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Love and Death American Style: A George Crumb Tribute

Crumb score

Love and Death American Style: A George Crumb Tribute

11 November 2019 / William Anderson / On the Beat, composers, How to Talk about Music

RSF supported Bridge Records’ *George Crumb Vol. 16*

Cygnus pianist Joan Forsyth is a regular at Sonatina Enterprises. She recently lectured on nocturnes for the pianists from far and wide, assembled in Bennington for one of the “Sonatas”. JF has a nocturne program that she takes around the US and EU. It incudes Crumb’s amazing Eine Kleine Mitternachtmusik.

JF explained that “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” is an entertainment, related to the Italian Notturno, and not necessarily evocative of the night. The nocturne is meant to be evocative of the night. It is a 19th C. phenomenon. The first nocturne was written by John Field. Chopin brought it to insurpassable heights. More recent music plays off of both. George Crumb’s Eine Kleine Mitternachtmusik is a fabulous example.

Eine Kleine Mitternachtmusik: its title recalls Mozart; its main theme is Thelonius Monk’s Round Midnight–

It builds toward a reference to Debussy’s Wagner spoof in the Golliwog Cakewalk. The Golliwog Cakewalk quotes, then laughs at the opening lines of Wagner’s overture to Tristan und Isolde–

Here is the section from Crumb’s Eine Kleine Mitternachtmusik that evokes the Golliwog Cakewalk–

If one knows and loves Crumb, one is amazed at how he succeeds at making these musical references while remaining 100% Crumb.

The Mozartean title is apt because this piece show a twinkle in Crumb’s eye. I propose that this sense of humor is relatively new. Eine Kleine Mitternachtmusik is as whimsical as Mundus Canis.

Returning to Crumb’s earlier Lorca settings after Mundus Canis and Mitternacht, we might detect some premonition of Crumb’s later whimsy. Generally Eros & Thanatos is a very serious enterprise. No place there for humor. It reaches a reductio ad absurdam with the Decadent movement–death as a positive aesthetic value. It is also an enantiodromia–opposites becoming one. This stanza from Me he perdido muchas veces por el mar is a perfect example.

Ancient Voices of the Children

Last stanza of
Me he perdido muchas veces por el mar
I’ve gotten lost many times by the sea

(Garcia Lorca)

Como me pierdo en el corazón de algunos niños,
me he perdido muchas veces por el mar.
Ignorante del agua, voy buscando
una muerte de luz que me consuma.

As I get lost in the hearts of some children,
I have been lost many times by the sea.
Ignorant of the water, I’m looking
a death of light that consumes me.

With Eros and Thanatos, Love and Death, the West finds its Yin and Yang. Wagner found the two chords, inversions of each other, that beautifully paint the relatiionship in harmony. The “Tristan Chord” and the dominant 7. They are also the two chords that begin Chopin’s B minor scherzo.

These lines are a chamring foil to the serious love and death business:

The child looks for his voice.
(The king of crickets has it.)
In a drop of water
the child searched for his voice.

I do not want him to speak.
I should make a ring
that my silence will carry
to his littlest finger.

In a drop of water
the child searched for his voice.

(The captive voice, far from there,
puts on a cricket suit.)

El niño busca su voz

Language: Spanish (Español)

Available translation(s):

El niño busca su voz.
(La tenía el rey de los grillos.)
En una gota de agua
buscaba su voz el niño.

No la quiero para hablar;
me haré con ella un anillo
que llevará mi silencio
en su dedo pequeñito.

En una gota de agua
buscaba su voz el niño.

(La voz cautiva, a lo lejos,
se ponía un traje de grillo.)

Crumb’s musical materials are a perfect fit with his poetic intentions. To explain this, it will help to misuse some words and say that Crumb uses “atonal” scales, and those scales fit perfectly with the belatedness of his poetic stance. When we hear something simple and “tonal” in Crumb’s music it is a hazy memory.

Better Terms
What we call “tonal” is a scale with unique mulitplicities of intervals, creating a context were each note in the scale has unique role. What we call “atonal” scales lack this property.

In Night of the Four Moons, Crumb sets Lorca, and ends with an homage to Mahler, with a section in stilo Mahleriana. The American South, Spain, and Austria, all endured future shock. Spain and Austria kept feudal institutions going right up to the first world war, and even beyond. The American South held to an agrarian value system. The South grew the cotton, which went to mills in the North, until disparities in the cost of labor brought industry to the South, creating the Dixicrats. Crumb’s West Virginia is in the middle of all this. It’s interesting to see Crumb, with no less power and strength than Faulkner and Tennessee Williams, brew these frissons into such potent music.

–work in progress–

—William Anderson