How Boulez blanked George Crumb

How Boulez blanked George Crumb


norman lebrecht

February 07, 2022

The important American composer George Crumb died yesterday at the age of 92.

His most fertile years were the 1970s when the Black Angels string quartet screamed out opposition to America’s Vietnam war, the Vox Balanae created simulated whale sounds with human instruments and Ancient Voices of Children spoke up for multi-cultural innocence.

He was riding high when Pierre Boulez became music director of the New York Philharmonic and blanked him. ‘There are no American composers,’ Boulez was heard saying at the time. Some Americans simply stopped composing.

I had personal experience of his prejudice. In the year 2000 I had arranged to see Boulez in Paris for a chat, only for an aide to get in touch the week before saying the meeting was cancelled. ‘Something you have written about George Crumb,’ was the reason given.

My piece had compared Crumb, then 70 and returning from a long silence, with Boulez who had written nothing of consequence for years. Boulez took offence, I was told, at being mentioned in the same column as ‘that George Crumb’. Too bad. Here’s some of what I wrote.

I met Crumb once for coffee in Baker Street and failed to elicit a grievance or a snark against anyone. He was a shy, soft spoken man with a brush moustache, a whimsical sense of humour and no desire for self-promotion. He shunned Manhattan, preferring to teach two generations of composers in Philadelphia.

Boulez was absurdly wrong. There are American composers, many of them now thanks to the late, much-loved George Crumb.


  • Ya what says:

    Boulez as a composer will now be a footnote in history…simply no one is interested in the dischordal unemotional trite that he wrote. Thank goodness his posthumous career is pillared solely via his previous efforts as a conductor….but even that won’t last forever.

    • George says:

      You can’t ignore Le marteau sans maître, and effective too is Répons. Other than that, I agree!

      • John Borstlap says:

        I have ignored Le Marteau and have not suffered from abstinence. I also ignored Crumb (reason: listen to the video), and remained happy ever after. Life is too short.

        • music lover says:

          I have heard half a piece of Borstlap and skipped the rest….and remained happy ever after.Life is too short.I listened to a lot of Boulez and Crumb.It´s individual,brilliant and original.

          • John Borstlap says:

            Yes I agree! Most of that oldfashioned stuff is make-believe & for people who can’t hear how rich modernity is. Crumb, Boulez, Xenakis, Pitschner, they all make me really feel alive.


          • Nightowl says:

            “individual,brilliant and original.”
            Indeed “noise lover”

  • Dennis Davis says:

    Boulez conducted the premiere of Star Child and also Ancient Voices if Children in New York.

    • RVS Lee says:

      Dennis – (At least in rehearsal) Boulez was collegial and supportive of Crumb in preparing Star Child.

    • Couperin says:

      Exactly! I saw this headline and thought, “what the hell is he talking about?? Boulez totally conducted Crime and premiered a piece in NY!”

      • busonipax says:

        This article is complete nonsense. Finding prickly Boulez quotes is like shooting fish in a barrel.
        The writer is obviously upset about a broken lunch- date.

      • busonipax says:

        Joe Turner played piano in a Paris bistro for 30+ years, when he died, it made the headlines on the 8 o’clock news over there.
        When Jim Jarmusch or Spike Lee arrived at the airport– there would be a news crew(s) greet them
        to try to be the first to run the story….

        “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”

  • Pimen says:

    The grand old men are now Ned Rorem (98), György Kurtág (95), Thea Musgrave (93), Sofia Gubaidulina (90), Per Nørgård (89), Morton Subotnick (88), Harrison Birtwistle (87), Helmut Lachenmann, Arvo Pärt (both 86), John Corigliano and William Bolcom (both 83).

  • marcus says:

    Would regard that as a badge of honour, frankly

  • A tribute my wife, Abbie Conant, wrote about George. He touched many people. There are a number of tributes on Facebook, many interesting to read.

    “We are very sad because William’s teacher and mentor, George Crumb, one of the most original voices in American music, died yesterday at 92. His presence touches almost every measure of music we have created for the last 45 years. A warm, gentle, generous person, he all but took William under his wing, an impoverished student from New Mexico who pretty much just showed up at his door.

