George Crumb, 92, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer who inspired generations with his relentless use of concert hall theater and his embrace of unusual instrumental techniques, died on Sunday. His death, at his home in Media, was announced by his record label, Bridge Records.
Mr. Crumb was widely regarded as one of the leading composers of the 20th century, and he continued to produce music well into the 21st. Born in West Virginia, he has spent most of his career in and around Philadelphia, teaching at the University of Pennsylvania and authoring an impressive series of scores that have upended the conventions of classical music.
In the long and congested arc of 20th century music, Mr. Crumb’s influence has been wide and deep.
“My God, when Old children’s voices came out, more The dark angels and Music for a summer eveningbut above all ancient voicesit was shocking,” said James Freeman, founder of the Philadelphia New Music Group. Orchestra 2001, who had a relationship of more than three decades with Mr. Crumb. “There was this extraordinarily difficult music, imaginative music, which always had a mysterious side, a dark side, which was beautiful in itself. People said, ‘I want to hear more music like this.’
Old children’s voices premiered at the Library of Congress in 1970 and was composed for forces that included a soprano, a boy soprano, an amplified piano, a toy piano, and a musical saw. The performers were instructed to shout and whisper. A recording of it became one of the best-selling music of the 20th century.
“It changed the course of the creative careers of so many young composers at that time,” Freeman said.
Mr. Crumb was influenced by and collected sounds from just about anywhere and anything: nature and his childhood, Asian music, current events and Debussy, Bartók and Mahler. He was particularly drawn to Federico García Lorca, whose text is used in Old children’s voices. His music can be peaceful, sparse, eerie or downright horrifying. The “Threnody I: Night of the Electric Bugs” from The dark angels was put to good use in the soundtrack of The Exorcist.
Some aspects of his compositional approach were arguably more radical than the unusual percussion and atmospheric effects. With George Rochberg, who also taught at Penn, Mr. Crumb was unafraid of traditional tonality.
“Both Georges were hugely influential in totally different ways,” Freeman said. Their music gave composers “permission to do extraordinary things”.
In The dark angels for amplified string quartet, the cellist plays a Schubert theme Death and the Maiden quartet while holding the instrument backwards and players strike a Chinese gong, use their bows to play the sides of wine and champagne glasses, shout numbers in different languages, and whistle.
But close your eyes and listen, and “you’re left with a sensual piece from 1970 whose sonorities are surprising and original”, wrote this reviewer of a 2000 interpretation of the work by the Cassatt String Quartet. “The dark angels Much of it is about the emotional consequences of timbral possibilities, and it still surprisingly succeeds in shattering expectations of what can happen when two violinists, a violist and a cellist come together.
Philadelphia composer Jennifer Higdon, who studied with Mr Crumb for five years at Penn, traces her predilection for unusual sounds and expansive techniques to her teacher – things like her use of 50 bells at the end of blue cathedral.
It was one simple thing he said that changed the way he thought about music, she recalls.
“He said, ‘You know, Jennifer, the only thing that matters in the end is how it sounds. You study form and structure and things like that, but for someone to say that, it made me step back and say, “Maybe I should start with the idea of sound, with this which looks interesting.”
Her influence on her students, she says, did not extend to a demand for stylistic orthodoxy.
“You could tell there was pressure not to write tonally at that time, but George always thought it was important for people to find their own voice,” Higdon said. “All of George’s students really sounded different. They looked like themselves.
Among the composers he has taught are Christopher Rouse, Uri Caine, Osvaldo Golijov and Margaret Brouwer.
Amiable and unassuming with an unassuming countenance, Mr. Crumb seemed unable to account for the tape he cut across the boundaries of new music.
“I hardly know any facts about the construction of my music,” he told The Inquirer in 2012 at the age of 82. “I’m sure there’s a rational process involved.”
In fact, the highly detailed scores he produced – some in the form of a spiral or a peace sign – were greeted by musicians as works of art in themselves.
Born October 24, 1929, in Charleston, W. Va., to musical parents, Mr. Crumb studied music at an early age. He attended Mason College of Music and Fine Arts, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1950, and earned a master’s degree at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He earned a Fulbright to study at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin and later earned a doctorate at the University of Michigan.
He taught composition and theory at Penn’s music department beginning in 1965, and in 1968 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music for Echoes of time and the river. He received a long series of scholarships – from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Koussevitzky Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Guggenheim Foundation. He retired from Penn in 1997.
There was a time when his production seemed to be coming to an end. He didn’t write much in the 1990s, then in 2002 he started again, producing a series of works for Orchestra 2001 inspired by his childhood in West Virginia – with a significant twist. He marked his work … Up to the Hills for a singer (the premiere featured her daughter, actress and singer Ann Crumb) singing Appalachian tunes, but with percussionists moving among more than 60 instruments, including Tibetan prayer stones, a wind machine and a thai wooden buffalo bell.
“These are not traditional arrangements,” Crumb said with his understatement.
He ended up writing seven episodes of his “American Songbook” series.
His influence continues, but when it comes to specific artistic heirs, it would be difficult for any particular composer to adapt to Mr. Crumb’s voice.
“I think there are hundreds,” Freeman said. “For almost all the composers who followed him, there is something of him in this music.”
Mr. Crumb is survived by his wife, Elizabeth May, and sons David and Peter. His daughter Ann Crumb died in 2019. A memorial service is scheduled for late March.