two amplified pianos

Easter Dawning (1991), for carillon

Quest (1994), for guitar, soprano saxophone, harp, double bass, and percussion (two players)

Crumb retired from teaching in 1997. His son, David, is a composer and, since 1997, assistant professor at the University of Oregon.

Mundus Canis (A Dog's World) (1998), for guitar and percussion

Crumb's daughter, Ann , is an actress and singer. She recorded his Three Early Songs for the CD George Crumb 70th Birthday Album (1999), and has also performed his Unto the Hills (2001).

American Songbook I: Unto the Hills (2001), for soprano, percussion quartet, and piano

In early 2002 was appointed with David Burge to a joint residency at Arizona State University.

Eine Kleine Mitternachtmusik (A Little Midnight Music) (2002)

American Songbook II: A Journey Beyond Time (2003), for soprano, percussion quartet, and piano

American Songbook III: River of Life (2003), for soprano, percussion quartet, and piano

Otherworldly Resonances (2003), for two pianos

American Songbook IV: Winds of Destiny (2004), for soprano, percussion quartet, and piano

American Songbook V: Voices from a Forgotten World (2007), for soprano, baritone, percussion quartet and piano

Crumb's works are published by the C. F. Peters Corporation.

[8930 Coleman / 8929 Crumb / 8929 Goldsmith]

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