Crumb: Madrigals

Program Note

Federico García Lorca, born in 1898 in Granada, was a talented pianist as a child, but forbidden by his father to pursue a musical career. Much of his work, particularly his early collections, involves musical ideas and forms. At university in Madrid, more preoccupied with writing than with schoolwork, Lorca met many of the poets who would come to be known as the radical “Generation of ’27”, including Jorge Guillén, Pedro Salinas, and Emilio Prados. He also socialized with composer Manuel de Falla, filmmaker Luis Buñuel, and the artist Salvador Dalí, with whom he became a particularly close friend. Lorca studied in the U.S. for a brief stint in the early ’30s, taking classes at Columbia and even spending a month in northern Vermont on the shores of Lake Eden. In 1936, soon after returning to Spain, the reactionary tensions of the Spanish Civil War led to the Lorca’s arrest and assassination at the age of 38.

George Crumb encountered Lorca’s poetry two decades later, as a doctoral student at the University of Michigan. After hearing another student’s setting of his “Casida del herido por el agua”, Crumb saw a kindred artistic spirit in the Spaniard’s words, which blend Surrealist trends with traditional Andalusian styles. The composer said this about his posthumous collaboration with Lorca:

“I have sought musical images that enhance and reinforce the powerful, yet strangely haunting imagery of Lorca’s poetry. I feel that the essential meaning of the poetry is concerned with the most primary things: life, death, love, the smell of the earth, the sounds of the wind and the sea. These ‘ur-concepts’ are embodied in a language which is primitive and stark, but which is capable of infinitely subtle nuance.”

Crumb’s cycle of Lorca settings spans over fifty years, from Night Music I (1963) to his three volumes of Spanish Songbooks, written within the last decade. Madrigals sets fragments from several Lorca collections, including Diván del tamarit (1934), Poema del cante jondo (1931), Primeras canciones (1936), and the play Bodas de sangre (1932).

George Crumb composed two orchestral pieces towards the completion of his doctorate at the University of Michigan, where he studied with Ross Lee Finney. These were Diptych (1955) and Variazioni (1959), both of which incorporated folksongs, hymns, and instruments from his native Appalachia. Crumb was exposed to these traditions through his parents, both musicians at the Charleston Symphony Orchestra and oldtime players on the side.

Crumb wrote Books III and IV of Madrigals ten years out of his doctorate, having by this point won a faculty position at the University of Pennsylvania and a Pulitzer Prize in Music for the orchestral Echoes of Time and the River (1967), which involves an altered stageplot to accommodate processions across the stage.  Crumb experimented heavily throughout the ’70s with experimental vocal and performance techniques. In 1970, he returned to texts of Lorca to write Ancient Voices of Children for soprano, boy soprano, oboe, mandolin, harp, amplified piano (and toy piano), and percussion (three players). During the course of the piece, the soprano sings phonetic sounds into an amplified piano and the performers are asked to speak, whisper, and yell at various points. The work was premiered by mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani and longtime Yellow Barn faculty member Gilbert Kalish. In that same year, inspired by the Vietnam War, Crumb published Black Angels for electric string quartet, who are also expected to play percussion instruments such as crystal glasses and bowed tam-tams. Listening to the piece inspired violinist David Harrington to form the Kronos Quartet.

The next year, in 1971, Crumb published Vox Balaenae for electric flute, cello, and amplified piano, which was inspired by a recording of whalesong. Performers wear half black masks and the lighting should be as blue as possible. The four volumes of Makrokosmos (1972-79), based on Bartók’s collection of character pieces Mikrokosmos and Debussy’s Preludes, are scored for amplified piano (Twelve Fantasy-Pieces after the Zodiac), two pianos and percussion (Music for a Summer Evening), and amplified piano four hands (Celestial Mechanics), respectively. Crumb’s largest work is the Grammy-winning Star-Child (1977) for orchestra, antiphonal children’s chorus, male speaking choir playing handbells, and four conductors, and is based on themes and motives of the apocalypse.

Crumb remained at the University of Pennsylvania until 1995, where he taught Christopher Rouse, Jennifer Higdon, and Osvaldo Golijov, among others. He has continued to compose in his retirement, having produced in recent years several volumes of the Spanish and American Songbooks. His son, David, is also a recognized composer.

—Josh Davidoff