Crumb, George (Henry Jr.)

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Crumb, George (Henry Jr.)

Crumb, George (Henry Jr.) , distinguished and innovative American composer; b. Charleston, W.Va., Oct. 24, 1929. He studied music at home. He began composing while in school, and had some of his pieces performed by the Charleston Sym. Orch. He took courses in composition at Mason Coll. in Charleston (B.M., 1950), pursued training at the Univ. of 111. (M.M., 1952), and continued his studies in composition with Finney at the Univ. of Mich. (D.M.A., 1959). In 1955 he received a Fulbright fellowship for travel to Germany, where he studied with Blacher at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik. He further received grants from the Rockefeller (1964), Koussevitzky (1965), and Coolidge (1970) foundations. In 1967 he held a Guggenheim fellowship, and also was given the National Inst. of Arts and Letters Award. In 1968 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music for his Echoes of Time and the River. From 1959 to 1964 he taught piano and occasional classes in composition at the Univ. of Colo, in Boulder. In 1965 he joined the music dept. of the Univ. of Pa. where he was subsequently the Annenberg prof. of the Humanities (1983–96). In his music, Crumb is a universalist. Nothing in the realm of sound is alien to him; no method of composition is unsuited to his artistic purposes; accordingly, his music can sing as sweetly as the proverbial nightingale, and it can be as rough, rude, and crude as a primitive man of the mountains. His vocal parts especially demand extraordinary skills of lungs, lips, tongue, and larynx to produce such sound effects as percussive tongue clicks, explosive shrieks, hissing, whistling, whispering, and sudden shouting of verbal irrelevancies, interspersed with portentous syllabification, disparate phonemes, and rhetorical logorrhea. In startling contrast, Crumb injects into his sonorous kaleidoscope citations from popular works, such as the middle section of Chopin’s Fantaisie- Impromptu, Ravel’s Bolero, or some other “objet trouve.” In his instrumentations, Crumb is no less unconventional. Among the many unusual effects to be found in his scores is an instruction to the percussion player to immerse the loudly sounding gong into a tub of water, having an electric guitar played with glass rods over the frets, or telling wind instrumentalists to blow soundlessly through their tubes. Spatial distribution also plays a role: instrumentalists and singers are assigned their reciprocal locations on the podium or in the hall. Like many composers who began their work around the middle of the 20th century, Crumb first adopted the Schoenbergian idiom, seasoned with pointillistic devices. After these preliminaries, he wrote his unmistak-ably individual Madrigals, to words by Federico Garcia Lorca, scored for voice and instrumental groups. There followed his extraordinary Ancient Voices of Children, performed for the first time at a chamber music festival in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 31, 1970; the text is again by Garcia Lorca; a female singer intones into the space under the lid of an amplified grand piano; a boy’s voice responds in anguish; the accompaniment is supplied by an orch. group and an assortment of exotic percussion instruments, such as Tibetan prayer stones, Japanese temple bells, a musical saw, and a toy piano. His equally remarkable Makrokosmos calls for equally unusual effects; in several movements, the pianist is instructed to vocalize at specified points of time. Crumb’s most grandiose creation is Star-Child, which calls for gargantuan forces, including a large orch., two children’s choruses, and eight additional percussion players performing on all kinds of utensils, such as pot lids, and also iron chains and metal sheets, as well as ordinary drums; it had its first performance under the direction of Pierre Boulez with the N.Y. Phil, on May 5, 1977.


