George Crumb

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George Crumb (born October 24, 1929) is an American composer of avant-garde music.[1] He is noted as an explorer of unusual timbres, alternative forms of notation, and extended instrumental and vocal techniques. Examples include seagull effect for the cello (e.g. Vox Balaenae), metallic vibrato for the piano (e.g. Five Pieces for Piano), and using a mallet to play the strings of a contrabass (e.g. Madrigals, Book I), among numerous others. He is not an electronic music composer; however, many works call for amplification of instruments, such as Black Angels (string quartet) or Ancient Voices of Children (mixed ensemble). Crumb defines music as "a system of proportions in the service of spiritual impulse."[2]


Crumb was born in Charleston, West Virginia, and began to compose at an early age. He studied music first at the Mason College of Music in Charleston where he received his bachelor's degree in 1950. He obtained his master's degree at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and then briefly studied in Berlin before returning to the United States to study at the University of Michigan, from which he received his D.M.A. in 1959.

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. In 1965 he began a long association with the University of Pennsylvania, becoming Annenberg Professor of the Humanities in 1983.[3] Some of his most prominent students include Margaret Brouwer, Uri Caine, Christopher Rouse, Osvaldo Golijov, Jennifer Higdon, Cynthia Cozette Lee, Yen Lu, James Primosch, Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon, Ofer Ben-Amots, Morris Rosenzweig, Andrew Frank and Gerald Levinson.

Crumb retired from teaching in 1997, though in early 2002 was appointed with David Burge to a joint residency at Arizona State University.[citation needed] He has continued to compose.

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 and a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Composition in 2000 for his work Star-Child .[4]

Crumb's son, David Crumb, is a successful composer and, since 1997, assistant professor at the University of Oregon. George Crumb's daughter, Ann Crumb, is a successful 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).[5]

Crumb's music

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, although written for standard chamber music ensembles, call for electronic amplification.[6]

In the 1960s and 1970s, Crumb's music filled a niche for more sophisticated though still conservative concertgoers. His music fell between neoclassicism, which was perceived as outmoded, and the more radical music of the avant garde. Although his music from this period exhibits some novel features, it owes more to traditional techniques than to the more experimental areas of the avant-garde.[7] In this period, Crumb shared with a number of other young composers regarded as being under the umbrella of "new accessibility" a desire to reach out to alienated audiences. In works like Ancient Voices of Children (1970), Crumb employed theatrical ritual, using evocative masks, costumes, and sonorities.[8] In other pieces he asks players to leave and enter the stage during the piece, and 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.[9]

Several of Crumb's works, including the four books of madrigals he wrote in the late 1960s 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 mezzo-soprano singer Jan DeGaetani.[citation needed]

Black Angels (1970) is another piece which displays Crumb's interest in exploring a wide range of timbres. The piece is written for electric string quartet and its 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 several groups, including the Kronos Quartet.[10]

Another of Crumb's best known works are the four books of Makrokosmos.[11][not in citation given] 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), was written 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 is another composer Crumb acknowledged as an influence here; Debussy's Preludes comprise 2 books of 12 character pieces, whose titles appear at the end. Crumb's first two books of Makrokosmos for solo piano contain 12 pieces, each bearing a dedication (a friend's initials, however he also wittily dedicates a piece to himself) at the end. On several occasions the pianist is required to sing, shout, whistle, whisper, and moan, as well as play the instrument conventionally and unconventionally. Makrokosmos was premiered by David Burge, who later recorded the work.[12]

During the 1990s Crumb's musical output was less prolific, but since 2000 Crumb has written several works subtitled American Songbook. Each of these works is a set of arrangements of American hymns, spirituals and popular tunes: Crumb originally planned to produce four such volumes,[13] but in fact he continued to produce additional sets after the fourth (The Winds of Destiny) was written, with the seventh volume of the series (Voices from the Heartland) being completed in 2010. Typically these settings preserve the familiar tunes more-or-less intact,[14] but the accompaniments for amplified piano and percussionists use a very wide range of musical techniques and exotic sounds. In his most recent compositions, which have the subtitle Spanish Songbook, Crumb returns to settings of Lorca.

Crumb's works are published by the C. F. Peters Corporation. Recordings of Crumb's music have appeared on many labels, including several LPs issued by Nonesuch Records in the 1970s. More recently, Bridge Records, Inc. has issued a series of CDs, the "Complete Crumb Edition".



  • Gethsemane (1947), for small orchestra
  • Diptych (1955)
  • Variazioni (1959), for large orchestra
  • Echoes of Time and the River (Echoes II) (1967)
  • A Haunted Landscape (1984)

Vocal/choral orchestral

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


  • Two Duos (1944?), for flute and clarinet
  • Four Pieces (1945), for violin and piano
  • Violin Sonata (1949)
  • String Trio (1952)
  • Three Pastoral Pieces (1952), for oboe and piano
  • Viola Sonata (1953)
  • String Quartet (1954)
  • Sonata for Solo Cello, (1955)
  • Four Nocturnes (Night Music II) (1964), for violin and piano
  • Eleven Echoes of Autumn, 1965 (Echoes I) (1966), for violin, alto flute, clarinet, and piano
  • Black Angels (Images I) (1970), for electric string quartet
  • Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale) (1971), for electric flute, electric cello, and amplified piano
  • Music for a Summer Evening (Makrokosmos III) (1974), for two amplified pianos and percussion (two players).
  • Dream Sequence (Images II) (1976), for violin, cello, piano, percussion (one player), and off-stage glass harmonica (two players)
  • Pastoral Drone (1982), for organ
  • An Idyll for the Misbegotten (Images III) (1986), for amplified flute and percussion (three players).
  • Easter Dawning (1991), for carillon
  • Quest (1994), for guitar, soprano saxophone, harp, double bass, and percussion (two players)
  • Mundus Canis (A Dog's World) (1998), for guitar and percussion


