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ClassicsOnline Home » CRUMB: Vox Balaenae / Federico's Little Songs for Children / 11 Echoes of Autumn
By Kenneth Page
Fortunately, the CD booklet includes the composer’s own very readable notes. Canadian flautist Robert Aitken leads this showcase of Crumb’s imaginative and descriptive contemporary music. For Vox Balanae, Aitken’s amplified flute is joined by similarly amplified cello and piano, and it’s the amplification, perhaps, that makes you conscious of the remarkable depth and space enclosed in Crumb’s Japanese-y structures. For the seven-part Frederico’s Little Songs, soprano and harp replace cello and piano in a world of children’s fantasy. From the same year, An Idyll for the Misbegotten is altogether more serious. Aitken is supported by dramatic percussion, again drawing on a Japanese influence. In his earlier work, Crumb’s mind was more on music in its own right than world-weary anxieties. Thus even Eleven Echoes of Autumn is an unbroken sequence of very specific assignments for his chosen instruments—violin, clarinet and piano, to go with Aitken’s alto flute. Crumb’s work displays both wit and conscience. He expresses ideas that are worth expressing, in ways that most people can only wish they could.
By David Patrick Stearns
The Philadelphia Inquirer
In decades past, Philadelphia produced the toughest, noisiest modernists on the horizon (the apex being Ralph Shapey). Though a probing sensibility remains very much alive, these current locally born or based composers don't try to portray the aural chaos of the outside world by matching it but by reflecting and often retreating from it.
The George Crumb disc favors works written for flutist Robert Aitken, who is sometimes asked, with entrancing effect, to murmur poetry while playing. In these excellent, sometimes explosive performances, Crumb's musical world has lost none of its allure or singularity.
George Crumb (b. 1929)
Vox Balaenae • Federico's Little Songs for Children
An Idyll for the Misbegotten • Eleven Echoes of Autumn
George Crumb's reputation as a composer of hauntingly beautiful scores has made him one of the most frequently performed composers in today's musical world. From Los Angeles to Moscow, and from Scandinavia to South America, festivals devoted to the music of George Crumb have sprung up like wildflowers. Now approaching his 75th birthday year, Crumb, the winner of a 2001 Grammy Award and the 1968 Pulitzer Prize in Music, continues to compose new scores that enrich the musical lives of those who come in contact with his profoundly humanistic art.
George Henry Crumb was born in Charleston, West Virginia on 24 October 1929. He studied at the Mason College of Music in Charleston and received the Bachelor's degree in 1950. Thereafter he studied for the Master's degree at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana under Eugene Weigel. He continued his studies under Boris Blacher at the Hochschule für Musik, Berlin from 1954-1955. He received the D.M.A. in 1959 from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, after studying with Ross Lee Finney.
George Crumb's early compositions include Three Early Songs (1947), for voice and piano, Sonata (1955) for solo violoncello, and Variazioni (1959) for orchestra, the composer's doctoral thesis. In the 1960s and 1970s, George Crumb produced a series of highly influential pieces that were immediately taken up by soloists and ensembles throughout the world. Many of these were vocal works based on the poetry of Federico García Lorca, including Ancient Voices of Children (1970), Madrigals, Books 1-4 (1965-69), Night of the Four Moons (1969), and Songs, Drones and Refrains of Death (1968). Other major works from this period include Black Angels (1970), for electric string quartet, Vox Balaenae (1971), for electric flute, electric cello and amplified piano, Makrokosmos, Volumes 1 and 2 (1972, 73) for amplified piano, Music for a Summer Evening (1974) for two amplified pianos and percussion, and Crumb's largest score, Star-Child (1977), for soprano, solo trombone, antiphonal children's voices, male speaking choir, bell ringers and large orchestra. George Crumb's most recent works include Eine Kleine Mitternachtmusik for solo piano (2001), Otherworldly Resonances for two pianos (2002) and a four-part song cycle, American Songbook (The River of Life, A Journey Beyond Time, Unto the Hills, The Winds of Destiny) (2001-2004).
