About this Recording
FECD-0008 - CRUMB: Variazioni / Echoes of Time and the River

George Crumb

George Crumb


George Crumb’s music made a meteoric impact when it became widely known in the late 1960s and 1970s. Poetic, dramatic, and overtly reverent of life, its reception since then seems to have as much to do with our culture, and people’s comfort with open emotion and wonderment, as it does with his music.


Visionary and imaginative in his use of chamber ensembles, Crumb has composed only four works for orchestra, the first two of which are featured here. Variazioni, from 1959, is the oldest and is a transitional work in Crumb’s development of his distinct musical vocabulary - it is not in a style recognizable as his. Though the work uses pitch sets in the manner of 12-tone music, Variazioni is not a serialist work. From its opening chord, at once ominous and promising, Variazioni does reveal Crumb’s sense of dramatic atmosphere and his gestural use of motives.


Echoes of Time and the River (Echoes II), from 1967, is one of Crumb’s signature works, and helped catapult his work to wider attention. Taken as concert music, with an unusual orchestra seating plan, somber processions across the stage, and whispers and vocalizations, Echoes presents an awkward challenge. Much of the music has the scale of an orchestral chamber music, in which exposed and transparent material predominates and is developmentally crucial - the essence of the work can almost be dwarfed in a large concert hall.


That essence is ritual, and indeed one of Crumb’s revolutionary contributions to our musical culture is reminding us how powerfully ritualistic the musical experience can be. Echoes opens ceremonially, with the striking of crotales (antique cymbals), and it develops a sense of the mythic with the musical material itself: repeating musical patterns as incantations and rituals, and using dramatic gestures with a mesmerizing sense of sonic and psychic space. Where more conventional musical material appears, as at the end of Remembrance of Time, a simple melody is treated to plaintive and poignant repetition, almost as an archetypal, universal musical motive.


It is precisely this use of repetition which gives Echoes of Time and the River the sensibilities of its title. Recurrences are echoes, as Crumb folds musical material into itself and time feels more circular than linear. Echo becomes memory, and the experience of sonic memory is metaphor for sitting on the riverbank of the unending flow of river time. Crumb uses sounds relatively sparingly, and his economy of notation and preference for simplicity is in stark contrast to the trend of high complexity which prevailed when this was composed.


In fact, we might well credit George Crumb with helping to reconnect avant-garde music with expressionism and the earth. His use of extended and unusual techniques are essential to poetic and atmospheric statements, and his orchestration creates new microenvironments in the sonic landscape. Music and sound come alive as animate spirit, with a presence at once mythic and tangible. In making music this way, George Crumb has indeed created timeless music.


- John Kennedy


“To me all music is philosophical, and philosophically contemporary. I’ve had students who, maybe a certain measure in Bach sets them off. You know, they make a connection themselves. They’re interested suddenly...a whole world is opened to them, there’s this big circle, arc, back into time and they’ve touched a point that sets them off on a way of their own. I believe this. I’ve always been reluctant to think of it in terms of schools, all that sort of thing - post-this or post-that. I see everything as interpenetrating.”


- George Crumb to Frank Oteri, 2002





Judging from the less crowded scores that George Crumb produced after Variazioni, this is truly a work for large orchestra. Tuttis, however, are few and many sections are conceived as chamber music. The overall form is Introduction, Theme, and six Variations, with three interpolated Fantasias. The Fantasias occur after Variations II, V and VI, and function as poetic interruptions of the formal progression of the Variations. Their materials are not directly theme-related, but there are certain materials in the theme that inspired these interludes.


The short, five-measure Introduction is in the form of a double signature. It utilizes only the eight different tones available from the musically transliterable letters of the names of the dedicatee (Rolf Gelewski) and composer (George H. Crumb), resulting in the tones F-G-E-E-E flat - G-E-G-E-B-C-B flat, using the German notation for Es (E flat), H (B), and B (B flat). Gelewski was a dancer whom Crumb befriended while studying in Berlin.


With the commencement of the Theme we are presented with a 12-tone row. Variazioni, however, is not a serial composition. Crumb's use of the 12 tones for thematic material does not suggest a conscious involvement in serial technique any more than say, Liszt's utilizing the 12 tones of the octave for the theme of his Faust Symphony. The Theme's coloring is very chamber-like and its form (a-a-b-a-b-coda) can be heard carried out in each of the variations.


