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George Crumb: Star-Child

Program Notes by the composer

Star-Child, completed in March, 1977, was commissioned by the Ford Foundation and written for Irene Gubrud, soprano, and Pierre Boulez and the New York Philharmonic. The score bears a dedication to my two sons, David and Peter.

Star-Child represents my largest work in terms of the performing forces required. (Most of my writing has been concentrated in the chamber dimension, and even my earlier orchestral music is fairly modest in its instrumentation.) It seems to me that when a Latin text is involved, a large, monolithic quality is suggested. Also, I was interested in constructing a work with the maximum contrasts of textures and timbres. However, the full weight of the orchestra is employed only in the Apocalyptica section, with its driving rhythms and sustained fortissimo.

The title was suggested by another of my works, Music for a Summer Evening (Makrokosmos III), in which there is a section called Hymn for the Advent of the Star-Child. In addition there are certain pertinent references in Star-Child’s Latin texts to “children of light” in the Biblical quote (in Hymn for the New Age) and to finding the light in a world of darkness (in Advent of the Children of Light). Binding the work together is a sense of progression from darkness (or despair) to light (or joy and spiritual realization) as expressed by both music and text – a conception that is at the same time medieval and romantic. For instance, the idea of dark and light is reflected in the orchestration, for the earlier sections of Star-Child favor the darker instruments (the lower brass, bassoon, contrabassoon), while near the end the effect is quite different when the children sing amidst the luminous sounds of handbells, antique cymbals, glockenspiel, and tubular bells. However, there is no esoteric, philosophical basis to Star-Child. It is simply a work within the tradition of music having a finale which expresses the hope that, after a struggle, or after dark implications, there is something beyond. I feel too, that the Latin texts transcend doctrine and convey universal meaning.

Four conductors are required for Star-Child, two primary and two secondary. Conductor I conducts all the vocal passages and also all of the winds and six of the percussionists until the concluding portion of the work. Conductor II conducts all the strings and two of the percussionists throughout. During the Hymn for the New Age the winds divide into smaller groupings, and at this point Conductor III directs the brass instruments and three percussionists while Conductor IV leads the clarinets, flutes, and vibraphone. For this recording Thomas Conlin conducted all four ensembles separately, with the result being edited and mixed under my supervision. Because the vertical coordination between ensembles is always slightly different in Star-Child, editing between takes would not have been possible without employing this method of recording.

Star-Child is continuous, despite sectional divisions. The germinal idea, Music of the Spheres (strings, pianissimo), moves throughout the work in a circular and therefore static manner, a kind of background music over which the human drama is enacted.

This idea consists of a continuum of chords built upon the interval of a perfect fifth. Over these slow-moving strains of “suspended” music I have superimposed (in the manner of Charles Ives!) a sequence of boldly contrasting musics. The necessity for four conductors arose from the fact that each music has its own tempo and metrics. (Metrics tend to be odd-numbered: the opening music is in 11/4 time, the entire Apocalyptica in 5/16, and there are other sections based on sevens and threes.) The four conductors do not synchronize and therefore all sense of vertical alignment between them is erased. I had even imagined that the “visual counterpoint” of the four-fold conducting would produce a choreography of its own.

Star-Child contains a number of programmatic or pictorial allusions. The seven trumpets of the apocalypse are represented, quite literally, by seven trumpets – two in the orchestra and five positioned around the auditorium. This extended passage of trumpet cadenzas climaxes with a heroic high F on the fateful seventh trumpet. Also the four horsemen of the apocalypse are represented, not quite so literally, by four drummers playing sixteen tom-toms. Dies Irae is quoted at several points in a rather surreal whole-tone transformation: the first phrase of it is extensively used in the Apocalyptica, while its three phrases comprise the soft brass music that accompanies the children’s chorus at the end. Voice Crying in the Wilderness, with a text consisting of extracts from the Dies Irae, is a long duet for solo soprano and solo trombonist. (The trombonist is in front of the orchestra for this section.) The “voice” is therefore a composite voice, with the trombone functioning as a kind of doppelgänger.

Star-Child’s eight percussionists play a wide range of instruments. Some of the more characteristic are: iron chains, flexatones, pot lids (struck with metal beaters), sizzle cymbals, a metal thunder sheet, log drums, and a wind machine. Some of the more usual instruments are required in pairs, e.g., vibraphones, sets of timpani, bass drums, and tubular bells. Since the percussion instruments are arranged in a semi-circular fashion around the orchestra, their multicolored timbres are textures totally impregnate the orchestral fabric.

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