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Ancient Voices of Children


Composer: George Crumb
Date of composition: 1970
Première: Washington, D.C.
Commissioned by: The Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation
Orchestration: Soprano, boy soprano (offstage), oboe, mandolin,
harp, amplified piano, toy piano and three percussion
players playing a marimba, tam-tam, finger cymbals
tambourine and a mounted antique cymbal
Text: Poetry written by Federico García Lorca
Genre: Cycle of songs
Number of movements: Five
Stage positioning: 52

There are five movements in total: (Crumb specified both English and Spanish
should be used in any program notes)

I. El niño busca su voz (“The little boy was looking for his voice”)

Ancient Voices of Children

II. Me he perdido muchas veces por el mar (‘I have lost myself in the sea many times’)

III. ¿De dónde vienes, amor, mi niño? (‘From where do you come, my love, my
child’) (Dance of the Sacred Life Cycle)

IV. Todas las tardes en Granada, todas las tardes se muere un niño (‘Each afternoon in
Granada, a child dies each afternoon’)


V. Se ha llenado de luces mi corazón de seda (‘My heart of silk is filled with lights’)


The vocal writing is virtuosic, melismatic, and intensely expressive. The music
seamlessly fuses and celebrates a diverse array of stylistic elements: suggestions
of flamenco and gamelan music and quotations from Bach and Ravel. Crumb’s
unique combination of instruments conjures a world of sound that can be
simultaneously archaic, contemporary, and other-worldly. 53

Several instruments, notably the harp and piano, are prepared to alter the sound.
Crumb extends instrumental timbres by weaving paper between the strings of
the piano, and using a chisel on the piano strings to “bend” notes. He also calls
for amplification by using microphones attached to the soundboard. In several
movements, the singers direct their voices into an open piano to set its
undamped strings vibrating with their voices. In order to sound remote, the
boy’s voice is heard offstage and sung through a cardboard speaking tube. The
keyboardist plays Bach’s music on a toy piano which has a two and a half octave

Crumb wrote about this work:

“The texts of Ancient Voices are fragments of longer poems which I have
grouped into a sequence that seemed to suggest a ‘larger rhythm’ in terms of
musical continuity. The two purely instrumental movements, Dances of the
Ancient Earth and Ghost Dance are dance interludes rather than commentaries on
the texts. The vocal style in the cycle ranges from the virtuosic to the intimately
lyrical, and in my conception of the work I very much had in mind Jan
DeGaetani’s enormous technical and timbral flexibility [DeGaetani premièred the
work]. Perhaps the most characteristic vocal effect in Ancient Voices is produced
by the mezzo-soprano singing a kind of fantastic vocalise (based on purely
phonetic sounds) into an amplified piano, thereby producing a shimmering aura
of echoes. The three percussionists command a wide range of instruments,
Ancient Voices of Children
including Tibetan prayer stones, Japanese temple bells, and tuned tom-toms. The
instrumentalists are frequently called upon to sing, shout, and whisper.” 54

First movement: El niño mudo (‘The little boy was looking for his voice’)

Form: Instrumental opening, then first and second stanzas
Key: Atonal

Opening (samples of the vocalizations):


El niño busca su voz. The little boy was looking for his voice.
(La tenía el rey de los grillos.) (The king of the crickets had it.)
En una gota de agua In a drop of water
buscaba su voz el niño. the little boy was looking for his voice.

[Niño]: [Boy]:

No la quiero para hablar: I do not want it for speaking with:
me are con ella un anillo I will make a ring of it
que llevará mi silencio so that he may wear my silence
en su dedo pequeñito. on his little finger.

Some of the vocal techniques used by Crumb include flutter-tongue, an
oscillating, ‘buzzy’ sound with some bending or sliding of notes to articulate a
note, using the tongue to trill an “r”. Crumb extended this technique to include
voice and not just wind instruments, where the technique originated. Crumb
experimented with microtones with the singing in Ancient Voices. (A microtone
is an interval that is smaller than a semitone. This includes quarter tones and
even smaller intervals.) Singers often vocalize as a warm-up vocal exercise – a
vocalization is textless, using only vowel sounds. Crumb expanded the concept
and added tongue clicks, hissing and whispering to the concept of vocalization.

Ancient Voices of Children
Crumb wrote the following notes to accompany the score:

“Free and fantastic, wild . . . remote, naïve
Visual images from poetry:
cricket, water drop, ring, child

Abstract forms drop tongue-like against the background of a cricket image, others dance and
hesitate while the soprano voice searches among pure vowel sounds to find a voice. As
mysteriously as the poem ends, so does the visual sequence—in a vibrant ring of completeness.”

The work opens with vocalizations for the soprano. As soprano Barbara Ann
Martin described the piece the first time she heard it, “the way the voice was
used: trills, runs, unusual and mesmerizing colours and shapes, leaps, thrilling
intervals, twistings and dancings. What an array of new and unheard of
possibilities!” The overall effect is dramatic and reminiscent of flamenco music.
Crumb’s creativity knows no bounds with the human voice which he then pairs
with the piano. The voice is directed into the piano with the damper pedal down
so as to pick up the sympathetic vibrations. The first stanza is sung alone by the
soprano and the second line, the king of the crickets had it, is performed in
recitative style.

The piece becomes more complicated with the addition of the boy soprano
singing the second stanza off stage at the same time as the first stanza. The
melody is now more defined, based on folk music rather than just vocalizations.
Crumb specifies on the score that the boy’s ‘after-song’ should sound remote and
that the style of singing should be simple and naïve. The instrumentation is quite
sparse and sounds Eastern when the mandolin is played. The piece fades to ppp
and then silence.

Ancient Voices of Children