Award Date

December 2016

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA)



First Committee Member

Jennifer Grim

Second Committee Member

Cheryl Taranto

Third Committee Member

William Bernatis

Fourth Committee Member

Timothy Hoft

Fifth Committee Member

Margot Mink Colbert

Number of Pages



American composer George Crumb (b. 1929) started to garner public attention in the 1960s with a new kind of message and sound. Crumb’s approach to composition has been to exploit music as a form of communication to convey the metaphysical and the psychological through various mediums. With the social movements in the 1960s, many Americans were inspired to fight for change; as for Crumb, composing became his platform for social commentary. His approach to social activism was to express his ideas through musical dialogues and symbolism. The subtle quotations that he often borrowed from other composers are typically short in length, but their roles are significant in that they convey a deeper meaning and provide a broader context to his piece. This document aims to identify the motivations and the historical connections behind the symbolism in Crumb’s pivotal chamber works, as well as discuss his musical contributions to social activism and his intended effect. Indeed the impact may have extended beyond the average listening audience to influence future generation of composers as well. I will explore such composers who followed Crumb’s lead and utilized music as a platform for social activism. Three of Crumb’s chamber works composed between 1969 and 1971 will be examined:

• Night of the Four Moons (1969) reflects Crumb’s ambivalent feelings about the Apollo 11 mission to the moon in 1969. The texts were extracted from four of Federico García Lorca’s poems. Understanding the four original poems by Lorca provides a more complete context by which to interpret the metaphors Crumb used.

• Black Angels (1970) demonstrates the state of anger and darkness born by the Vietnam War. Crumb used numerology as a cohesive element, specifically the prime numbers 7 and 13 to represent the essential polarity – God versus Devil. The numerological symbolism is variously expressed in the musical structure, including phrase length, groupings of notes, time brackets, numbers of changes, and more. He also alluded to tonal music to represent the harmonious and God, and atonal to represent the current chaotic state.

• Vox Balaenae (1971) is an ecological piece, which Crumb utilized the flute to suggest the sounds of a whale after being inspired by a recording of a singing humpback whale. This work provided a distinct musical voice to the world’s first anti-whaling campaign launched by the environmental non-profit organization, Greenpeace, in 1975, which eventually ignited a global “Save the Whales” movement. Additionally, the adaptation of Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra theme contains metaphors about the evolution of mankind.

This document aims to contribute to the available knowledge concerning the interpretation of Crumb’s compositions by providing new insights to help researchers and performers attain a deeper understanding of Crumb’s chamber works that involve social change movements between 1969 and 1971.


classical contemporary composers; flute; George Crumb; music activism; social activism; social change movements



File Format


Degree Grantor

University of Nevada, Las Vegas




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