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George CRUMB (b.1929)
Metamorphoses Book I (2015-17) [37:28]
Metamorphoses Book II (2018-20) [38:25]
Marcantonio Barone (piano)
Rec. October 2019 (Book I) and June 2021 (Book II), Lang Concert Hall, Swarthmore College, USA
BRIDGE 9551 [37:28 + 38:25]

Each of the two books of George Crumb’s Metamorphoses carries the same descriptive subtitle: “Ten Fantasy-Pieces (after celebrated paintings) for amplified piano”. Book I was previously released in 2019 and was reviewed by Dominy Clements. In closing his review Dominy wrote that Book I was “a major new work by one of today’s most significant composers, and you owe it to yourself to hear it”. The same words apply to this reissue of Book I alongside an equally impressive recording of Book II by the same highly accomplished pianist, Marcantonio Barone.

If I am not the perfect listener (I don’t think of myself as ‘perfect’ in any respect!), I am at least one who is well-disposed to music such as this. Since my days as a sixth-former (now many, many years behind me) I have always been fascinated by works of art which explicitly re-present – metamorphose ? – another work of art in a different medium such as, to mention just a few examples, works of visual art produced in response to literary texts of one sort or another (e.g. Botticelli’s wonderful drawings for Dante’s Divina Commedia – subject of a memorable exhibition at the Royal Academy in the spring of 2001 or Honoré Daumier’s ‘Don Quixote in the Mountains’); or music written in response to literary works (e.g. Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade); or poems produced in response to specific paintings or pieces of music (e.g. Thomas Hardy’s ‘Lines to a Movement in Mozart’s E-flat Symphony’, and many of the poems collected in the anthology Stanley Spencer Poems, edited by Jane Draycott, Carolyn Leder and Peter Robinson (Two Rivers Press, 2017) and, of course, music written in response to specific paintings, such as Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition or Respighi’s Trittico Botticelliano (to finish this very brief list, as it began, with Botticelli).

Perhaps it would be as well, at this point, to identify the images Crumb is here concerned to transform/translate into music. In Book I these are Black Prince and Goldfish both by Paul Klee (1927 & 1925), Crows over the Wheatfield, by Van Gogh (1890), The Fiddler by Marc Chagall, 1912/13), Nocturne: Blue and Gold (Southampton Water) by J.M. Whistler (1872), Perilous Night by Jasper Johns (1990), Clowns at Nights by Chagall (1957), Contes barbares by Gauguin (1902), The Persistence of Memory by Dali (1931) and The Blue Rider by Wassily Kandinsky (1903). In Book II the paintings treated to musical metamorphosis are Ancient Sound, Abstract on Black and Landscape with Yellow Birds, both by Klee (1925 & 1923), Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth (1948), Purple Haze by Simon Dinnerstein (1991), Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (Lady in Gold) by Gustav Klimt (1907), Spirit of the Dead Watching by Gauguin (1892), Guernica by Picasso (1937), From the Faraway, Nearby by Georgia O’Keefe (1937), Easter by Chagall (1968) and The Starry Night by Van Gogh (1889). The pieces vary in length from 2:24 (‘Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer’ to 5:26 (‘The Starry Night’). In listening to Crumb’s Metamorphoses it is best to be able to see these paintings. Unless you have a remarkable visual memory or an outstanding art library, image searching on the internet is probably the best resource.

There is nothing merely illustrative (compared, for example, with what Mussorgsky does in Pictures at an Exhibition) in Crumb’s responses to the twenty paintings he has chosen as his subjects. For Crumb each of these paintings is treated as an originary text, a stimulus to new but related creation; he identifies something in the structure, mood or technique of each painting and uses elements such as these as his ‘subject’, while also alluding to what one might call the paraphrasable ‘content’ of each painting. So, for example, in the piece which opens Book II of Metamorphoses, a response to Paul Klee’s ‘Ancient Sound, Abstract on Black’, which is dominated by a grid of small squares, their individual colours beautifully ‘harmonised’ as they metaphorically embody the soil and all that grows from it (such as fruit and vegetables), while also evoking the primeval rhythms of growth and death; ‘behind’ (and in temporal terms ‘before’) this grid and what it evokes in its ‘ancient music’ is the black background which seems to speak of an even more ancient darkness, prior to the creation of life on earth. How Crumb’s music articulates a good deal of Klee’s subject (and method) is brilliantly observed in Steven Brun’s booklet notes – which are extensive and consistently excellent: “The prevalent interval of the perfect fourth evokes the archaic sound of the medieval organum, as well as the rustic, rough drones of music from the countryside […] The sostenuto pedal allows seven notes to ring as a continuous drone, the notes of which are activated on the keyboard and by thumbnail glissandos on the strings. In contrast to the solemn parallel fourths, intermittent melodic flourishes of perfect fifths flicker in the treble register. The effect is analogous to Klee’s use of black underpainting to intensify the effect of each colored square.”

