George Crumb's 'Ancient Voices of Children' At 50

Oct 29, 2020

“At this performance, it was a kind of pandemonium afterwards. The audience wouldn’t stop cheering.”

That’s how the noted pianist Gilbert Kalish recalls the Oct. 1970 world premiere of George Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children

At its 50th anniversary this month, Ancient Voices of Children sounds as fresh and new as anything composed more recently, and it bears a message of hope that seems more relevant now than ever.

Set to poems by Federico Garcia Lorca, Ancient Voices of Children might seem to have all the ingredients for instant success—emotionally powerful texts, an alluring and sensuous sound world and a hopeful message that humanity can regain its lost innocence. But in 1970, it was a work composed very much outside the mainstream of American contemporary music.

Still, the headline of the New York Times review on Oct. 31, 1970 called the work “Crumb’s Full-Blown Masterpiece.” One authority on George Crumb’s music says the piece is “widely considered to be among the most significant and influential musical compositions of the latter 20th century.” And the work has had an enduring influence on composers to the present day.

Listen to George Crumb talk about the factors that influenced his conception of Ancient Voices of Children and hear some of the musicians who performed on the work's world premiere as they discuss that now famous concert.  Also hear excerpts from two notable recordings of Ancient Voices of Children, and learn about the new music that Crumb, at age 91, is composing today.

A performance of Crumb's Ancient Voices of Children at the 2016 Bang on a Can Summer Marathon at the Summer Festival at MassMOCA:

FULL TRANSCRIPT OF AUDIO FEATURE:

[Music under voiceover – excerpts from George Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children]

Gilbert Kalish: “At this performance, there was a kind of pandemonium afterwards. I mean, the audience wouldn’t stop cheering.”

That performance was the Oct. 31, 1970 world premiere of American composer George Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children. A daring work for soprano, boy soprano and chamber ensemble, Ancient Voices of Children has been called George Crumb’s “full-blown masterpiece.” It had an enormous impact in its day. And, as one of the landmark works of 20th-century music, it has had an enduring effect on composers and performers. 

Now, at the 50th anniversary of the work’s world premiere, Ancient Voices of Children sounds as new as any music composed more recently and bears a message that some say is more relevant than ever. And Crumb himself, at age 91, remains a towering figure in contemporary music.

Ancient Voices of Children sets poems by the early 20th-century Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca. Crumb handpicked the poems and combined them in a group that makes us feel our special love for childhood innocence, the desperation of barrenness, the unspeakable sorrow on the death of children and the hope that childhood innocence could even be restored.

That idea – the hope for humanity’s redemption – is embodied theatrically in a now-famous moment near the end of Ancient Voices. The boy soprano, who up to that point has been heard singing offstage, walks on stage and joins the soprano in a touching final duet, symbolically reuniting the adult with what in his poem Lorca calls her “ancient soul of a child.”

Here, mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani and boy soprano Michael Dash perform the final duet Contemporary Chamber Ensemble on the world premiere recording of Ancient Voices on the Nonesuch label.

[Musical excerpt from the recording of Ancient Voices of Children performed by the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, Arthur Weisberg conducting]

In a recent phone interview, George Crumb said he was attracted to an even more profound idea in these poems.

George Crumb: “The kind of mystical idea of the children, really, are inheriting the world. The children of any generation are leading to a new representation of what people are. In each part of our history they kind of remake the world. And we should always look to our children, I guess, for new ideas.”

Crumb is a composer famously full of new ideas, especially about musical color. In Ancient Voices of Children, he fashioned his settings of Lorca’s poems for a thoroughly original combination of instruments – amplified piano, harp, massive amounts of percussion, mandolin, oboe, soprano and boy soprano.

Crumb’s music asks every musician to perform extended techniques – the soprano must sing into the top of the open piano and navigate lines with wild leaps, nonsense syllables, shouts and whispers. The harpist has to hammer out percussive effects on the wooden sounding board of the harp. At one point, the pianist plays the piano strings with a chisel.

