George Crumb, an influential American composer and Annenberg Professor Emeritus of the Humanities in the Department of Music at the School of Arts and Sciences, died Feb. 6 at his home in Media, Pennsylvania. He was 90 years old.
Born in West Virginia, Dr. Crumb was the son of a cellist and a clarinetist. He composed music at an early age, attending National Music Camp in Interlochen, Michigan in 1947. He graduated in 1950 from Mason College of Music and Fine Arts in Charleston, West Virginia (now part of the University of Charleston) and received a master’s degree two years later from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. A Fulbright scholarship holder, he then studied at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin. He received his Ph.D. in composition from the University of Michigan in 1959. Dr. Crumb has had a long relationship with academia. He first taught at a college in Virginia, then became professor of piano and composition at the University of Colorado in 1958. In 1965, he joined the faculty at Penn as an assistant professor of music, then was promoted shortly afterwards to associate professor. Dr. Crumb received a Pulitzer Prize in 1968 for his paper Echoes of time and the river, an orchestral suite first performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Three years later, Dr. Crumb was promoted to professor of music at Penn. He was eventually named the Annenberg Professor of Humanities in 1983 (Almanac September 20, 1983).
Dr. Crumb’s compositions have had a great influence on generations of musicians. “While audiences might find some of her music off-putting or opaque, she often tapped into a deeply felt, uniquely American vein of emotion,” NPR writer Anastasia Tsioulcas said in a tribute to Dr. Crumb. After echoesDr. Crumb’s next standout piece was The dark angels (Thirteen Darkland Images) (1970), a piece written to protest the Vietnam War that featured unconventional instrumentation like bent water glasses and electronics (a concept that would become a theme in Dr. Crumb’s work). Excerpts from Black Angels were included in the popular 1973 thriller The Exorcist, winning Dr. Crumb a mainstream audience. Eugene Namour, chairman of Penn’s music department in the early 1980s, noted that American audiences viewed Dr. Crumb’s work as “the pinnacle of the avant-garde”. Dr. Crumb’s music has appealed to sophisticated audiences because of his artistry, and his radical approach to instrumentation has endeared him to a wide swath of the music-listening public. “It’s a study in spiritual annihilation,” said pop musician David Bowie of The dark angels from 2003. “That scared me bejabbers.”
Also in 1970, Dr. Crumb’s play Old children’s voices premiered at a Library of Congress chamber festival, and a recording released in 1971 became one of the best-selling classical music albums of the 20th century. Then he composed Makrokosmos (1972-1979), a four-volume work for piano and percussion that required its musicians to shout, whistle, and play the piano in untraditional ways. Article by Dr. Crumb child star (1977), a choral and orchestral work, was also widely performed. In the early 1980s, Dr. Crumb became one of the very few living composers to have all of the “big six” Philharmonics (New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Cleveland, Boston and Los Angeles) performing his music, and his music remained popular. enough with the public that nearly everything remained in print (both in sheet music and in recorded form) during his lifetime. In 2004, he arranged several Civil War-era songs for a piece called the winds of fatewhich was adapted for theatrical production in 2011. He returned to American hymns and spirituals throughout the 2000s for his American songbook series, observing in the process that the division of the United States at the time these songs were written is still very much alive. Dr. Crumb was well known for producing elaborate and artistic musical scores, and many of the scores he designed are on display in museums today.
Dr. Crumb retired from Penn in 1997 and twelve years later received an Honorary Doctor of Music (Almanac February 24, 2009). Dr. Crumb has also won the UNESCO International Rostrum of Composers Award, the Koussevitzky Recording Prize, the 1998 Cannes Classic Award for Best CD by a Living Composer, and a 2001 Grammy for Best Contemporary Composition ( for child star). He also received grants from the Rockefeller, Guggenheim, Fromm and Ford foundations for his exemplary work and was a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Several of Dr. Crumb’s students, including Christopher Rouse, Osvaldo Golijov and Jennifer Higdon, became successful composers themselves. Penn Live Arts (formerly Annenberg Center) honored Dr. Crumb in 2019 with a three-day festival featuring his music, titled “Zeitgeist: George Crumb at 90” (Almanac October 1, 2019).
Dr. Crumb is survived by his wife, Elizabeth; and his sons, David and Peter.