George Crumb's music often juxtaposes contrasting musical styles. The references range from music of the western art-music tradition, to hymns and folk music, to non-Western musics. Many of Crumb's works include programmatic, symbolic, mystical and theatrical elements, which are often reflected in his beautiful and meticulously notated scores. A shy, yet warmly eloquent personality, Crumb retired from his teaching position at the University of Pennsylvania after more than thirty years of service. Awarded honorary doctorates by numerous universities and the recipient of dozens of awards and prizes, he makes his home in Pennsylvania, in the same house where he and his wife of more than fifty years raised their three children. His music is published by C.F. Peters.
George Crumb's many awards include the Elizabeth Croft fellowship for study, Berkshire Music Centre (1955), Fulbright Scholarship (1955-6), BMI student award (1956), Rockefeller grant (1964), National Institute of Arts and Letters grant (1967), Guggenheim grant (1967, 1973), Pulitzer Prize for Echoes of Time and the River (1968), UNESCO International Rostrum of Composers Award (1971), Koussevitzky Recording Award (1971), Fromm grant (1973), Member, National Institute of Arts and Letters (1975), Ford grant (1976), Prince Pierre de Monaco Gold Medal (1989), Brandeis University Creative Arts Award, Honorary member, Deutsche Akademie der Kunste, Honorary member, International Cultural Society of Korea, six honorary degrees, 1998 Cannes Classical Award: Best CD of a Living Composer (Bridge 9069), 2001 Grammy for Best Contemporary Composition (Star-Child), 2004 Musical American "Composer of the Year".
Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale) for Three Masked Players (1971)
Each of the three players should wear a black half-mask (vizor-mask) throughout the performance of the work. The masks, by effacing a sense of human projection, will symbolize the powerful impersonal forces of nature (nature dehumanized). Vox Balaenae can be performed under a deep-blue stage lighting, if desired, in which case the theatrical effect would be further enhanced.
Voice of the Whale, composed in 1971, is scored for flute, cello and piano which are amplified in concert performance. The work was inspired by the singing of the humpback whale, a tape recording of which I had heard two or three years previously. The masks, by effacing the sense of human projection, are intended to represent, symbolically, the powerful impersonal forces of nature (i.e. nature dehumanized). The form of Voice of the Whale is a simple three-part design, consisting of a prologue, a set of variations named after geological eras, and an epilogue.
Federico's Little Songs for Children (1986)
Federico's Little Songs for Children, written for the Jubal Trio, was completed during the summer of 1986. In 1970, after the composition of Ancient Voices of Children (the eighth work of a Lorca cycle initiated in 1963 with Night Music I), I felt that I had exhausted the potential of Lorca's poetry as a catalytic agent for my own music. I therefore turned my attention towards traditional Latin texts (in Lux Aeterna and Star-Child); and then followed settings of Walt Whitman (in Apparition) and Edgar Allan Poe (in The Sleeper). However, there remained a number of Lorca's poems which I eventually hoped to treat musically, should inspiration return. Among these, the Canciones para Niños (Songs for Children) especially intrigued me, perhaps because the light-hearted and whimsical character of these little poems contrasted so sharply with the more somber poetry I had chosen for my earlier settings. And thus, after a hiatus of sixteen years, I found myself once again immersed in Lorca's magical imagery.
The seven little poems constituting the Canciones para Niños reflect many different aspects of a child's fantasy world. The mood can be reflective, playful, mock-serious, gently ironic, or simply joyous. At an early stage in the sketching process I decided to include all four instruments of the flute family so that I might associate an appropriate timbre with the innate character of each poem. Of course the varied treatment of voice and harp, together with purely compositional choices likewise help delineate the desired mood.