‘Ancient Sound, Abstract on Black’, responding to a work by Klee, opens Book II of Crumb’s Metamorphoses. Not by chance, Book I also opens with the musical interpretation of a painting by Klee: Black Prince. Indeed, the second piece in each book also has a source in Klee – Goldfish (Book I) and Landscape with Yellow Birds (Book II). It is, I am sure, not a matter of chance that Klee should occupy such a prominent place in Crumb’s Metamorphoses. He does so, I suggest, because amongst the painters of the modernist age his work is most thoroughly grounded in the language and procedures of music (perhaps Kandinsky is his only rival in this respect). Both his parents were trained musicians, his father being a teacher of music and a choirmaster, his mother a singer. The future artist began the study of the violin at the age of seven and his young adulthood he worked as a violinist in Bern’s municipal orchestra. Gradually, however, his fascination with the visual arts, which had run parallel to his interest in music, became his predominant love. In 1898 he moved to Munich to study art. Initially he studied at a private drawing school run by the painter Heinrich Knirr (1862-1944), an academic artist, whose sole claim is that later, in 1937, he painted the official portrait of Hitler. Klee then joined the studio of Franz von Stuck (1863-1928), a more accomplished artist than Knirr, but no more likely to introduce Klee to modern developments. That ‘introduction’ came when, in 1911, he met such artists as Franz Marc, August Macke and Wassily Kandinsky (members of the expressionist group of painters known as ‘der blaue reiter’).

In December of 1899 Klee had first met his future wife Lily Stumpf (1862-1942), an accomplished pianist. (The two were to marry in April 1906). Though Klee now increasingly thought of himself as an artist rather than a violinist, music continued to have a central place in his life. As K. Porter Aichele puts it (‘Paul Klee’s Operatic Themes and Variations’, The Art Bulletin, 68:3 (1986), pp. 450-466): “even after he abandoned a promising career as a violinist for what was initially a less propitious future as a painter […] music continued to feed his intellect and imagination. He studied and played music throughout his life, and his evenings were often spent in concert halls and opera houses. From 1902 to 1912 he contributed music and theater reviews to Swiss periodicals. Among these are numerous reviews of operas that reveal a broad knowledge of the operatic repertoire and a keenly developed sensitivity to the various aspects of operatic productions.” (ibid, p. 450).

Klee also wrote extensively on art, both in general and with regard to his own work, and such writings are everywhere permeated by “reference to music as a means of clarifying theoretical ideas about color themes and movement in time and space” (Aichele, ibid., p. 451). Everywhere in his writings about the visual arts, Klee employs terms like harmony and rhythm. His love of music is also frequently evidenced in the titles of his works. A highly-selective list of examples might include Instrument for New Music, a pen-and-ink drawing of 1914, Fatales Fagot Solo (pen-and-ink, 1918), paintings such as In the Style of Bach (1919), Fugue in Red (1921), Harmony in Blue-Orange (1923), Rhythms of a Planting (1925), Variations (Progressive Motif) (1927), Rhythmique (1930), Table of Colour in Grey Major (1930), Polyphony (1932), New Harmony (1934), Harmonised Region (1938) and The Entry for the French Horn (1939). Even when their titles aren’t so explicitly musical, many of Klee’s works have a clear indebtedness to the language/idioms of music; so, for example, in a work in pen and watercolour from 1924, Cooling in A Garden of the Torrid Zone, the prominent structure of repeated horizontal lines inescapably reminds the onlooker of staves in a score, with the ‘plants’ seeming to be placed on these lines like musical notes. It is surely only fitting that an artist who did so much to ‘metamorphose’ music into visual works of art should be a central figure in this remarkable collection by George Crumb which seeks to ‘metamorphose’ visual works of art into music. Anyone interested in knowing more of how Klee ‘made’ paintings from music is advised to seek out one of the following: Richard Verdi’s essay ‘Musical Influences on the Art of Paul Klee’ in the Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, 3, 1968, pp. 81-107 or the books by Andrew Kagan, Paul Klee: Art/Music (1983) and Hajo Düchting, Paul Klee: Painting Music (2002). The two books have the advantage of superior reproductions of the paintings.

