American Composers Orchestra, Carnegie Hall, George Crumb photo: Sabine Matthes, Sept. 27, 1998

Echoes of Time and the River, Four Processionals for Orchestra (Echoes II)George Crumb. photo credit: Sabine Matthes

Born February 26, 1932, in Charleston, West Virginia
Now living in Media, Pennsylvania
The son of professional musicians–his father was a clarinetist and band arranger, his mother principal cellist of the Charleston Symphony–George Crumb grew up steeped in music, from Mozart to Sousa to gospel hymns. Eventually he earned a doctoral degree in music at the University of Michigan, where his principal teacher in composition was Ross Lee Finney. He has taught at the University of Pennsylvania and Swarthmore College, and traveled to Asia, Australia and Europe on tours sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and other organizations. He has earned grants and awards from the Fromm, Guggenheim, Koussevitzky and Rockefeller Foundations, as well as the 1968 Pulitzer Prize for music and the 1971 International Rostrum of Composers (UNESCO) Award. In 1995, Mr. Crumb became the 36th recipient of the MacDowell Medal, an award named for the American composer, which is given annually to a composer, writer or visual artist in recognition of outstanding contributions to the nation’s culture.
George Crumb has said, “I believe that music surpasses even language in its power to mirror the innermost recesses of the human soul.” Mr. Crumb has been compared to Charles Ives as a distinctly American musical visionary, capable of the most delicate sonic vibrations and the most “barbaric yawp” (to quote Walt Whitman) of orchestral noise. Even his notation is a work of art, meticulously charted and lettered, often bending the musical staff in a swirl of angles, circles and other geometrical shapes to convey his expressive intentions.
Echoes of Time and the River, also known as Echoes II, composed in 1967, is an outgrowth of a 1965 work, Eleven Echoes of Autumn for violin, alto flute, clarinet and piano. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Irwin Hoffman, gave the work’s premiere on May 26, 1967, in Chicago’s Orchestra Hall. The following year, Echoes of Time and the River was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for music. Reviewing the premiere, Donal Henahan wrote in Musical Quarterly (January 1968) that this work was “the most technically fascinating and, in the writer’s experience, the most practically effective piece to emerge from the new school….The score impressed one as an extraordinary piece of fantasy. A veritable thesaurus of orchestral novelties, Echoes differs from much other new music in that its ideas leap off the page and make themselves perceptible as sonorities…Each movement sustained interest by ear alone, too, the delicate sonorities clinging in the memory for days afterward.”
Echoes of Time and the River achieved a sort of notoriety at its premiere for the spectacle of orchestral musicians moving around the stage in carefully worked-out choreography as they played. This may have seemed terribly innovative to some observers, but of course there was nothing new about it; when one looks back at the history of musical performance, from Greek drama to the medieval church to Mozart’s serenades to the big-band era, what strikes one as odd about the modern symphony orchestra is that all the musicians are expected to sit still for the whole concert! In Echoes, Mr. Crumb has brought the familiar idea of a musical “processional” into creative tension with the rigidity of nineteenth- and twentieth-century concert etiquette–epitomized, at this performance, by the famous and hallowed proscenium arch of Carnegie Hall.
In a booklet on George Crumb issued by his publisher, C.F. Peters, in 1986, the annotated list of works includes this description (presumably written by the booklet’s editor, Don Gillespie) of Echoes of Time and the River:
Crumb’s preoccupation with time dates from his earlier “Autumn” Echoes, but in Echoes of Time and the River this central unifying theme includes 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 string and wind players are given extra antique cymbals and glockenspiel plates, and the bell sounds resonating throughout the orchestra also create a dimension of vast sonic space.
The first movement is called 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 ironic 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 Garcia 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, evoked by serene string harmonics: “Were You There When They Crucified the Lord?”
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–bizarre, 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.
Copyright c 1998 by David Wright