George Crumb

American composer of modern and avant-garde music. Born 24 October 1929
George Crumb
George Crumb

George Crumb Biography (BBC)

George Crumb was born into a musical family in Charleston, West Virginia, on 24 October 1929. He recalls listening to Appalachian folk music as a child, and its traces can sometimes still be heard among the multifarious musical references in his mature scores. Crumb’s main instrument was the piano but composition quickly became a preoccupation. After gaining a Masters degree at the University of Illinois, Crumb enrolled for doctoral studies with Ross Lee Finney at the University of Michigan. Finney’s meticulous approach to musical notation is reflected in the exquisite calligraphy that distinguishes Crumb’s manuscripts. Crumb’s doctoral studies yielded his first published compositions, the Bartók-inspired Sonata for solo cello (1955) and the more Schoenbergian Variazioni for orchestra (1959).

From 1959 to 1964 Crumb taught the piano at the University of Colorado. Here he wrote his groundbreaking Five Pieces for Piano (1962). With their Webern-like brevity and refinement, together with their seamless integration of traditional pianism and innovative performing techniques (including harmonics, unusual use of the pedals and playing directly onto the strings), these short pieces establish the musical principles on which all Crumb’s later works are built.

During the 1960s, Crumb rapidly established himself as one of America’s most important and original young composers. His orchestral piece Echoes of Time and the River (Echoes II) (1967) was particularly acclaimed, winning a Pulitzer Prize. Among many unusual playing techniques, this score requires players to whisper a phrase from the poetry of Federico García Lorca, the great Spanish writer whose work has had a profound influence on Crumb. The concentration and intensity of Lorca’s poetry, not to mention its lyricism, controlled violence and often macabre imagery, finds an eerily precise parallel in Crumb’s sound-world.

From 1962 to 1971 almost everything Crumb composed was in some way Lorca inspired. These include some of his most important works: the four books of Madrigals (1965–9), Songs, Drones and Refrains of Death (1968) and Ancient Voices of Children (1970). Like most of his works, these pieces are scored for small ensembles, usually around six players, with performers often required to play several instruments. The instrumental requirements are frequently unusual: toy piano, banjo, musical saw and tuned wine-glasses are just some of the many exotic visitors to Crumb’s ensembles.

Essentially a miniaturist – and an extremely slow worker – Crumb has only written one really large work, the apocalyptic Star-Child (1977) scored for immense vocal and instrumental resources and requiring at least four conductors.

In recent years, Crumb has concentrated mainly on vocal music, with a series of American Songbooks (2001–8), scored for one or two voices, piano and percussion. They remain charged with the qualities that have always distinguished Crumb’s output: freshness of invention, directness of utterance, profound strangeness and intense musicality.

Profile © John Pickard

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