Crumb’s American Songbooks

George Crumb is a quintessentially American composer – to my mind, ranking with Ives and Copland. Wildly popular in the 1970’s, Crumb’s stock fell a bit in the 1980’s, though I think his popularity overseas did not wane as much as here in the states. Crumb has experienced a late-in-life creative blossoming, in some ways comparable to that of Elliott Carter, two decades older than Crumb. Carter was extraordinarily productive in his 90s, and during the same period, Crumb was similarly productive in his 70s, finding in American folksong a rich compositional resource. The result has been a series of American Songbooks, now grown to six substantial sets. In these, Crumb has arranged folksongs, spirituals, and other traditional tunes, either for solo voice, or two singers, accompanied by percussion quartet and piano. The medium is perfect for Crumb, with his exquisite ear for instrumental color and preference for long ringing sounds. Each set uses an extraordinarily large complement of instruments, including various non-western ones. (The works would surely be more widely known if the instrumental resources required were not so great.) The piano, as the composer has remarked, serves as a bass for the percussion ensemble which it would otherwise lack.

The pieces have been written with Philadelphia’s Orchestra 2001 in mind (see a relevant video clip at their website), and the group’s performances, led by its artistic director James Freeman, are exemplary. The first four of the Songbooks have been recorded for Bridge Records, with Barbara Ann Martin, and the composer’s own daughter Ann Crumb as the superb soloists. (Find Songbooks II and IV on disc here; Books I and III here.) The Bridge releases are part of a their “Complete Crumb Edition”, an admirable commitment to documenting the work of a true American treasure.

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