George Crumb: Ancient Voices of Children

The year before going abroad for the first time in 1977, I had started listening to more and more 20th Century “classical” music. My interest in this music probably started with Stravinsky, spread to Bartok, and lead me to the hardcore German atonalists-Schoenberg, Berg and Webern.

Fancying myself on alternate days as something of an avant gardiste, an anti-bourgeoisie, and even a Dadaist, I listened to these pieces more for their philosophical and intellectual interest rather than how pleasing they sounded. This type of music became so reductionist at the end that composers often would write on a page of sheet music the instruction: “Improvise!”

Another famous composer, John Cage wrote a piece called 4′ 33″ which consisted of a pianist sitting still at a piano not playing for four minutes and 33 seconds. Around that time, I began to find modern works too taxing, and the public and composers must have done so as well, because in the past 30 years the pendulum has swung back and modern music has become much more palatable.

George Crumb, a modern composer born in 1929, hit his stride in the late 60s and early 70s and his music is about as avant-garde as you can get. However, there is something about today’s piece, Ancient Voices of Children, which I instantly found alluring, and I still enjoy it today. It dates from 1970, and seems to signal the beginning of a new direction in music.

In Ancient Voices of Children, Crumb set the poetry of Federico Garcia-Lorca to music. Crumb said his goal was to create “musical images that enhance the powerful, yet strangely haunting imagery of Lorca’s poetry.” To this end, Crumb employed prepared instruments–mandolins tuned out of key, pianos with pieces of junk stuck in the strings, a harp with sheets of paper woven into the strings.

Crumb also had the mezzo-soprano sing into the strings of the piano to give her voice haunting overtones. At one point, he has the oboist pull out a harmonica, and at other times the percussionist bangs on Tibetan prayer stones, Japanese temple bells and a tom tom. What always charmed and fascinated me about this piece, however, was the inclusion of a toy piano in one passage of the work. It adds a child-like quality and relief after a gripping and very serious mood. Perhaps this sums up the short poem by Lorca:

my heart of silk
is filled with lights,
with lost bells,
with lilies, and with bees, and I will go very far,
farther than those hills,
farther than the seas,
close to the stars,
to ask Christ the lord,
to give me back
my ancient soul of a child.

Crumb was 41 when he wrote this piece. Perhaps he was expressing the lament of every middle aged person thinking about the lost opportunities one wasted in one’s youth or the child-like wonder at the magic of life and all things new before one falls prey to cynicism as many do. Perhaps that sense of the inherent sadness of the human condition is what gives the work its depth. And for me, it still has enough mystery and beauty to it that gives it a certain staying power.


About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

4 Responses to George Crumb: Ancient Voices of Children

  1. kvennarad says:

    My mother would have said, “It’s just noise.”

    I would have retorted, and regularly did retort, “If it were ‘just noise’ I wouldn’t be listening to it. I wouldn’t be spending time thinking about it”

    She never got that.

    It is as deliberately constructed and as complex as any tonal piece with a recognisable ‘tune’.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. XperDunn says:

    ‘modern’ music has always left me cold–but i figure that’s on ME, not the music. I’m just lost without a melody or something…


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