Crumb further augmented the sound of the chamber ensemble with unusual instruments, including prayer stones, Japanese temple bells, toy piano and musical saw.

With this instrumentation Crumb created in Ancient Voices a sound world as far removed from the musical norm as the realm of childlike innocence is distant from the adult world. Crumb also borrowed from a mix of musical styles – quotes from works by J.S. Bach and Mahler and dances that sound at once old and new and even from other cultures.

Music theorist Steven Bruns is associate professor at the University of Colorado Boulder College of Music. He has known George Crumb and his family for more than two decades and is writing a comprehensive critical assessment of Crumb’s music and biography. Bruns has written that Ancient Voices of Children is “widely considered to be among the most significant and influential musical compositions of the latter 20th century.” He says Crumb’s eclectic musical language is in part why.

Steven Bruns: “(Crumb) emerged at a time when composers almost felt like they had to have some sort of party affiliation – are you a twelve-tone composer? Are you into this style or that style? And people actually got into very heated aesthetic arguments about this. That sort of thing never really concerned George. And one of the things about the piece that I think caught the attention of so many people was this kind of marvelous mixing of stylistic languages.”

At the time Crumb composed Ancient Voices of Children, the “party” with which many composers working in the United States affiliated themselves was embodied in the musical style called serialism, which Crumb says he never embraced.

Crumb: “I don’t think my music was so much influenced by precisely what was going on in music at that time. A lot of music at that time – most music at that time – was kind of based on the 12-tone idea, you know, which never appealed to me in itself.”

The “12-tone idea,” introduced by the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg, was the essence of serialism. Rising to prominence in the mid-20th century, serialism prioritized the mathematical processes of constructing music according to the 12-tone system over composing melody and harmony, which had traditionally had been the mainstay of European music.

For the serialists the singable melodies and lush harmonies you might hear in music by Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms and others were out, and works created by way of rigorous mathematical processes were in.

Serialism became the prevailing style among American academic composers. Milton Babbitt, who in the mid-1900s served on the music and mathematics faculty at Princeton University and eventually became co-director of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, was a figurehead among American serialist composers.

When Ancient Voices of Children was first performed on Oct. 31, 1970 at the Library of Congress on the Coolidge Foundation Chamber Music Festival, Crumb was far from unknown. Just two years earlier he had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music for his orchestra work Echoes of Time and the River. But Crumb was not composing music in the serialist mainstream.

All of the works on the Oct. 1970 Library of Congress concert were new, and many were serialist, including the Fourth String Quartet by Milton Babbitt.

[Musical excerpt from Milton Babbitt’s String Quartet No. 4:]

Kalish: “At the time serialism was kind of the top dog, and people like Milton Babbitt were considered the voice of new music.”

The noted pianist Gilbert Kalish, distinguished professor at Stony Brook University, performed with the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble and conductor Arthur Weisberg in the world premiere of Ancient Voices of Children.

Continued Kalish: “And it was an interesting time, I think, in that people who are perfectly good composers but did not believe in serialism or did not follow that path, they were sort of on the outs.”

But although Crumb was working outside the prevailing serialist style, the premiere of Ancient Voices of Children showed that his music definitely had an audience.

Kalish: “At this performance, there was a kind of pandemonium afterwards. The audience wouldn’t stop cheering. And there were some of the established serial composers who were at the performance.”

Susan Jolles is professor of harp at the Manhattan School of Music and at Hofstra University. She performed as associate harpist with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra for more than 53 years. She also performed on the world premiere of Ancient Voices of Children and remembers the overwhelming audience response.

Susan Jolles: “When we finished the performance, there was an instant, total standing ovation that was just really – I had never experienced with contemporary music anything like that. There were only two people who didn’t like it and stomped out quite visually present in front of everyone. I will not say who they were. But I think it was people who represented a different approach to new music. It was, in New York at that time, the Uptown composers and the Downtown composers. So Crumb was somewhere – he was just universal. He had his own style. He always did. George Crumb was George Crumb.”

As Jolles suggests, wild audience ovations at contemporary music concerts are rare. So what explains the immediate success of Ancient Voices of Children?

