“Fleeting” #11: Dream Images (Love-Death Music)

This post is about the second work that belongs to the Fleeting Visions section in the program. (You can see the entire program here.)

George Crumb, XI. Dream Images (Love-Death Music) (Gemini), Makrokosmos Volume I: Twelve Fantasy-Pieces after the Zodiac for Amplified Piano (1972)

Given that one significant feature of twentieth-century music was “the exploration of new musical resources”, one cannot but recognize important contributions made by George Crumb, as he is one of the most imaginative and creative composers in terms of getting the most out of instruments.[1]Born to accomplished musicians in 1929, the American composer has had a long composing career since an early age. He earned the Pulitzer Prize in 1968 for one of his orchestral works Echoes of Time and the River.[2]His compositional style is characterized by an unconventional approach, including unusual performance techniques (e.g. playing the flute while singing), frequent musical quotation, and unorthodox scores (e.g. use of graphic symbols).[3]Dream Images (Love-Death Music) contains all of these examples of his unconventionality.     

Dream Images (Love-Death Music) is the eleventh movement of Makrokosmos Volume I: Twelve Fantasy-Pieces after the Zodiac for Amplified Piano. Crumb actually published four volumes of Makrokosmos: the first two volumes for amplified piano, the third for two amplified pianos and percussion, and the fourth for amplified piano for four hands. Crumb was inspired to come up with the title and format of Makrokosmos by Béla Bartók’s Mikrokosmos (six volumes of pedagogical pieces), and Claude Debussy’s twenty-four preludes.[4]The American composer also spoke of other sources of inspiration for Makrokosmosas as follows in the notes he wrote for the recording of Makrokosmos, Volume I, performed by David Burge:[5]

“And then there is always the question of the ‘larger world’ of concepts and ideas which influence the evolution of a composer’s language. While composing Makrokosmos, I was aware of certain recurrent haunting images. At times quite vivid, at times vague and almost subliminal, these images seemed to coalesce around the following several ideas (given in no logical sequence, since there is none): the ‘magical properties’ of music; the problem of the origin of evil; the ‘timelessness’ of time; a sense of the profound ironies of life (so beautifully expressed in the music of Mozart and Mahler); the haunting words of Pascal: ‘Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m’effraie.’ (‘The eternal silence of infinite space terrifies me’); and these few lines of Rilke: ‘Und in den Nächten fällt die schwere Erde aus allen Sternen in die Einsamkeit. Wir alle fallen. Und doch ist Einer, welcher dieses Fallen unendlich sanft in seinen Händen halt’ (‘And in the nights the heavy earth is falling from all the stars down into loneliness. We are all falling. And yet there is One who holds this falling endlessly gently in his hands’).”[6]

Crumb undoubtedly had the vast universe, or maybe even something close to mysticism, in mind when he wrote Makrokosmos.  

The first volume of Makrokosmos, just like the second volume, consists of twelve fantasy-pieces grouped into three sections of four pieces each. As shown below, the last piece of each section bears [SYMBOL] whose score is shaped to reflect the title. Each fantasy-piece is associated with a sign of the zodiac and given the initials of a person born under that sign at the end of each piece. Dream Images ends with the initial [F.G.L.II], which represents Federico García Lorca, a Spanish poet who was a significant source of inspiration for Crumb. 

[Part One]

I. Primeval Sounds (Genesis I) (Cancer)

II. Proteus (Pisces)

III. Pastorale (from the Kingdom of Atlantis, ca. 10,000 B.C.) (Taurus)

IV. Crucifixus [SYMBOL] (Capricorn) *in the shape of a cross

[Part Two]

V. The Phantom Gondolier (Scorpio)

VI. Night-Spell I (Sagittarius)

VII. Music of Shadows (for Aeolian Harp) (Libra)

VIII. The Magic Circle of Infinity (Moto Perpetuo) [SYMBOL] (Leo) *in the shape of a circle

[Part Three]