  • Piano Sonata (1945)
  • Prelude and Toccata (1951)
  • Five Pieces (1962)
  • Makrokosmos, Volume I (1972), for amplified piano
  • Makrokosmos, Volume II (1973), for amplified piano
  • Celestial Mechanics (Makrokosmos IV) (1979), for amplified piano (four hands)
  • A Little Suite for Christmas, A.D. 1979 (1980)
  • Gnomic Variations (1981)
  • Processional (1983)
  • Zeitgeist (Tableaux Vivants) (1988), for two amplified pianos
  • Eine Kleine Mitternachtmusik (A Little Midnight Music) (2001)
  • Otherworldly Resonances (2003), for two pianos


  • Four Songs (1945?), for voice, clarinet and piano
  • Seven Songs (1946), for voice and piano
  • Three Early Songs (1947), for voice and piano
  • A Cycle of Greek Lyrics (1950?), for voice and piano
  • Night Music I (1963, revised 1976), for soprano, piano/celeste, and two percussionists
  • Madrigals, Book I (1965), for soprano, vibraphone, and double bass
  • Madrigals, Book II (1965), for soprano, flute/alto flute/piccolo, and percussion
  • Songs, Drones, and Refrains of Death (1968), for baritone, electric guitar, electric double bass, amplified piano/electric harpsichord, and two percussionists
  • Night of the Four Moons (1969), for alto, alto flute/piccolo, banjo, electric cello, and percussion
  • Madrigals, Book III (1969), for soprano, harp, and percussion
  • Madrigals, Book IV (1969), for soprano, flute/alto flute/piccolo, harp, double bass, and percussion
  • Ancient Voices of Children (1970), for mezzo-soprano, boy soprano, oboe, mandolin, harp, amplified piano (and toy piano), and percussion (three players)
  • Lux Aeterna (1971) for soprano, bass flute/soprano recorder, sitar, and percussion (two players)
  • Apparition (1979), for soprano and amplified piano
  • The Sleeper (1984), for soprano and piano
  • Federico's Little Songs for Children (1986), for soprano, flute/piccolo/alto flute/bass flute, and harp
  • American Songbook I: The River of Life (2003), for soprano, percussion quartet and piano
  • American Songbook II: A Journey Beyond Time (2003), for soprano, percussion quartet and piano
  • American Songbook III: Unto the Hills (2001), for soprano, percussion quartet and piano
  • 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
  • American Songbook VI: Voices from the Morning of the Earth (2008), for soprano, baritone, percussion quartet and piano
  • Spanish Songbook I: The Ghosts of Alhambra (2008), for baritone, guitar and percussion
  • Spanish Songbook II: Sun and Shadow (2009), for female voice and amplified piano
  • American Songbook VII: Voices from the Heartland (2010), for soprano, baritone, percussion quartet and piano
  • Spanish Songbook III: The Yellow Moon of Andalusia, for mezzo-soprano and amplified piano


  • Alleluja (1948), for unaccompanied chorus


  • George Crumb: The Voice of the Whale (1976). Directed and produced by Robert Mugge. Interviewed by Richard Wernick. New York, New York: Rhapsody Films (released 1988).
  • Bad Dog!: A Portrait of George Crumb (2009). Directed by David Starobin. Interviews with the composer and performances of Apparition, Three Early Songs and Eine Kleine Mitternachtmusik. Released on DVD by Bridge Records (BRIDGE 9312).


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  2. Gillespie, Donald, ed. (1986) George Crumb: Profile of a Composer, C. F. Peters Corporation, 1986, p.77
  3. Cope, David, Biography in Gillespie, op.cit., p.15
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  6. For example, the score of Black Angels specifies that in places, amplification should reach 'the threshold of pain'.
  7. James L. McHard, The Future of Modern Music: A Philosophical Exploration of Modernist Music in the 20th Century and Beyond, third edition (Livonia, MI: Iconic Press, 2008): 325. ISBN 978-0-9778195-2-2; Richard W. Bass, “The Case of the Silent G: Pitch Structure and Proportions in the Theme of George Crumb’s Gnomic Variations”, in George Crumb and the Alchemy of Sound: Essays on His Music, edited by Steven Bruns and Ofer Ben-Amots, general editor Michael D. Grace, 157–70 (Colorado College Music Press, 2005). ISBN 9780935052077.
  8. K. Robert Schwarz. 1988. "Classical". The Wilson Quarterly (1976–) 12, no. 3 (Summer): 77–87. Citation on 84.
  9. As shown in this image of 'Spiral Galaxy' from Makrokosmos 1
  10. Elektra Nonesuch CD 7559-79242-2
  11. Kennedy, Michael (2006), The Oxford Dictionary of Music, 985 pages, ISBN 0-19-861459-4
  12. Book 1: Nonesuch LP H-71293
  13. Note by Eric Bruskin to CD BRIDGE 9335
  14. "I determined to leave the beautiful melodies intact": quote from the composer in the note to CD set BRIDGE 9218

External links