George Crumb, An Idyll for the Misbegotten (1985/1997)

George Crumb is one of the most remarkable composers of our time. His dramatic tension, phrasing, and score eye-candy garner thousands of performances worldwide every year. Pieces like Ancient Voices of Children and Voice of the Whale seem to have established firm footholds in the permanent repertoire. Dropping the “Contemporary Hornist” persona, I would like to offer a personal account of my journey of coming to know Crumb and ultimately adding the horn version of An Idyll for the Misbegotten to his oeuvre.

Composer Meets Composer

I first sought out Crumb’s music in the mid-1980s. Already then I wished he had written a piece featuring the horn. When I learned that he would be a special guest at a nearby symposium in the summer of 1990, I took the opportunity to meet him. That first weekend began a refrain that eventually accompanied me into the doctoral program at the University of Pennsylvania where he taught. “Please consider writing a work for the horn.”

I had a number of opportunities to follow up in tangible ways. On one occasion we listened together to the Ligeti Horntrio. During his Mahler course we discussed various aspects of Mahler’s horn writing. In every case I hoped to lodge inspiration for how he might find a role for the horn in his music.

In one of these meetings he explained his preferred approach to writing for an instrument the first time. He found a volunteer player to go through every possible kind of special effect as well as range and register. The reader may well imagine that such a session would require the player to have an open mind and a creative streak. I just happened to know a horn player who was willing, open-minded, and at least creative enough to be accepted to the Penn composition program.

An Improbable Transcription

Crumb has a theory (oft repeated) that music is less amenable to transcription the more recent it is. Thus, he would say, Bach often makes a successful transcription but Brahms rarely so. He sees music as progressing from a pure concept of notes on the page to an art form utterly dependent on its medium. For a composer like himself (he said) a transcription would unthinkable. His music is entirely reliant on the idiosyncrasies and technique of the instruments for which it was written. So it never crossed my mind to do a transcription of his music.

I was finally able to schedule my explore-the-horn meeting with Crumb in 1996. By this time I had finished the doctoral program. I thought it would be helpful to play something for him of his own. I had a score for the flute version of Idyll and noticed that I could play the first couple of pages on the horn quite effectively as written. That is, the written notes for flute sounding in C sounded quite natural on horn sounding in F.

My plan turned out to be a useful ice-breaker for the session. But we ranged further. He seemed particularly interested in fast changes between open and stopped and also humming-while-playing double-stops. Upon returning home, these ideas percolated and I found myself discovering solutions for the rest of the piece based on them. In May of 1997 I had occasion to travel again to Philadelphia. While there I arranged to meet with Crumb once more, played the remainder of the piece for him, and requested some decisions for minor changes that would facilitate a complete transcription.

Finishing the Transcription

That summer I worked on the score and sent it to him soon after. Till that moment I believe he had primarily been humoring me. But on seeing the score he became enthusiastic. Perhaps he was amused to find his transcription theory refuted. Of course, this particular piece offered the possibility only because all the other instruments are non-pitched percussion. With his blessing I premiered the horn version in November, 1997 and subsequently his publisher released the score as an alternate version.

One detail added after publication is the treatment of the snippet of text by eighth-century Chinese poet Ssu-K’ung Shu. The original is “speak flute” in which the player speaks a distinct text while playing notes. The horn version (revised) has the percussionists stage-whisper the text while the hornist hums the notes over a drone. The performance linked here includes the stage-whispers, though they are not in the published score.

From Thence Forward

After the premiere I performed the piece again several times, most recently in October, 2017. After an interval, each new performance demands a refresher of preparation that feels akin to starting from scratch. I have a similar experience with the Ligeti Horntrio. For the passagework in both, I start with an absurdly slow tempo on the metronome and gradually notch it up over many days.

It is my hope that other hornists will take up this piece. Soon after its publication, the Finnish composer Esa Tapani included it on a CD of contemporary works for horn. I am aware of other performances as well, but until now no one has posted a live performance video that appears in a Youtube search. This contrasts with the large number of live videos of performances by flutists. C’mon people!

A promising sign is the inclusion of the horn version on an all-Crumb concert as part of the Holland Festival of June, 2017. The hornist was Christine Chapman, a member of Ensemble Musicfabrik. Unfortunately I have not found video or audio of the performance.


C.F. Peters publishes the score. It is available from the usual channels. Since each player plays from score, a performance requires four copies.

I have written in much greater detail about the making of this transcription in George Crumb and the Alchemy of Sound  (Colorado College Press, 2005). I also offered some suggestions about performance practice in an article for the May, 2005 issue of The Horn Call.

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