    “He emanated something magical from his eyes, something silvery that made it clear what was behind them, an inexplicable world of sound, a Lorcian mystery like looking into the eyes of a nocturnal bird. And all the time he was as down home as a person could be, soft-spoken with a pleasant West Virginian accent which somehow didn’t align after performances of hypnotic works like Ancient Voice of Children” or the “Macrocosmos.” His chimeral presence suggested an odd combination of Groucho Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and your favorite grandpa. He was so unique and yet so immersed in the grand European traditions of music like the four Bs: Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and Bartok. One could barely mention a work that he couldn’t start playing by memory on the out of tune piano in his home studio where William took his lessons. He loved the music of Mahler and lived in a similar universe where present world sounds merged with haunting sonic memories to create a kind of timelessness. His music was either hated or loved, summarily dismissed, or enthusiastically received.

    “We have so many cherished memories like when we worked with him on the big trombone solo of his orchestral work “Star Child” while he was composing it. Or when he brought his daughter Ann into his studio to sing Colo Porter songs for William. Or showing him how to use aluminum foil pie plates as mutes to create the shimmering antiphonal trumpet sounds used in “Star Child.” Or once when he made us breakfast after we spent the night at his house and he said, ‘The first thing you need to know about frying an egg is that you need a lot of grease.’ It is little known that he loved chemistry. He had a closet full of chemicals and like to make bombs he would explode in the forest.

    “He had a way of teaching that seldom told students what to do. Instead, he often spoke in short hints and riddles like oracles that would move William to think more deeply. Music was something for him so ephemeral. He described it as “a system proportions in the service of a spiritual impulse” –almost as if it were something unattainable. He once told a journalist, ‘I haven’t yet written the kind of music I would like to write in my heart of hearts. I sense that maybe that’s the human condition; maybe one never does, in fact.’ Goodbye George. A part of our heart has left the world.”

  • Ross Amico says:

    Crumb enjoyed a second flowering late in life, with his substantial song cycles for voice and percussion based on recollected hymns and folk songs of his childhood in West Virginia. Collectively titled “American Songbook,” these are as fine as anything he ever composed in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Later still, he returned to Lorca with his “Spanish Songbook” (in three volumes), but these I have yet to hear. His was a unique musical voice. He had me with “Black Angels.” R.I.P.

  • music lover says:

    Boulez premiered Crumb´s Star Child in 1977 with the New York Philharmonic.A recording of the event appeared on the orchestra´s in house label

  • Fenway says:

    In 1982 I was playing timpani in an orchestra in Rio de Janeiro. The American Embassy brought George Crumb and his wife to Rio for a week for him to coach a performance of “Ancient Voices”. I played percussion and we had a wonderful time. I also got to spend a lot of time with the Crumbs, mostly drinking caipirinhas on Copacabana beach. George was the most down to earth person, a very warm and funny guy. One of his students was a very close friend, Chris Rouse(who also has crossed over).

    For those interested, there are some insightful interviews with Crumb on YouTube. One of his famous works was basically a tribute to his dog. You can learn about that in one of these interviews.

    Boulez wrote worthless music, was a worthless conductor and probably was an overall pain.

    As an added bonus I strongly recommend listening to the Rouse Violin Concerto.

  • Anon says:

    “He was a shy, soft spoken man with a brush moustache, a whimsical sense of humour and no desire for self-promotion. He shunned Manhattan, preferring to teach two generations of composers in Philadelphia.”

    Thank you, Norman, for this captivating description. For those of us who’ve enjoyed playing his music but never knew much about him, these words mean a lot.

    The incident with Boulez is telling – a great anecdote which will take its place in the urban legends of music history. I do agree, though, with a previous commenter that the news of Mr. Crumb’s death should have been the focus of the headline.

    But then, who knows? George Crumb never did things by the book and might have actually appreciated the offbeat title to his obit here . . .

