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In 1963 Crumb composed a work for soprano, piano, and percussion called Night Music I. The Four Nocturnes for violin and piano were a sequel in the same quiet mood, composed a year later, and were thus subtitled Night Music II. Crumb was working at the time as professor of piano at the University of Colorado-Boulder and was still not well known. He gained rapid celebrity in 1970 with his Ancient Voices of Children on the poetry of Lorca [which was presented last week by the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group on a Green Umbrella program] and with Vox Balaenae (The Voice of the Whale) in 1971, while in the early 1960s he had been concerned with a search for new sounds, especially from the piano. In this quest he was aided by his Boulder colleague, the pianist David Burge, which accounts for the amazing variety of effects he calls upon the pianist to perform. Crumb has himself written: “I attempted a modification of the traditional treatment of the violin-piano combination by exploiting various timbral resources of the instruments.” For the violinist these effects include harmonics, glissandi, and rapping on the wood of the instrument, and for the pianist they include harmonics achieved by touching the strings at nodal points, rapping on the metal crossbeams, and plucking the strings at precise points using either the fingertip or the fingernail, as well – of course – as the traditional method of more simply depressing the keys.
The overall effect of this music is of extreme delicacy and serenity; true night music. The violin is mostly heard in its highest register, with wide-ranging intervals from time to time. There are long silences, and occasional suggestions of birdsong. Only in the second Notturno does the music edge towards a more disturbed dynamic. The rest is languorous and sweet, with the last movement echoing the tentative tracery of the work’s opening.
The first performance was given in Buffalo, NY, on February 3, 1965, by Paul Zukofsky (violin) and the composer. In 1997 Crumb retired from the University of Pennsylvania, where he had taught for over 30 years, and he now lives in retirement.
Hugh Macdonald is Avis Blewett Professor of Music at Washington University in St. Louis. He has published books on Scriabin and Berlioz, and his book of essays Beethoven’s Century appeared in 2008.