George Crumb, “Ancient Voices of Children”

Ancient Voices Of Children (A Cycle Of Songs On Texts By Federico García Lorca For Mezzo-soprano, Boy Soprano, Oboe, Mandolin, Harp, Electric Piano & Percussion) was released on Nonesuch in 1971, with the same cast that performed the premiere a year earlier.

Arthur Weisberg conducts The Contemporary Chamber Ensemble featuring Jan DeGaetani, Gilbert Kalish, Susan Jolles, Stephen Bell, George Haas, Howard Van Hyning, Raymond DesRoches, Richard Fitz, Jacob Glick and Michael Dash.

A significant number of George Crumb’s moody and theatrical compositions have been settings of the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca. Ancient Voices Of Children tapped into the moment, including anti-Vietnam war sentiment, and remains one of the few genuinely abstract pieces from 20th-century formal American composition to have a cultural footprint larger than a shoebox.

The work is a feature for the wonderful mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani. Crumb wrote:

The vocal style in the cycle ranges from the virtuosic to the intimately lyrical, and in my conception of the work I very much had in mind Jan DeGaetani’s enormous technical and timbral flexibility. Perhaps the most characteristic vocal effect in Ancient Voices is produced by the mezzo-soprano singing a kind of fantastic vocalise (based on purely phonetic sounds) into an amplified piano, thereby producing a shimmering aura of echoes.

DeGaetani’s star turn is not supported by much harmony, traditional or otherwise; this leanness of texture helps create the “ancient” feeling proclaimed in the title. After voice, percussion is the most significant element. The score requires three official percussionists, while the pianos and harp play percussive roles as well.

1a. El niño busca su voz (The Little Boy was Looking for his Voice). Right away, a cadenza for DeGaetani, a document of extreme possibility. There are no words for the singer at first, rather simply phonetic sounds. Again, everything behind her is very sparse. The general feel throughout most of the movements is spacious, almost tentative. It works pretty well on record, but in live performance the execution of all the “tricks” (singing inside the piano, the instrumentalists taking turns with spoken dialogue, and so forth) adds another layer of tension.

1b. Dances of the Ancient Earth. Oboe and shouts of “hey” interact with the drums and harp. The oboe melody is derived from Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde.

2. Me he perdido muchas veces por el mar (I have lost myself in the sea many times). DeGaetani whispers, the instruments circle and glisten.

3. ¿De dónde vienes, amor, mi niño? (Dance of the Sacred Life-Cycle). After another stunning operatic cadenza by DeGaetani, the drums take up a menacing bolero rhythm. Underneath the bolero, a tympani groans while slowly being tuned and de-tuned, a notable and rather aleatoric effect.

While intended for conventional classical music performers, the theatrical experimentation of Ancient Voices is absolutely a piece with all sorts of electronic and improvised music of the late ’60s. Indeed, simply reading the strange-looking score of Ancient Children requires the interpreters to go far outside the norms of common practice chamber music.

4a. Todas las tardes en Granada, todas las tardes se muere un niño (Each Afternoon in Granada, a Child Dies Each Afternoon). There hasn’t been much, if any, triadic harmony until now — not even with the Mahler oboe quote — but suddenly a rich D-flat major chord accompanies a quasi-flamenco preach from DeGaetani. Somehow this long sumptuous call is answered perfectly by a toy piano’s sad little marching Baroque cadence. The greatest movement of the suite.

(Note: in the Weisberg/DeGaetani issue, “Dance of the Sacred Life-Cycle” and “Each Afternoon in Granada, a Child Dies Each Afternoon” are complied into one continuous track.)

4b. Ghost Dance. The musical saw offers a plaintive whine and the castanets shake in dismissal. This movement is better in live performance.

5. Se ha llenado de luces mi corazón de seda (My silk heart has been filled with lights). Chimes, gongs, other percussion, a lonely oboe melody. The boy soprano is heard “offstage” in quick cameos in earlier movements, and finally comes onstage to meet the mezzo. However this is not a true apotheosis, but once again something sparse and fleeting. Rather than build an edifice, the composer gives us epigrams and runes.