Is it Composed? Is it Improvised?


George Crumb (1929 – ) wrote Apparition, a song cycle for soprano and amplified piano, in 1979. The text is taken from Walt Whitman’s elegy on the death of Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” considered one of the greatest of all American poems.

Crumb used the following excerpts from the poem:

The night in silence under many a star,
The ocean shore and the husky whispering wave whose voice I know,
And the soul turning to thee O vast and well-veil’d death,
And the body gratefully nestling close to thee.
When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d, 
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night, 
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring. 
Dark mother always gliding near with soft feet,
Have none chanted for thee a chant of fullest welcome?
Then I chant it for thee, I glorify thee above all,
I bring thee a song that when thou must indeed come, come unfalteringly.
Approach strong deliveress,
When it is so, when thou hast taken them I joyously sing the dead,
Lost in the loving floating ocean of thee,
Laved in the flood of thy bliss O death.
Come lovely and soothing death,
Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,
In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
Sooner or later delicate death.
University of Colorado music professor Steven Bruns has noted:


One of the things that’s really interesting and attractive about the poem . . . 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” . . . Crumb intensifies the sonorous qualities of the words, helping us to hear how Whitman is “musicalizing” the language . . . It’s Whitman’s way of saying that mere words can’t express a sense of loss—only music can do that.

Interspersed among the Whitman song settings are vocalises, i.e. melodies without words. This vocalise comes right before the song “Approach, strong deliveress!”

It may sound absolutely wild, free, and improvisatory, but it is not, as you will see when you look at Crumb’s score in the classroom.

On the other hand, John Cage’s Aria (1957) is improvised, with guidance from the score:

As is Cage’s Water Music (1952):


And his Water Walk (1960), a revised version of Water Music:


Here is Cage performing Water Walk on the game show “I’ve Got A Secret”:





One response to “Is it Composed? Is it Improvised?”

  1. […] enraged the composer, who was in attendance. (For background on John Cage, browse over to this post and this post.) Eastman chose, in his solo, to give a sexually explicit lecture, which he believed […]


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