If you’ve ever been intimidated by the very idea of “music theory,” then you’re not alone. And if even a musician can get a little nervous at the thought of analyzing chromatic harmony or melodic structure, think about how the casual listener might feel.
But the study of the why and the how of music doesn’t have to be daunting. At the end of the day, those are the very elements that make any piece of music enjoyable at some level to any of us. That’s why the music theory department is participating in the CU Boulder Office for Outreach and Engagement’s CU on the Weekend series.
“Music has profoundly affected my life, and music is an essential part of most people’s lives ,” says Steven Bruns, associate professor of music theory and the presenter as CU on the Weekend returns to the College of Music for the third time on Saturday. “Music speaks to each person very directly, but in ways that can be hard to quantify; music theory provides tools for sorting through the richness and complexity of musical expression.”
During the free presentation and musical performance, Bruns, who is also associate dean for graduate studies at the college, delves into George Crumb’s “Apparition, Elegiac Songs and Vocalises for Soprano and Amplified Piano,” along with pianist Alexandra Nguyen and mezzo soprano Abigail Nims.
“Apparition” is one of Crumb’s most powerful and moving works: the words are drawn from Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” The poem deals with the overwhelming nature of death and was written as an elegy for President Abraham Lincoln shortly after his assassination.
Crumb was first inspired by the profound piece when he was growing up in West Virginia. “In the composer’s unpublished sketches, I discovered two unfinished musical settings of portions of the ‘Lilacs’ elegy dating from George’s teenage years,” Bruns explains.
“He had been thinking about these words for a very long time. Even when he returned to the poem in his fifties, his sketches show that he struggled to find the ideal musical expression.”
Crumb was drawn to the text and what it implied about the power of music.
“One of the things that’s really interesting and attractive about the poem—which is considered by many to be the among the greatest of all American poems—is that Whitman at several points seems to say, ‘I don’t know how I can find words that are adequate to express the depth of my grief,’” Bruns says.
“Crumb intensifies the sonorous qualities of the words, helping us to hear how Whitman is ‘musicalizing’ the language even more than usual,” Bruns says. “It’s Whitman’s way of saying that mere words can’t express a sense of loss—only music can do that.”
Whitman’s poem follows a mourner on a journey from bewilderment to understanding as he deals with the various stages of loss. Guiding that journey is a hermit thrush—a small songbird that Bruns says serves as an oracle throughout.
“When we arrive at that acceptance, during the thrush’s ‘Death Carol,’ the bird is telling us what this all means. Almost all of Crumb’s text comes from that part of the poem.”
Musically, the story begins and ends in a mysterious place, shaped by ebbs and flows in the piano and notated in a characteristically Crumbian way. Additionally, throughout the piece, the singer plays the part of the clairvoyant hermit thrush. All this will be revealed by Bruns’ music theory, Nims’ singing and Nguyen’s piano playing.
“By telling this story in context, we want to heighten the audience’s appreciation of the music and invite them into a world they might not have visited before. I’m confident that people will have a strong emotional reaction to this piece.”
The talk will also be a chance for locals to learn more about Crumb, who began his teaching career as a faculty member in the College of Music from 1959–64. Bruns has lectured and published several writings on Crumb and is teaching a graduate seminar on his body of work this semester.
“A Musical Exploration of Grief Beyond Words” is Saturday, Nov. 12, at 1 p.m. in the Chamber Hall. Seating is free, but because room is limited to the first 115 people, tickets are required. Tickets will be distributed starting at noon, and doors open at 12:30 p.m. For more information, visit the CU on the Weekend website.