Sonata for Solo Cello (1955); Variazioni for Orch. (1959; Cincinnati, May 8, 1965); 5 Pieces for Piano (1962); Night Music I for Soprano, Piano or Celesta, and Percussion, after Garcia Garcia Lorca (1963; Paris, Jan. 30, 1964); 4 Nocturnes (Night Music II) for Violin and Piano (1963; Buffalo, N.Y, Feb. 3, 1965); Madrigals, Book I for Soprano, Contrabass, and Vibra-phone, after Garcia Lorca (1965; Philadelphia, Feb. 18, 1966); Madrigals, Book II for Soprano, Flute, and Percussion, after Garcia Lorca (1965; Washington, D.C., March 11, 1966); 11 Echoes of Autumn, 1965 (Echoes I) for Violin, Alto Flute, Clarinet, and Piano (Brunswick, Maine, Aug. 10, 1966); Echoes of Time and the River (Echoes II: four Processionals) for Orch. (Chicago, May 26, 1967); Songs, Drones, and Refrains of Death for Baritone, Electric Guitar, Electric Contrabass, Amplified Piano (and Amplified Harpsichord), and two Percussionists, after Garcia Lorca (1968; Iowa City, Iowa, March 29, 1969); Madrigals, Book III for Soprano, Harp, and 1 Percussion Player, after Garcia Lorca (1969; Seattle, March 6, 1970); Madrigals, Book IV for Soprano, Flute, Harp, Contrabass, and Percussion, after Garcia Lorca (1969; Seattle, March 6, 1970); Night of the Four Moons for Alto, Alto Flute, Banjo, Electric Cello, and Percussion, after Garcia Lorca (Washington, Pa., Nov. 6, 1969); Black Angels (13 Images from the Dark Land: Images I) for Electric String Quartet (Ann Arbor, Oct. 23, 1970); Ancient Voices of Children for Soprano, Boy Soprano, Oboe, Mandolin, Harp, Electric Piano (and Toy Piano), and three Percussionists, after Garcia Lorca (Washington, D.C., Oct. 31, 1970); Lux aeterna for five Masked Players for Soprano, Bass Flute (and Soprano Recorder), Sitar, and two Percussionists (1971; Richmond, Va., Jan. 16, 1972); Vox balaenae (Voice of the Whale) for three Masked Players for Electric Flute, Electric Cello, and Amplified Piano (1971; Washington, D.C., March 17, 1972); Makrokosmos, Vol. I (12 Fantasy- Pieces after the Zodiac) for Amplified Piano (1972; Colorado Springs, Feb. 8, 1973); Makrokosmos, Vol. II (12 Fantasy-Pieces after the Zodiac) for Amplified Piano (1973; N.Y., Nov. 12, 1974); Music for a Summer Evening (Makrokosmos III) for two Amplified Pianos and two Percussionists (Swarthmore, Pa., March 30, 1974); Dream Sequence (Images II) for Violin, Cello, Piano, Percussion, and 2 Offstage Musicians playing Glass Harmonica (1976); Star-Child, parable for Soprano, Antiphonal Children’s Voices, Men’s Speaking Chorus, Bell Ringers, and Large Orch., demanding the coordinating abilities of four conductors (N.Y, May 5, 1977, under the general direction of Pierre Boulez); Celestial Mechanics (Makrokosmos IV), cosmic dances for Amplified Piano, 4-Hands(N.Y, Nov. 18, 1979); Apparition, elegiac songs and vocalises for Soprano and Amplified Piano, after Walt Whitman (1979; N.Y, Jan. 13, 1981); A Little Suite for Christmas, A.D. 1979 for Piano (Washington, D.C., Dec. 14, 1980); Gnomic Variations for Piano (1981); Pastoral Drone for Organ (1982); Processional for Piano (1983); A Haunted Landscape for Orch. (N.Y, June 7, 1984); The Sleeper for Mezzo-soprano and Piano, after Poe (N.Y, Dec. 4, 1984); An Idyll for the Misbegotten for Amplified Flute and three

Percussionists (1985; Toronto, Nov. 16, 1986); Federico’s Little Songs for Children for Soprano, Flute, and Percussion, after Garcia Lorca (1986; Philadelphia, June 12, 1988); Zeitgeist for two Amplified Pianos (1987; Duisburg, Jan. 17, 1988); Quest for Guitar, Soprano Saxophone, 2 Percussion, Harp, and Contra-bass (1990; rev. version, Vienna, Oct. 31, 1994); Easter Dawning for Carillon (1991; Dayton, Ohio, June 12, 1992); Mundus Canis: 5 Humoresques for Guitar and Percussion (1998).


D. Cope, G. C.: A Biography (N.Y., 1984; with annotated list of works compiled by D. Gillespie); D. Gillespie, ed., G. C.: Profile of a Composer (N.Y., 1986).

—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire