As it’s Hallowe’en, with All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days closely following (and Remembrance Day a little after that), i’m going to tap into the prevailing temporal undertone and explore a few pieces concerned one way or another with the subject of death. To begin, a piece that is wholeheartedly concerned with that subject—and which is also, i think, highly suitable in character to Hallowe’en itself, George Crumb‘s Songs, Drones and Refrains of Death, composed over a six-year period, completed in 1968. For his theme, Crumb turned once again to the poet whose words he set repeatedly through the 1960s, Federico García Lorca, utilising a curious ensemble comprising baritone, electric guitar, electric double bass, amplified piano/electric harpsichord and two percussionists. As is usual for Crumb, the players are all compelled to go beyond their regular call of duty, with everyone playing some percussion as well as singing at various points.
Crumb’s music is always meticulously structured, and the various elements used here are declared in that title. The piece is in two parts, each consisting of a refrain followed by a song that is permeated by a “Death Drone”. The atmosphere is distinctly unsettling throughout, established in the opening moments via muted piano notes, almost inaudible cymbal swishes, half-speaking harmonics and abrupt fortissimo outbursts of banging and shouting. In many ways this is a paradigm for the work as a whole, which is constantly lurking within shadows only to erupt into the light unexpectedly, all guns blazing. Despite such inherent instability, Crumb nevertheless creates a space for the baritone that is ritualistic and solemn, entirely suited to the austere content of Lorca’s poems. Often these words are not sung but spoken or whispered, in the first song (‘La Guitarra’) interspersed with cadenza-like figurations from the electric guitar; and at various points the baritone’s voice is made more distant and strange through the use of a long tube. The second song, ‘Casida de las Palomas Oscuras’ (Casida of the Dark Doves) allows the voice more scope to be lyrical, yet whispers on all sides and an emphasis on staccato notes only makes the mood more claustrophobic, as though the players felt unable or unwilling to articulate themselves with too much force.
Part Two plunges to the opposite extreme, immediately violent and aggressively menacing, extending the shouts and hard percussive accents glimpsed earlier. Even the nature of the drone—hitherto a disturbing unmoving presence—is thrown off-balance, emphasised by being protracted for a whole minute before the third song, ‘Canción de Jinete’ (Song of the Rider). Here, Crumb releases all the pent-up energy and force accumulated in the previous 60 seconds in an unstoppable metronomic frenzy, the baritone onomatopoeically responding to the text with wild neighs and whinnies. It climaxes in an immense cadenza for the two percussionists, the most furiously exciting passage in the entire 30-minute work, each player hurling phrases at the other, back and forth like traded insults. After such a blistering explosion as this, the final refrain—marked ‘Pale, ghostly’—is deeply uncanny, with echoes of the piano’s opening notes answered by soft twangs from various Jew’s Harps, transitioning into the bottomless melancholy of the final song, ‘Casida del Herido por el Agua’ (Casida of the Boy Wounded by the Water). This plays out slowly over low, soft oscillating pitches; but Crumb again draws on extremes, fracturing the music’s fragile temperament with brutally harsh accents and splintered high gestures, slowly building to a second great climax, a process that reduces the ensemble to an unhinged entity, splitting into parallel strands of material, played independently. Unity in the ensemble doesn’t bring resolution, though, and the work’s closing moments are conflicted: angry, passionate, mournful, suicidal, yearning, concluding with the infinitesimal tinkling of crystal wine glasses.
Songs, Drones and Refrains of Death is a masterpiece of timbral ingenuity, employing an astonishing array of sounds, effects and extended techniques. But all of them are as far from novelty as it’s possible to get; they become transparent in Crumb’s hands, an integral part of a large-scale vehicle for Lorca’s acutely intense vignettes. As such, it’s easily one of Crumb’s finest works, and in my view one of the very best compositions from the latter half of the twentieth century.
This performance was given during the 2002 Proms season by Sanford Sylvan with Sinfonia 21, directed by Martyn Brabbins. Sylvan’s performance in particular is wonderfully expressive; if this version gets you excited, i can highly recommend his recording of the work on the Bridge label (with American ensemble Speculum Musicae), which throws even more clarity on Crumb’s minutely detailed soundworld.
Happy Hallowe’en everyone!