Of Crumb’s four responses to images by Paul Klee, the ones I find especially rewarding are Goldfish and Ancient Sound, Abstract on Black. In Goldfish, Crumb’s music contains many rapid playfully flittering figures which evoke the movements of a goldfish with abrupt transitions from quick movement to stillness/silence – or, since there is frequent use of mirror imitation, perhaps one should say that the movement of several fish is evoked (it may well be that the composer also had in mind a work such as Klee’s Fish Magic, painted in 1925 like Goldfish, in which several fish are depicted). The attentive listener to Crumb may also (but doesn’t need to) hear echoes of Debussy’s ‘Poissons d’or’ (from Book II of his Images). The result is a delightful piece, both whimsical and solid. This, indeed, might be the best place to start for a listener unfamiliar with (or even suspicious of) Crumb. The unmistakable beauty and subtlety of Crumb’s writing in ‘Goldfish’ will, I think, serve as reassurance to such a listener that the composer can be trusted to have intelligent and serious musical reasons when he makes use of less conventional methods elsewhere, as in Crows over the Wheatfield in which there are three separate passages in which the pianist slides a drummer’s wire brush across the strings or when in ‘Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (Lady in Gold)’ after the famous painting by Gustav Klimt, the pianist is required to make gentle use of metallic wind-chimes (to reflect – no pun intended – the shimmering golds of Klimt’s painting) or, indeed, the ‘primitive’ vocalisations required of the pianist in ‘Contes barbares’ (Book I, No 8).

Aficionados of George Crumb’s music will know that the twenty pieces which make up Metamorphoses were not the composer’s first attempts at a kind of musical ekphrasis (see below) through the medium of the piano. His Little Suite for Christmas, A.D. 1979 consists of seven compositions which respond to the Nativity scenes from Giotto’s frescoes (completed in 1305): ‘The Visitation’ – ‘Berceuse for the Infant Jesu’ – ‘The Shepherds’ Noël’ – ‘Adoration of the Magi’ – ‘Nativity Dance’ – ‘Canticle of the Holy Night’ – ‘Carol of the Bells’. Though often possessing a beauty full of a sense of glory and being constantly inventive, the Little Suite for Christmas is inevitably less wide-ranging and various than Metamorphoses. There is little, I think, to be gained by detailed comparisons, save the inescapable truth that as an artist, Crumb is never static. He is always changing and growing, though he does not abandon what he has once done. It remains, as the annual rings of a tree remain, to be surrounded by later concentric rings. Even in his 80s and 90s, when the pieces making up the two books of Metamorphoses were written Crumb was still changing and developing. In listening to the two books in quick succession I think I can detect a slight, but real, change of emphasos. In Book II I hear a composer a little more willing to embrace earlier phases of musical history, as when, in ‘Spirit of the Dead Watching’ the score instructs the pianist to play – by scraping a fingernail across the bass strings – the musical letters (B-flat, A, C, B-natural) which ‘spell’ the name of Bach. Elsewhere, in for example ‘Guernica’ and ‘Christina’s World’, there are passages which Beethoven, for one, would certainly have understood, and perhaps approved of.

There is a wealth of pleasurable stimulation (for ears, eyes and mind) to be had from the two books of Crumb’s Metamorphoses. I feel sure that, should I live that long, I shall be discovering new delights and excitements on these discs ten years from now.

In the last few decades the term ‘musical ekphrasis’ has begun to be used and discussed by critics and theorists – notably in, and in response to, a number of books and articles by Professor Siglind Bruhn such as Musical Ekphrasis in Rilke’s ‘Marienleben’ (2000) and ‘A Concert of Paintings: ‘Musical Ekphrasis in the Twentieth Century’, Poetics Today, 22 (3), 2001. Given that the word ekphrasis was originally a term in Ancient Greek rhetoric for “a detailed verbal description of a work of visual art’, the general sense of the phrase ‘musical ekphrasis’ is surely clear. Its use has, however, prompted much discussion by critical theorists and philosophers of aesthetics.

In my simple-minded way I am content to use the term to mean ‘simply’ “the representation in music of a visual work of art”. As such I am delighted to praise George Crumb’s Metamorphoses as a high point in the history of musical ekphrasis. To borrow once more the words by Dominy Clements which I quoted at the beginning of this review, “you owe it to yourself to hear it”.

Glyn Pursglove

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