George Crumb

Listen to “Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown?”

George Crumb

1929-2022, Charleston, Kanawha County

Born and raised in Charleston, composer George Crumb was recognized the world over as one of the 20th century’s most adventurous and exceptional composers. Writing for orchestras and ensembles, Crumb won many awards, accolades and admirers. He was one of a select few to have been awarded both a Pulitzer Prize for Music and a Grammy Award. What makes his music stunningly different is a combination of who he is and where he came from.

Crumb’s father, clarinetist George Henry Crumb, Sr., and his mother, cellist Vivian Reed Crumb, both played with the Charleston Symphony. He graduated from Charleston’s Mason School of Music in 1950 and earned a master’s degree at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He studied in Berlin as a Fullbright scholar, then returned to the U.S. and in 1959, earned a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. He taught at a college in Virginia before becoming a professor of piano and composition at the University of Colorado in 1958. He joined the staff at the University of Pennsylvania in 1965 and remained there until 1997.

Early in his career, Crumb said he was unable to compose in a traditional format. Instead, he made use of found sounds and objects to create wildly original pieces. He cited both Béla Bartók and Claude Debussy as influences.

Night of the Four Moons (1969) was inspired by the Apollo 11 lunar landing, while Black Angels (1970) evokes a dark, surreal soundscape of the Vietnam War. Echoes of Time and the River earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 1968, and Star-Child (1977) won a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Composition in 2001.

His compositions often require musicians to rethink the way they play. Pianists must pluck the strings and employ a variety of items like chisels, paperclips and marbles to alter their sound. In some of his orchestral pieces, musicians – sometimes masked – are instructed to walk around the stage blowing air – but not notes – through their horns, and to leave and enter the stage during the piece. Singers are often challenged with caterwauling vocal gymnastics. One of his best-known pieces, Black Angels, was recorded by the Kronos Quartet and featured string players bowing goblets.

Crumb was also known for his unique scores. As a child, he transcribed for his father and developed an appreciation for calligraphy. With the idea that his music should look as evocative as it sounds, the scores themselves are works of art, handwritten in spirals, appearing to be engraved on mutant staves, and in 1972’s Makrokosmos, written in the shape of a peace sign. Inspired by both the sound and looks of his scores, numerous dance companies have choreographed his work.

Though Crumb retired from teaching in 1997, he was appointed with David Burge to a joint residency at Arizona State University in early 2002. He continued to compose and travel for performances and recording sessions. In 2008, Carnegie Hall honored him with a special “George Crumb: Making Music” concert.