IX. The Abyss of Time (Virgo)

X. Spring-Fire (Aries)

XI. Dream Images (Love-Death Music) (Gemini)

XII. Spiral Galaxy [SYMBOL] (Aquarius) *in the shape of a spiral

Performing Makrokosmos involves playing not only on the keys but also directly on the strings by plucking, brushing, and strumming with fingernails, fingertips, a metal plectrum, and thimbles in addition to singing, intoning, humming, moaning, and shouting.[7] Dream Images also requires the performer to execute glissando over strings with fingertips. His love of musical quotation is also evident in Dream Images; Chopin’s Fantasie Impromptuin C-sharp Minor, op. 66 appears as a “faintly remembered music”. 

Another example of Crumb’s unusual style, the unique layout of the score, is also present in Dream Images. Reading George Crumb’s score is like a treasure hunt. It forces us to stare at it for a while in order to figure out what kind of musical treasures the composer is hiding. In that sense, it may be more accurate to say deciphering his score is equivalent to reading a suggestive poem that requires time to digest it. There are critics who “have accused him of emphasizing surface sensation at the expense of real substance”.[8]However, his unconventional layout could be understood as another dimension added to the whole that contributes to “the Inexpressible”. Rather than a surface, it is actually part of what lies at the heart of his music. There are certainly many hidden treasures in the score of Dream Images; from the very beginning, the tempo marking “Musingly, like the gentle caress of a faintly remembered music” speaks loudly to us. The visual layout of the score definitely supports this tempo marking; the faintly remembered music represented by Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu literally emerges between the outer staves and is “caressed” by those outer staves. 

Crumb realizes the dream-like atmosphere in this piece in various ways. Firstly, the performer soon realizes that there is no time signature assigned to this piece, which reflects the timelessness of the dream world. 

The second element is the melting boundaries, which in fact offers us a glimpse into Debussy’s influence on Crumb. Dream Images challenges the performer to walk on the blurred boundaries of different worlds: the visual world (implied by the title Dream Images) and sound world (the music), the past (“a faintly remembered music” in the tempo marking) and present (when the performance takes place), the preexisting music (Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu) and new music (the music composed by Crumb), and the pleasure (consonances) and pains (as implied by Crumb’s instruction “stinging!” toward the end and frequent dissonances). Crumb certainly capitalizes on these melting worlds to create Dream Images, which certainly reminds us of the blurred boundaries realized by Debussy. 

Crumb also adopts particular ways to use the instruments. For example, the way he instructs the performer to use the pedals contributes to generating blurred sounds that remind us of how we hear in our dreams. He is very specific as to which pedal should be used how and where. Directly strumming the strings with fingertips also adds an ethereal sound evocative of a dream. (Crumb’s instruction says <like a breath>.)      

Lastly, the polytonality also contributes to conveying blurred images in the dream, which is, to some extent, reminiscent of Debussy’s Brouillards.

Although there is no evidence that Crumb had this in mind when he composed this piece, the subtitle “Love-Death Music” reminds us of Richard Wagner’s “Liebestod” (Love-Death) from Tristan und Isolde.  

If you are interested in reading the full program notes with more detailed analyses, you can access them here:

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[1]Barbara Russano Hanning, Concise History of Western Music (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2014), 622-623.

[2]Richard Steinitz, “Crumb, George (Henry),” on Grove Music Online (accessed June 3 2018), http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com.


[4]George Crumb, Excerpted notes written for the Nonesuch recording of Makrokosmos, Volume I (recorded performance by David Burge, Nonesuch H-71293); quoted in George Crumb: Makrokosmos Volume I, Amplified Piano (Leipzig: C. F. Peters, 2016).



[7]Larry Lusk, “Makrokosmos, Vol. 1. Twelve Fantasy-Pieces after the Zodiac for Amplified Piano by George Crumb,” Notes 31 (1974): 157-8.

[8]Steinitz, “Crumb, George (Henry),” on Grove Music Online.

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