Here is a program note I wrote for the work by George Crumb I will be playing in a few hours at a Crumb & Wernick program to be held at Penn. I first wrote this note when I gave what I believe was the NYC premiere of the piece in the early 80’s. This was at Christ & St. Stephen’s Church, at the time a fairly commonly used venue for new music events.
A Little Suite for Christmas, A. D. 1979 was written for Lambert Orkis, who premiered the work at The Smithsonian Institution in December of 1980.
The idea of a set of piano pieces reflecting on different aspects of the Christmas event may remind the reader of the Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus (1944) of Olivier Messiaen, and one can point to certain general stylistic traits shared by Messiaen and Crumb. But Crumb’s work is on a much more modest scale than the French composer’s massive pianistic compendium. In fact, it is a “little” suite by comparison with several earlier piano works by Crumb. It does not call for the piano to be amplified to create the “larger-than-life” sound quality desired in the four volumes of Makrokosmos (1972, 1973, 1974, 1979). Nor does the piece involve “symbolic” notations (where the staves are arranged in the shape of a cross or circle), vocal effects from the performer, or the use of additional objects to modify the piano sound, all of which appear in the Makrokosmos series. However, in the Little Suite, Crumb does continue in his refined use of harmonics, muted tones, and pizzicato, using these in combination with material performed on the keyboard in the conventional fashion.
The music created with these means is sometimes contemplative in mood, as in the hushed reverence of the second movement, or the surreal setting of the 16th century “Coventry Carol” in the sixth; sometimes visionary, as in the solemn repeated chords and melodic patterns of the first movement or the exuberant cosmic dance of the fifth.
Crumb uses a curious example of self-reference in the fourth piece, “Adoration of the Magi”. In this movement, there appears twice, in pizzicato, a melodic fragment from the “Wanderer-Fantasy” movement of Music for a Summer Evening, the third piece in the Makrokosmos series. A connection is thus made with the Magi who have “wandered” from afar to Bethlehem. Although this is a particularly private example of musical symbolism, it is consistent with Crumb’s use of quotation to add an additional level of musical expressiveness.