A Timeline to Celebrate Our Third George Crumb Commission

“My own feeling is that music can never cease evolving; it will continually reinvent the world in its own terms.”

– George Crumb, “Music: Does It Have a Future?” The Kenyon Review, summer 1980. Reprinted in George Crumb: Profile of a Composer.

George Crumb (b. 1929) is an American composer and educator born in West Virginia and living in Pennsylvania. His biography of musical, pedagogical, and scholarly accomplishments is staggering, including over 30 years as the composition professor at the University of Pennsylvania, a Pulitzer Prize, Grammy Awards, honorary doctorates, and prestigious residencies. The precision of his hand-drawn scores are just as legendary as the sounds they represent. (For an incredible example, check out “Aquarius” from Makrokosmos, Vol. I for piano – it’s a spiral!) The Music Division is indeed lucky to say that we have a 55-year history with this musical giant. In honor of the DC premiere of our third commissioned work from George Crumb on April 18, let’s take a stroll down memory lane.


George Crumb was commissioned by the Koussevitzky Music Foundation at the Library of Congress for the composition Madrigals, Books I and II. In Box 11, Folder 5 of the George Crumb papers, researchers will find a letter from Crumb to conductor Arthur Weisberg of the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble dated January 11, 1965 indicating errata in the scores previously sent.


The Music Division received the holograph scores for Madrigals, Books I and II, and the world premiere took place on Friday, March 11, 1966 in the Coolidge Auditorium featuring soprano Jan DeGaetani. This piece marked the beginning of a decades-long collaborative relationship between Crumb and DeGaetani. Madrigals Book I is for mezzo-soprano, vibraphone, and double bass; Madrigals Book II is for mezzo-soprano, flute (doubling alto flute and piccolo), and percussion. Additional music on the program that evening was by Anton Webern, Charles Wuorinen, Jean Barraqué, and Darius Milhaud. George Crumb documents the premiere of this piece and its reviews on page 9 of his Scrapbook, Vol. I, in the George Crumb papers.


George Crumb, Ancient Voices of Children, page 1 of holograph score, 1970. ML29.C93 no.1, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation collection, Music Division, Library of Congress

George Crumb was commissioned by the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation at the Library of Congress for the composition Ancient Voices of Children for mezzo-soprano, boy soprano, oboe, mandolin, harp, electric piano (and toy piano), and percussion. Crumb set text by the Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca. In Box 13, Folder 4 of the George Crumb papers, researchers will find a letter dated January 7, 1970 from Harold Spivacke (Chief of the Music Division at the time) with the official offer of the Coolidge commission. He specifies that the piece is in honor of the 20th anniversary of the Koussevitzky Music Foundation’s establishment in the Library of Congress. Spivacke also writes, “I know that you will produce a beautiful piece of music, and I look forward to the pleasure of hearing it.” The world premiere took place on October 31, 1970 in the Coolidge Auditorium with Jan DeGaetani, boy soprano Michael Dash, and members of the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble conducted by Arthur Weisberg. “For a half-hour of what seemed to be suspended time, the audience sat literally spellbound,” recalls recording engineer Teresa Sterne in George Crumb: Profile of a Composer. The Music Division holds the holograph score in the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation collection, and it was featured in an exhibit from 2015-2016 called Chamber Music: The Life and Legacy of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. You can relive the entire exhibit with images of items and descriptive text here.


The world premiere of a piece dear to my heart as a contemporary flutist, Vox balaenae (“Voice of the Whale”), takes place in the Library of Congress Coolidge Auditorium on March 17, 1972 performed by members of the New York Camerata, the commissioning ensemble. The piece is for amplified flute, amplified cello, and amplified piano, with all players wearing black masks on a stage with blue lighting. Other trios for flute, cello, and piano on the program were composed Bohuslav Martinu, Joseph Haydn, Maurice Ravel (an arrangement), and Johann Nepomuk Hummel.


George Crumb donates scores, scrapbooks, and correspondence to establish the Music Division as the official repository for the George Crumb papers. The collection processing and online finding aid were completed in 2012. We expect future accruals!

Crumb also participated in a great pre-concert talk with David Starobin on April 28, 2011 in the Library’s Gertrude Clarke Whittall Pavilion. They discussed his musical style, personal background, and the project featured on the evening’s concert, the American Songbook, six volumes of song cycles published from 2003 to 2008. Hear the composer’s talk here!


George Crumb receives his third commission from the Library of Congress with the Verna and Irving Fine Fund, co-commissioned with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, for a percussion quintet.


The DC premiere of our third commission will take place on Thursday, April 18, 2019 at 8pm in the Coolidge Auditorium. The world premiere will take place on April 14 at Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center. We’ve also started to crawl George Crumb’s website to include in the forthcoming LC Commissioned Composers Web Archive – stay tuned!

If you have questions about the George Crumb papers, Ask a Librarian!

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