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George Crumb
Three Early Songs

Claude Debussy
Fêtes Galantes, premier recueil

George Crumb

Claude Debussy
Fêtes Galantes, deuxième recueil

George Crumb
The Sleeper

Claude Debussy
Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé

George Crumb
The Yellow Moon of Andalusia (Spanish Songbook III)
Sun and Shadow (Spanish Songbook II – extrait)
The Yellow Moon of Andalusia (Spanish Songbook III – extrait)

Sophia Burgos, soprano
Daniel Gerzenberg, piano

Dialogue over the ocean

“That impressed me early on, the fact that Debussy’s style was free and was able to make strong cross-referrals on its own.” (George Crumb, interviewed by James Briscoe, 2014)

Crumb considers Debussy the third major figure of 20th century music, alongside Stravinsky and Schoenberg – the composer who opened the door to multicultural listening and freed form, giving it new coherence and thereby offering a space to American music, set apart from serialism. Marked by harmonic refinement and Symbolism, Debussy’s mélodies weave a dialogue with the songs of George Crumb and their dark, sardonic universe.

Youthful pieces: Three Early Songs

George Crumb was seventeen when he wrote these Three Early Songs, for his future wife, Elizabeth May Brown. They call for traditional means of the genre, in a spirit both folk-like (the beginning of Let it be forgotten) and Impressionistic (the piano accompaniment evoking the wind with diaphanous arpeggios). After having mislaid them, Crumb agreed to bring these songs back from oblivion, after some modifications, enriching a few harmonies here and there. In these songs one can detect the origins and first signs of what would become his style.

Apparition, or the song of death

In the thirty years following the Three Early Songs, Crumb frequently wrote for voice, but Apparition (1979) marked the return to song for voice and piano. Like the works of John Cage, the piano is always prepared or amplified – Crumb prefers the expression “extended piano,” which allows him to work on timbre, harmonics, and playing methods. In choosing the vast poem When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d by Walt Whitman (1819-1892), he asserts his American identity while proclaiming his own poetic themes: night and death. He focuses on the fourteenth of the poem’s sixteen sections, written in memory of President Abraham Lincoln, assassinated on April 14, 1865. The “carol of death,” sung by the gray-brown bird, is reconstructed by cuts and displacements, any historical reference being abandoned in favor of the macabre theme. This, however, is not meant to be tragic, Crumb drawing from it a nocturnal ode to death. Subtitled “Elegiac songs and vocalises,” Apparition takes the form of a cycle, even as far as the graphics of the score in curved staves, the music of the last song reprising that of the initial song before extending it. The three vocalises are so many parentheses without words, in which the voice imitates nature, creating a new musical and poetic space.

Verlaine and the Fêtes galantes

The two collections of Debussy’s Fêtes galantes serve as a setting for Apparition. Inhabited by commedia dell’arte masques, Verlaine’s volume offered Debussy a Symbolist poetry, simultaneously sensual, whimsical and musical, favoring the odd-numbered verses. Fêtes galantes I is a youthful work, revised ten years later. The ecstatic sob of the fountain in Clair de lune is unforgettable. More abstract, perhaps, the second collection is imbued with a poignant nostalgia that is particularly perceptible in Colloque sentimental. No more bergamasques, just two (former) lovers “in the ancient park, deserted and frozen.” Once this landscape has been sketched by piano lines deduced from the whole-tone scale, the dialogue is established over a pedal note that maintains this “very expressive, melancholic and far-off” atmosphere to the end.

Mallarmé and refinement

Mallarmé’s Symbolism, more abstract and abstruse than Verlaine’s, pushed composers – be it Ravel and Debussy in 1913 or Boulez – towards new horizons. In Soupir, often leaving the voice exposed, as though to make the text easier to hear and comprehend, Debussy relies on the clauses of this single sentence to structure his song, forgetting neither the glittering octaves of the fountain nor the unquiet ostinato of the stagnant water. To set the preciosity of Placet futile to music, there is nothing better, for this scene on Sèvres porcelain, than a slow minuet, evoking the 18th century. Here again, Debussy lets Mallarmé guide him, attributing a musical motif to the two invocations: “Princesse” and “nommez-nous” (name us). Éventail first unfolds on the black keys of the piano, in a motif whose returns articulate the form, while the voice, on the other hand, plays more on chromaticism.

Lorca and chiaroscuro

Crumb’s passion for Lorca’s poetry goes back to 1963 and has not wavered since. This is evidenced by the three Spanish Songbooks, composed between 2009 and 2012, from English translations. Drawn from the second collection, subtitled Sun & Shadow, Dance of the Moon in Santiago amplifies the means present in Apparition: a play on resonance by holding down keys, percussion with a stick on the metal frame the singer’s Sprechgesang and the pianist being called upon to repeat certain words of the text by shouting. Everything contributes to the obsessive return of the verse “Dans la cour de la Mort” (In the court of Death). The two excerpts from the Spanish Songbook III (The Yellow Moon of Andalusia) focus on the poetics of clocks and time. At the beginning and end of Pause of the Clock, the piano states that it is seven o’clock. On the other hand, In the Forest of Clocks evokes the clock’s mechanism to finally suggest a “cold hour,” the hour of death – which brings us back to Apparition.

Lucie Kayas

Photo Sophia Burgos ©Kate Lemmon Photography