David Burge in Memoriam

s76623762I was surprised to see that there was little if any commentary online on the passing of pianist and composer David Burge earlier this month. He was an extraordinary champion of 20th century music, perhaps most notably that of George Crumb, who wrote his Five Pieces for Piano and the first volume of Makrokosmos for Burge. I saw him play the second book of Makrokosmos in Cleveland in the 1970s, and can report he had a complete mastery of Crumb’s expanded piano techniques. The performance was an experience of electrifying, even terrifying intensity, as in the “Tora! Tora! Tora! (Cadenza Apocalittica)” movement. I strongly recommend his book surveying the 20th century piano repertoire for its insights and for its sheer readability. It also includes a CD of Burge performances. Burge taught at Eastman for a number of years; Marilyn Nonken was among his notable students. I imagine he must have been a great teacher on the basis of an inspiring talk I heard him give, I believe at a festival of music for the keyboard at the Hartt School in about 1980, where he spoke of the pianist as shaman, enacting rituals at the piano for the listening tribe.

There is not a great deal of Burge on YouTube, but here is his recording of Rochberg’s 12 Bagatelles. I would guess the picture above is from the time of the Crumb Five Pieces in the early sixties.

2 thoughts on “David Burge in Memoriam

  1. The very first all contemporary music concert I ever heard as a small child was a faculty recital by David Burge in Kilbourn Hall at Eastman, a truly memorable experience. I remember one piece (though not the composer’s name) in which delicate music played on the keyboard was contrasted with hitting the strings with an enormous foam mallet, in a theatrical gesture worthy of a Warner Bros. cartoon.

    1. Thanks for your note and for reading the blog, Carson. With a big mallet (I’ve used a yarn tam-tam mallet – I think this might have been called for in a Don Erb piece) a soft stroke to the bass register strings can produce a luscious, soft, but long ringing sound, something like a very large tam-tam, but a narrower band of frequencies.

      Burge was rather tall, with arms to match, and his escapades inside the piano were thereby facilitated. He also was capable of an uncanny low voice, perfect for Crumb’s vocal effects. I have tried to darken my voice when playing Crumb’s music, and was once told that my performance frightened a small child in the audience. I knew I had done my job well.

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