  • Andrea Moore says:

    Yes, thank you, Norman. A poetic composer, completely unafraid to be vulnerable and to ask the same of performers and listeners. A big loss, but he was a big gift.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    It always seemed to me that Boulez was the sort of calculating musical thinker who based every judgement on the conviction that there was one (and only one) inevitable progression involved in the history of composition — just as there is only one way to correctly complete a jigsaw puzzle — that mandated that to be respectably “modern” you had to be at the head of the line and nowhere in the middle of it, much less occupy a back bench. It was a theology and a true believer does not interpret theology, at least not knowingly. It was an either/or litmus test that was applied with rigor to all and everyone.

    Even Schoenberg would fail that test.

    And when Boulez rendered his blanket judgement about American music I have a feeling he was thinking of the entire wing, or branch, of really American music that adhered to no school and had no location on his all-important line of progress; I’m thinking of composers such as Harry Partch, Henry Brandt, Henry Cowell, Michael Sahl, Lou Harrison. and at least in some of his works that I am most familiar with, George Crumb. They were not engaged in even playing the same game in the opinion of a Boulez, much less playing by the same rules.

    And it wasn’t like composing as they did was done to curry favor with the audience.

    I would agree that Boulez’s judgements and preconditions have been pretty much set aside in the fullness of time. He’d be bewildered at where we are now. Everything he “knew” to be so told him otherwise.

    But as long as there are good musicians who admire his music, and there are, some of it will live on, even if it is “just” the Piano Sonata; I cannot agree with those who say none of it has a chance. You don’t have to buy his central belief structure to respect the craft. So too I think will Crumb’s music live on — as long as there are string quartets who enjoy a challenge Dark Angels will be played and appreciated even without a war to protest.

  • Tony Cole says:

    Sorry, Norman, but there are no whale recordings in Crumb’s Vox Balaenae. I have just fished out (misplaced pun!) my old vinyl of this in memory of George C. – good to listen to it again… and now for the Kronos Q in Black Angels…

  • Japecake says:

    LOL, Condescending Gallic contempt is as French as champagne.

  • Rob Keeley says:

    Yes, well, Boulez got an awful lot of things wrong, didn’t he? 🙂
    Massively overrated as a commentator/intellectual, and allowed to get away with murder in musical politics, whatever one may think of his music or conducting.
    I have rarely come across any of his spoken or written utterances which on reflection were anything other than banal.

    • John Borstlap says:

      There are not many people capable of seeing through B’s quasi-intellectual writings. He would describe simple things in a way which would give them a scientific touch. An example: ‘There are two types of properties necessary for the formation of a heterophony: general properties which indicate the placing, and specific properties which result in the production. Heterophony is a structural distribution of identical pitsches, differentiated by divergent temporal coordinates, manifested by distinct intensities and timbres, as a result the concept of heterophony will be extended from the monodic to the polyphonic level.’
      Translated this says: ‘Notation is needed to read and to play the notes. Heterophony is combining structurally different layers of material with identical notes. In the result, monody becomes polyphony.’

      Imagine PB describing something like bicycling.

  • RustyBones says:

    Libes are always so impressed with European culture, often claiming America is less superior and “philistine” in comparison. If Europe was so great why was everyone so anxious to get out of there, risking a dangerous sea voyage to a new world where more danger and disease awaited them. Anything to get away from the Libs. Too bad they followed…

  • fflambeau says:

    Neither Boulez or Crumb will be remembered a century from now.

  • PGHK says:

    Boulez is a far more important composer than Crumb. How come DGG published a box with all his works then? Crumb?

    • Barry Guerrero says:

      . . . because DG recorded Boulez and not Crumb. The musical value of that decision could be debated forever. But from a purely marketing standpoint, it made sense – they were still courting Boulez the conductor.

    • Me says:

      Because Bridge Records, over the last 30-odd years, has been assembling a highly lauded (and soon to be completed) recorded ‘integrale’ of Crumb’s music, and in time they’ll likely repackage it as a box.

  • Novagerio says:

    “There are no American composers”. Did Boulez really say that? Boulez and John Cage were friends, and had even been roomies in Paris in the 50s.

  • Boulez was the personification of hubris. And not worthy of tying the shoes of many he criticized. A hundred years from now he’ll be a footnote.