Gilbert Kalish suggests that a combination of the emotionalism of Lorca’s poetry, the sensual beauty and dramatic strength of Crumb’s setting and the commanding performance by the late mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani were the key ingredients.

Kalish: “I think partly the singer, that it was her voice and it had a beautiful and profound text. And the amazing event of the child coming on to the stage at the end of the piece and singing together with the mother. The instrumentation, the sounds of the piecethat combination of things and this beautiful sound world that he creates.”

In other words, Crumb’s work spoke more to the heart than to the head. And looking back with 50 years of perspective, Crumb himself offers an additional insight into the immediate success of Ancient Voices of Children.

Crumb: “We were involved in the war in Asia, you know. A lot of children lost their lives in that war. And I think that was sort of in the air, the sense that, Why are we over there, and what is happening? And a lot of children lost their lives. I’m talking about the Vietnam War that we were involved in. And that was hanging over everybody’s thought. I think that was part of maybe the reaction when they heard my setting of these texts.”

Crumb says the heavy toll of the Vietnam War was on his mind while he was composing Ancient Voices of Children, which he was writing at the same time he was composing his work for electric string quartet, Black Angels.

The two works explore human concerns that any war could have raised in any time period. Black Angels explores good and evil, and Ancient Voices explores humanity’s loss of innocence and the hope that it can be regained.

That message of hope is at the center of soprano Barbara Ann Martin’s deep understanding of Ancient Voices of Children. Since the late 1970s, Martin, who is voice department chair at the Music Institute of Chicago, has performed Ancient Voices of Children more than 100 times – more than any other living soprano – with major orchestras around the world. Here she is singing with Orchestra 2001 and conductor James Freeman on their recording of Ancient Voices on the CRI label.

[Excerpt from Ancient Voices of Children performed by soprano Barbara Ann Martin and Orchestra 2001, James Freeman conducting]

When she performs Ancient Voices, Martin says she and the boy soprano often embrace when he walks on stage near the end of the piece.

Barbara Ann Martin: “Now comes the child onto stage, and we know that life continues. It’s not over. There is more. And when the audience sees the child coming on stage and sees the adult and the child embracing and becoming one, there’s a gasp in the audience. They see it. There is hope.”

Martin says the emotional power of Ancient Voices of Children continues to grab audiences just as it did at the work’s premiere. And that performance may have shown composers the validity of expressive avenues that the rise of serialism had obscured.

Kalish: “I think a lot of people didn’t like the music that was being produced by the serialists. But yet it had a sense of the authoritative voice of what good music should be. And so I think it was like a breath of fresh air and people could again breathe and have the courage to say what they may have felt all along.”

With that breath of fresh air came a whole tradition of composers who, just as Crumb had done, embraced individual styles that did not conform to serialism. Some – though certainly not all – studied with Crumb at the University of Pennsylvania. And the list of Crumb’s former students includes some of the most noted composers working today – Jennifer Higdon, Osvaldo Golijov and Pierre Jalbert, among others.

Crumb continues to add to his auspicious body of work, most recently with his Metamorphoses, a series of new works for amplified piano and inspired by paintings by noted 19th- and 20th-century artists. Crumb has completed two books of Metamorphoses, and he’s planning a third book.

Crumb: “I’m going to be 91 in February, so I’m getting up there. But I hope I can still manage to put some notes on paper, you know, There are some other things I like to do.” [This interview with George Crumb took place on Sug. 28, 2020. Crumb turned 91 on Oct. 24, 2020.]

The impact of Ancient Voices of Children extends well beyond the realm of music and musicians. The piece has the power to take all of humanity back to when it was whole and innocent – a message of hope and reconciliation that soprano Barbara Ann Martin says is more relevant now than ever.

Martin:When that child comes on the stage at the end, and we embrace and we combine our essences, that’s what we have to do now as human beings “Martin said. “Worldwide it becomes even more important now. We can’t be isolated from each other anymore.”

I'm Jennifer Hambrick with Classical 101, WOSU Public Media, in Columbus.