George Crumb: From the Faraway, Goodbye

George Crumb. Ancient Voices of Children, 1970. Holograph manuscript. Coolidge Foundation Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress

The music world lost a unique and significant voice with the passing of American composer George Crumb on Sunday, February 6, 2022. An innovative and positive force in music whose career spanned some seven decades, Crumb wrote music of great vision, depth and theatricality. The beauty of his music is perhaps matched by his calligraphy, and in a sense his music looks like it sounds—sculpted with great care.

Following in the footsteps of composers like Henry Cowell and John Cage, George Crumb wrote music for the piano and other percussion instruments that developed new orchestras of sound, a sonic repertory from which he could draw exactly what was needed to realize his ideas. Crumb’s poetic sensibilities were captured in both his instrumental music and his vocal music, with the spirit of poets like Federico García Lorca emerging time and again as a muse. He also drew on Americana, especially in the gargantuan seven volumes of the American Songbooks of the early 21st century; in these works the ensemble of percussion quartet plus piano was elevated to the status of a fixed yet mutable entity accompanying the voice. In the most recent performance of the American Songbooks at the Library of Congress in 2013, we had the opportunity to hear the seventh collection with the added attraction of Crumb’s daughter Ann as one of the singers—it was one of many unforgettable encounters with Crumb’s music to take place in the Coolidge Auditorium.

George Crumb’s relationship with the Music Division of the Library of Congress dates back to 1964, when the Koussevitzky Foundation commissioned Madrigals, Books I and II. In 1970 the Coolidge Foundation in the Library of Congress commissioned the epochal work Ancient Voices of Children, premiered that same year at the Library. In 2011 we saw the transfer of a sizable portion of Crumb’s manuscripts and papers to the Music Division; this collection continues to grow and will be a draw for Crumb scholars for generations to come (you can see the finding aid for the currently processed materials in this collection here).

In 2018 George Crumb’s percussion quintet KRONOS-KRYPTOS was co-commissioned by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (CMSLC) and the Irving and Verna Fine Fund in the Library of Congress. The work was premiered at Alice Tully Hall in April of 2019 and performed in the Coolidge Auditorium a few days later. Unfortunately, the composer was unable to attend the performance, but I had a treasured opportunity to speak with him about the piece in advance and then to meet with him later at his home in Media, PA in order to pick up the holograph manuscript for the Library’s collection. During this visit Crumb asked me what I thought of the piece, and its effectiveness in performance—we had a great discussion (some of his questions were quite specific), and he actually cared about what I had to say, since I had “seen it in action.” I think back to that conversation as an example of his monumental modesty, his drive to always improve and get things “just right” with each piece despite his legendary status.

David Plylar with George Crumb, July 2019

During that same visit I had the privilege of visiting his cozy studio room and seeing some drafts of music from his now recently-recorded piano work Metamorphoses, Book II, one of his final projects. This work, as in the first book of Metamorphoses that closely preceded its composition, features ten movements for amplified piano inspired by the visual arts—a modern-day Pictures at an Exhibition. It was thrilling to get a glimpse of these pieces that were coming into being.

We had been looking forward to a performance of the second book of Metamorphoses at the Library this spring with the pianist Margaret Leng Tan, a wonderful artist and friend of the composer. Sadly, our collectively-shared and ongoing pandemic woes have now pushed that performance into next season, where we will aim to give a hearing of the work to an in-person audience as a tribute to this great friend of the Library.

George Crumb was a man of extraordinary kindness, in addition to his gifts as a musician. I know that many across the music world are grateful to have known George Crumb and his music, and it is heartening to know that his work will be preserved at the Library of Congress for all to continue to learn from and admire.

*** The title of this post references the eighth movement of Crumb’s Metamorphoses, Book II, based on Georgia O’Keeffe’s painting, From the Faraway, Nearby.

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