Once radical, George Crumb's music is now classic
Combining extended techniques with classical music traditions, George Crumb's work invites you to explore an entirely new world through sound.
Welcome to our first post made in collaboration with the UMKC Conservatory! Our Cadenza series explores prominent composers, pieces of music, and events in classical music history through the lens of the present, connecting them to current events.
Author Ben Havey is a piano DMA student at the UMKC Conservatory.
American composer George Crumb (1929-2022) passed away on February 6. That day on social media, many composers and performers reminisced on how his music inspired and moved them. Crumb is one of the reasons I fell in love with contemporary classical music, and I planned my first doctoral recital as a celebration of his work. Now, it's a memorial as well. He left us with dozens of beautiful works — including "Black Angels" and the Makrokosmos cycle — alongside many works that deserve to be played far more often.
Crumb's first major solo piano work, Makrokosmos Volume I, is half a century old this year. In any other art form, a 50-year old piece would be considered a classic. In the classical music world, Crumb is still considered "new music." I want to share this incredible work with you and show you how to dive in enthusiastically to "new" (now old) music.
While Crumb's music contains new sounds and melodies, it's also deeply bound to classical music's traditions. Makrokosmos I is subtitled "12 Fantasy-Pieces After the Zodiac," after Debussy's books of 12 Preludes and Bartok's Mikrokosmos. The ghosts of classical music past reappear in this work again and again. Sometimes the references are subtle (like in movement 6, "Night Spell," when the performer whistles a folk song), and sometimes they are powerful and poignant (movement 11, "Dream Images," where Crumb seamlessly combines a famous piece by Chopin with his own music.)
Like other major works written for the piano by Beethoven or Liszt, Crumb combines innovation and tradition. This work involves extensive playing inside the piano, including pizzicato (plucking like a guitar) and glissandi (strumming like a harp.) It also involves singing and chanting. These extended techniques make the piece larger than life, bursting at the seams with emotion and drama.
How do you even start to understand a work like this? The first step is to dive into Crumb's soundworld. This playlist includes classical music favorites that inspired Crumb. We begin with Chopin and Schumann, then move on to early 20th century classics like Debussy, Bartok, and Cowell.
Like so many works of classical music, Crumb uses harmonies and melodies that he repeats and quotes in different contexts. When you hear a line pop out of the texture, it is nearly always connected to another melody in the piece in some way. The more you listen to the piece, the more you can make these connections and the more beautiful the melodies and harmonies will become.
Ben Havey will be performing works by George Crumb as part of an upcoming DMA recital.