Composer George Crumb: Biography, Music & Madrigals

Instructor: Charis Duke

Charis has taught college music and has a master's degree in music composition.

George Crumb is one of the most important avant-garde American composers. His highly creative music is popular around the world. In this lesson we will discuss his life and the unique qualities of his style.

The Pianist is Doing What?!

It's Friday night and your date loves piano music, so you decide to go to a piano recital at the concert hall. The program begins with some lovely music, and you are glad you came. The next piece on the program is Makrokosmos, Volume I by George Crumb. Soon, the pianist is rapping his fingers on the wood inside the piano and groaning. Next he lays chains across the piano strings while playing the keys. Then he puts thimbles on his fingers, strikes the strings, and shouts. Your date looks at you, eyebrows raised to the heavens. Is this even music?

Crumb's Beginnings

George Crumb was born on Oct. 24, 1929 in Charleston, West Virginia to a musical family. By age ten he played the flute, clarinet, and piano. As a teenager he enjoyed studying the scores of other composers, trying to hear all the different instruments in his head. George went on to earn music degrees from Mason College, the University of Illinois, and a doctorate in music from the University of Michigan.

In 1955 Crumb composed his Sonata for solo cello. This early work is in a fairly traditional style, influenced by composers such as Béla Bartók. It is Crumb's earliest published work and only very faintly indicates the experimental, mystical style he developed later. By the 1960s he had became the poster child of the avant-garde movement in music. Avant-garde (French for 'advance guard') music is experimental, different, and new.

Crumb's first teaching position was at the University of Colorado from 1959-1964. In 1965 he began teaching at the University of Pennsylvania where he remained for the next 30 years until his retirement. He still resides in Media, Pennsylvania with his wife. They have three children, one of whom, David Crumb, has become a notable composer in his own right.

Crumb's Style

George Crumb's music has a unique, instantly identifiable sound. He plays with timbre (the tone color, or quality of sound, of a given instrument) to a degree that is often surprising. For example, his piano work Makrokosmos, Volume II requires the pianist to lay a sheet of paper on the strings of the piano, pluck and strum the strings, sing, whistle, and shout. At one point in the string quartet Black Angels the performers put down their instruments and play with their bows on crystal goblets containing different amounts of water. These excursions outside the ordinary are normal for a George Crumb piece.

Crumb is also fascinated with mysticism, pageantry, and theater. His Pulitzer Prize winning orchestra piece Echoes of Time and the River directs the players to move around the stage at different times and in very precise ways. Vox Balaenae is a work for 'three masked players' on electric flute, electric cello, and electric piano. Many of his works employ numerology: Black Angels, for example, uses the numbers seven and thirteen in recurring patterns, numbers Crumb sees as representing good versus evil.

A performance of a Crumb work.
Photo of a performance of a Crumb piece.

Another distinct Crumb characteristic is quotation. Quotation is the use of music by other composers in its original form, inserted into another piece. One famous Crumb work, Ancient Voices of Children, uses quotation by inserting the German chorale Bist du bei mir into the movement 'Todas las tardes in Granada.' The text is by Frederico Garcia Lorca and translates, 'Each afternoon in Granada, each afternoon a child dies.' After a boy soprano sings this text, the chorale is played on a toy piano. The effect is haunting and evocative, and entirely typical of Crumb.

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