The opening song, Señorita of the Fan (Vivace, giocosamente; scored with piccolo), is set for the most part in a quintuple measure. The reference to "crickets" is illustrated by a chirping piccolo motif. Afternoon (Andantino quasi barcarola; with flute in C) is delicate and idyllic throughout. A Song Sung (Molto moderato, poco bizarramente; with alto flute) is set in a very capricious style. The alto flute personifies Lorca's "Griffon bird". The central song of the cycle, Snail (Lento, languidamente; with bass flute), projects a sense of timelessness and wonder. The soprano whispers the opening and concluding lines of the poem; for the central portion, the soprano sings in "Sprechstimme style", combined with a highly coloristic use of the harp. In The Lizard is Crying! (Lentamente e lamentoso; with alto flute), the singer alternates between a quasi-cadenza style of declamation and rhythmically articulated spoken passages. The alto flute participates in the general sobbing! A Little Song from Seville (Tempo di Habanera; scherzando, un poco buffo; with flute in C) parodies a well-known type of Spanish popular music (and contains references to Debussy's La Puerta del Vino). The concluding piece, Silly Song (Prestissimo [and alternately: molto più lento]; with piccolo), is … just a silly song!
An Idyll for the Misbegotten (Images III) (1986)
I feel that "misbegotten" well describes the fateful and melancholy predicament of the species homo sapiens at the present moment in time. Mankind has become ever more "illegitimate" in the natural world of the plants and animals. The ancient sense of brotherhood with all life-forms (so poignantly expressed in the poetry of St Francis of Assisi) has gradually and relentlessly eroded, and consequently we find ourselves monarchs of a dying world. We share the fervent hope that mankind will embrace anew nature's "moral imperative".
My little Idyll was inspired by these thoughts. Flute and drum are, to me (perhaps by association with ancient ethnic musics), those instruments which most powerfully evoke the voice of nature. I have suggested that ideally (even if impractically) the music should be "heard from afar, over a lake, on a moonlit evening in August".
There are two quotations in An Idyll for the Misbegotten – the haunting theme of Claude Debussy's Syrinx (for solo flute, 1912) and two lines from the eighth-century Chinese poet, Ssu-S'ung Shu:
"The moon goes down. There
are shivering birds and
The work is dedicated to Robert Aitken, who gave the première performance for New Music Concerts on 16 November 1986.
Eleven Echoes of Autumn (Echoes I) (1966)
Eleven Echoes of Autumn was composed during the spring of 1966 for the Aeolian Chamber Players (on commission from Bowdoin College). The eleven pieces constituting the work are performed without interruption:
Eco 1. Fantastico
Eco 2. Languidamente, quasi lontano ("hauntingly")
Eco 3. Prestissimo
Eco 4. Con bravura
Eco 5. Cadenza I (for Alto Flute)
Eco 6. Cadenza II (for Violin)
Eco 7. Cadenza III (for Clarinet)
Eco 8. Feroce, violento
Eco 9. Serenamente, quasi lontano ("hauntingly")
Eco 10. Senza misura ("gently undulating")
Eco 11. Adagio ("like a prayer")
Each of the echi exploits certain timbral possibilities of the instruments. For example, eco 1 (for piano alone) is based entirely on the fifth partial harmonic, eco 2 on violin harmonics in combination with seventh partial harmonics produced on the piano (by drawing a piece of hard rubber along the strings). A delicate aura of sympathetic vibrations emerges in echi 3 and 4, produced in the latter case by alto flute and clarinet playing into the piano (close to the strings). At the conclusion of the work the violinist achieves a mournful, fragile timbre by playing with the bow hair completely slack.
The most important generative element of Eleven Echoes is the "bell motif", a quintuplet figure based on the whole-tone interval, which is heard at the beginning of the work. This diatonic figure appears in a variety of rhythmic guises, and frequently in a highly chromatic context.
Each of the eleven pieces has its own expressive character, at times overlaid by quasi-obbligato music of contrasting character, e.g., the "wind music" of the alto flute and clarinet in eco 2 or the "distant mandolin music" of the violin in eco 3. The larger expressive curve of the work is arch-like: a gradual growth of intensity to a climactic point (eco 8), followed by a gradual collapse.
Although Eleven Echoes has certain programmatic implications for the composer, it is enough for the listener to infer the significance of the motto-quote from Federico García Lorca: "… y los arcos rotos donde sufre el tiempo" ("… and the broken arches where time suffers"). These words are softly intoned as a preface to each of the three cadenzas (echi 5-7) and the image "broken arches" is represented visually in the notation of the music which underlies the cadenzas.
Sung texts are available at http://www.naxos.com/libretti/crumb2.htm
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CRUMB: Vox Balaenae / Federico's Little Songs for ...