In Praise of Crumb
by Steven Stucky
Los Angeles Philharmonic Green Umbrella program, February 2000
George Crumb is a national treasure: an American composer whose voice is so distinctive and whose imprint on the musical culture of the past few decades so unmistakable that he scarcely needs any introduction. In a season that has seen him much in demand — his seventieth birthday fell four months ago, and as a result his travel schedule has been busier than ever, as music-lovers all over the world have taken their turn celebrating the milestone — I am delighted that he has made time for us Los Angeles listeners too.
Yet my pleasure at greeting George tonight is not merely institutional but also personal. For many composers my age (I started composing about 1957, and my formal training took place in the 1960s and early 1970s), Crumb emerged as a sort of beacon just when we needed him. At a time when what is now derided (not quite fairly) as sterile, dry, academic music was still the established religion of right-thinking modernists, here was a humane voice daring to prize sonic beauty and frank expression. Here was a colorist working in sometimes delicate, sometimes dramatic shades, an alchemist mingling seemingly incompatible elements — chromatic motive-work, sudden major and minor chords, novel effects and instruments, quotations from older music — into pure gold, and winning a following among professionals and amateurs alike.
For some of us languishing in the serial wilderness in those days, Crumb showed a way out — not to a mindless sort of simplicity, but to a rich mode of expression reveling in structural mastery but making room too for mystery and poetry and, when needed, for simple directness. And although American composers were glad that he was one of us, we were not alone: Crumb has left a residue on music from Poland, from Israel, from Japan, from Australia, from all over the world.
An encomium like this one, of course, risks embalming its subject prematurely, relegating him to history before he is ready. The really wonderful thing about George is that, as celebrated as he has been now for thirty years, he never lost his modesty, his down-to-earth manner, his reverence for Bach and Beethoven and Mahler, his sense of wonder. And he has never stopped striving musically, as the two pieces from the 1990s on tonight’s program attest.
Happy Birthday, George. And from one of your beneficiaries, thanks.
© Steven Stucky