Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Celebrating 35 years since the death of the moon

Thirty-five years ago today, Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon. Most people were quite excited by the pioneering nature and obvious technological accomplishments of this feat, though I'm not sure such vice-presidential language was warranted. George Crumb, composer extraordinaire, had mixed feelings about the Apollo 11 mission, which he expressed in his work, Night of the Four Moons. He composed this work during the Apollo mission of July 16-24, 1969, using texts by his favorite poet, Federico Garcia Lorca. This is what Crumb had to say about his work:
I suppose that Night of the Four Moons is really an "occasional" work, since its inception was an artistic response to an external event. The texts -- extracts drawn from the poems of Federico García Lorca -- symbolize my own rather ambivalent feelings vis-à-vis Apollo 11. The texts of the third and fourth songs seemed strikingly prophetic!

The first three songs, with their brief texts, are, in a sense, merely introductory to the dramatically sustained final song. The moon is dead, dead ... is primarily an instrumental piece in a primitive rhythmical style, with the Spanish words stated almost parenthetically by the singer. The conclusion of the text is whispered by the flutist over the mouthpiece of his instrument. When the moon rises ... (marked in the score: "languidly, with a sense of loneliness") contains delicate passages for the prayer stones and the banjo (played "in bottleneck style", i.e., with a glass rod). The vocal phrases are quoted literally from my earlier (1963) Night Music I (which contains a complete setting of this poem). Another obscure Adam dreams ... ("hesitantly, with a sense of mystery") is a fabric of fragile instrumental timbre, with the text set like an incantation.

The concluding poem (inspired by an ancient Gypsy legend) -- Run away moon, moon, moon! ... -- provides the climactic moment of the cycle. The opening stanza of the poem requires the singer to differentiate between the "shrill, metallic" voice of the Child and the "coquettish, sensual" voice of the Moon. At a point marked by a sustained cello harmonic and the clattering of Kabuki blocks (Drumming the plain, / the horseman was coming near ...), the performers (excepting the cellist) slowly walk off stage while singing or playing their "farewell" phrases. As they exit, they strike an antique cymbal, which reverberates in unison with the cello harmonic. The epiloque of the song (Through the sky goes the moon / holding a child by the hand) was conceived as a simultaneity of two musics: "Musica Mundana" ("Music of the Spheres"), played by the onstage cellist; and "Musica Humana" ("Music of Mankind"), performed offstage by singer, alto flute, banjo, and vibraphone. The offstage music ("Berceuse, in stile Mahleriano") is to emerge and fade like a distant radio signal. The F-sharp major tonality of the "Musica Humana" and the theatrical gesture of the preceding processionals recall the concluding pages of Haydn's "Farewell" Symphony.

I heard this work during a festival for Crumb's 75th birthday at DePauw last spring, sitting right behind the composer. It is a very effective and dramatic work, though I like Ancient Voices of Children and An Idyll for the Misbegotten better. But I find it very appropriate to listen to Night of the Four Moons to mark this anniversary. Here are a <list of recordings, in case you wish to do the same.

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