The Pezzo antifonale (Antiphonal Piece, Variation I) fulfills the promise of its title. Two string groups react antiphonally to each other, the first (muted) responding to an echo of the second. In a constantly shifting meter, the time lapse between the two choirs occurs at progressively closer intervals. The Toccata (Variation II) is described by the composer simply as “a big, loud piece,” with shifting meters keeping its beat in a constant state of flux.


The Fantasias feature the colorful trio of mandolin, celesta and harp. The first is a nocturne with an “elastic tempo,” and includes quarter-tone intervals, harmonics, and flutter-tonguing techniques. “This is a nature piece, in a way,” notes the composer. The suggestion of birdsong is recognizable, and one cantilena passage between flute and sopranino clarinet is marked “come canto d'ucello” (“like the song of a bird”). A brief reminiscence of Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra is heard before the close of this Fantasia.


The next three Variations (III-IV-V) are in a-b-a form. The Scherzo (Variation III) contains a brief quotation from Berg's Lyric Suite, suggested by a string passage near the beginning and gradually brought into focus. The extremely delicate Trio estatico (Variation IV) is a canon in inversion and returns to a fairly literal restatement of the theme. Its delicacy is dismissed in the closing measures as it accelerates and runs head-on into the Burlesca (Variation V).


The second Fantasia is a Cadenza and is the freest of the three poetic interludes. Its tempo is rubato and the mandolin-celesta-harp trio is joined only by percussion, which provides coloristic accompaniment to solo passages in the mandolin. Functionally this serves as an introduction to the following Ostinato (Variation VI). But the repetitive figure concept normally heard in ostinato is only loosely operative here, as Crumb uses the concept with great freedom.


The final Fantasia, an Elegy and Coda with concluding Theme, joins the mandolin-celesta-harp trio with full orchestra. It brings back some of the nature elements of the first Fantasia and presents the dynamic climax of the entire work. After the dramatic apex is reached, everything collapses abruptly and the work concludes with an abbreviated statement of the principal thematic material.


- George K. Diehl




Echoes of Time and the River


Crumb’s preoccupation with time dates from his earlier Eleven Echoes of Autumn (Echoes I) of 1966, a chamber work for violin, alto flute, clarinet, and piano. In Echoes of Time and the River, this central unifying theme is expanded to include a treatment of psychological and philosophical time as well. The spatial projection of the time continuum takes the form of various “processionals”; the four movements of the suite may be realized with the players actually marching about the stage in steps of various length synchronized with the music they are performing. Many of the players are given extra instruments in addition; the strings, for example, are outfitted with antique cymbals and glockenspiel plates.


The first movement is entitled Frozen Time and features a collage of mysterious and muted textures in overlapping 7/8 metric patterns. After a time, three percussionists make their way ritualistically across the stage intoning the motto of the state of West Virginia: “Montani semper liberi?” (Mountaineers are always free); the question mark has been added by the composer. The music swells to an intense ffff in the middle section with glissandos in all the string parts. As if in answer, the mandolinist exits playing and whispering the same motto darkly as he disappears off stage. The second movement, Remembrance of Time, begins with the most distant and delicate sounds imaginable (piano, percussion, harp), echoed by a phrase from García Lorca (“the broken arches where time suffers”). Fragments of joyful music erupt from various wind and brass players on stage and off, and the commotion eventually gives way to a kind of Ivesian reminiscence on the string harmonics: “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” It is positively serene.


The most free and fantastic movement is the portentous Collapse of Time. Like the celebrated amphibians of Aristophanes, the string players croak out the nonsense syllables “Krek-tu-dai! Krek-tu-dai!” while the xylophone taps out the name of the composer in Morse code. As the movement proceeds and the underlying pulse falls away, the music heads off into a wide range of special effects – quasi-improvised fragments passed around among the various soloists, notated in circular patterns in the score. The descent into the solitude of the finale, Last Echoes of Time, comes at first as a relief and relaxation from all the foregoing; once the listener is convinced of the retrospective nature of these last pages, he can begin to explore more securely the implications in these echoes of all that has gone before.


- Robert McMahan

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