Described by those who know him as quiet, even shy and reticent, George Crumb is an award-winning American composer known for his inventive use of sound. His inspirations have come from as close by as his childhood Appalachian home and as far away as East Asia. His one-time teacher Ross Lee Finney called Crumb an “American tinkerer,” referring to the way in which Crumb experimented with combinations of various instruments and sounds. Crumb also is known for experimenting with the musicians themselves, requiring that they push themselves outside of their traditional comfort zones and enhance the performances with unusual theatrical and sonic elements.
Crumb’s Studies and Early Works
George Crumb was born to a musical family in Charleston, West Virginia on October 24, 1929. Both parents were professional musicians, and he grew up in a home filled with music making.
He began formally studying music at Mason College of Fine Arts and Music in Charleston in 1947. After graduating in 1950, he went to the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and received a master’s degree in music in 1953. Two years later, he attended the Berlin Hochschule für Music as a Fulbright Scholar (1955-6), where he studied composition with Boris Blacher. He then studied with the American composer Ross Lee Finney at the University of Michigan. Finney himself developed the university program for composition students, and in so doing, provided the model that Crumb followed later in his own teaching career at the University of Pennsylvania. Crumb received a doctorate from the University of Michigan in 1959. Crumb then took a teaching position at the University of Colorado, and stayed there until the early 1960s.
Crumb’s early works already showed his mature aesthetic sensibility. Crumb tended to write for various combinations of voices, string instruments, and piano. However, he also composed two orchestral works, Diptych (1955) and Variazioni (1959) - his doctoral thesis work. In these pieces Crumb incorporated sounds and ideas from Appalachian folksongs and hymns, as well as instruments that evoked his West Virginian home, including harmonica, hammered dulcimer, and musical saw. Additionally, he began to take ingredients from non-Western music, particularly mystical and meditative East and Southeast Asian instruments and timbres.
Ancient Voices and Dark Angels
Crumb began teaching composition at the University of Pennsylvania in 1965 and remained there until he retired from teaching in 1995. Crumb enjoyed the advantages of the university position there, as his works were published relatively easily (his works are now published by C. F. Peters). During this time, he and his wife raised three children.
Crumb’s mature style developed during the 1960s. He toyed with ritualistic and theatrical elements, writing stage directions into his scores, directing musicians to walk on or off stage, to interact with each other’s instruments, or to wear masks. He often called for electrified or amplified instruments, and challenged musicians to move beyond their particular training by whistling, chanting, or playing bells or wine glasses. Crumb is known for his rich and varied use of extended techniques, exploring instrumental resonances in new ways, such as having singers bellow directly into the body of a piano, thus activating the strings and creating an atmospheric aura of sound.
Crumb became entranced by the poetry of Federico García Lorca, and set several of Lorca’s poems, playing off the dark, surreal, and mystical imagery. One example of his setting Lorca’s writings is Ancient Voices for Children (1970) for soprano and chamber ensemble. Mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani premiered this work. Crumb wrote many works for DeGaetani, as they worked well together and her voice had the versatility necessary for Crumb’s innovative creations.
In the same year that Crumb finished Ancient Voices of Children, he also wrote another major work, Black Angels (1970) for amplified string quartet. The musicians also used percussion instruments and chanted at times. The title is a reference to early painters’ use of the black angel image to represent a fallen angel. This mythical and terrifying piece was written as a response to the Vietnam War. Crumb wrote, “Black Angels (Thirteen Images from the Dark Land) was conceived as a kind of parable on our troubled contemporary world.” In 1970 The Stanley Quartet premiered Black Angels in Ann Arbor. They were not comfortable with using the electrical equipment to amplify their instruments, or their good bows on the musical glasses, so instead they used cheap instruments and bows. They told the music reviewer Edith Borroff that they considered the vocal demands to be undignified. While this ensemble was perhaps not yet ready for the extended techniques and performative aspects of Crumb’s music, many groups since, most notably the Kronos Quartet, have embraced the piece for its darkness and its challenges.
During these years Crumb also produced works with strong visual aspects. For instance, he portrayed visual scenes sonically, such as in Voice of the Whale (Vox Balanae) For Three Masked Players (1971) for amplified flute, cello, piano, which depicts startling underwater whale songs and the cries of seagulls. Another way was through visual media itself. An artist in many media beyond sound composition, Crumb’s scores themselves are exquisitely beautiful, handwritten works of visual art, with curving staff lines, and scores shaped into circles, such as in Dream Sequence (Images II) (1976), and stars and spirals, as in Makrokosmos I and II (1972 and 1973, respectively).
Recent Works and Awards
After Crumb’s prolific creative output of the 1960s and 1970s, his work slowed in the 1980s and 1990s. Until he produced his chamber ensemble piece, Quest (1994), he experienced a bit of a writer’s block. Whatever the case, the recording George Crumb: Quest earned him a Cannes Classical Award in 1998 for the “Best CD of a Living Composer.”
In 2001, Crumb won a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Composition. This award was for his large-scale work, Star-Child (1977, revised 1979), written for soprano, children's voices, male choir, trombone, bell ringers, and a full orchestra. Most recently, George Crumb received an award from Musical America for “Composer of the Year,” in 2004.
Borroff, Edith. Three American Composers. Lanham: University Press of America, 1986.
De Dobay, Thomas R. “The Evolution of Harmonic Style in the Lorca Works of Crumb.” Journal of Music Theory 28.1 (1984): 89-111.
Fowler, Charles B. “American Composer Sketches: George Crumb.” Music Educators Journal 53.8 (1967): 61-3.
Karolyi, Otto. Modern American Music: From Charles Ives to the Minimalists. London: Cygnus Arts, 1996.
Smith, Geoff. “Composing after Cage. Permission Granted.” The Musical Times 139.1864 (1998): 5-8.
Richard Steinitz: ‘Crumb, George (Henry)’, Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 29 January 2007), <http://www.grovemusic.com>
Steinitz, Richard. “George Crumb.” The Musical Times 119.1628 (1978): 844-5.