Composers Datebook®

Moby Crumb?

Composer's Datebook - Mar. 17, 2023


On today's date in 1972, a most unusual chamber work by the American composer George Crumb had its premiere at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

Ideally, and "impractically" according to Crumb, it should have been heard, not in a concert hall in March… but in the open air… heard at a distance across a body of water, on a moonlit evening in August.

The work was entitled Vox Balaenae, which is Latin for The Voice of the Whale, and it's scored for three masked musicians, performing on electric flute, electric cello, and amplified piano.

Crumb writes, "The work was inspired by the singing of the humpback whale, a tape recording of which I had heard two or three years previously. Each of the three performers is required to wear a black half-mask or visor-mask. The masks, by effacing the sense of human projection, are intended to represent, symbolically, the powerful impersonal forces of nature. I have also suggested that the work be performed under deep-blue stage lighting."

In the opening of his piece, marked "Vocalise... from the beginning of time," Crumb quotes, with tongue firmly planted in masked cheek, the famous sunrise theme from Richard Strauss' "Also sprach Zarathustra," used to great effect in the opening of the Kubrick film "2001."

Music Played in Today's Program

George Crumb (b. 1929) Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale) Zizi Mueller, flute; Fred Sherry, cello; James Gemmell, piano New World 357

On This Day


  • 1839 - German composer Josef Rheinberger, in Vaduz, Liechtenstein;

  • 1920 - American composer John LaMontaine, in Chicago;


  • 1862 - French opera composer Jacques François Halévy, age 62, in Nice;


  • 1733 - Handel: oratorio "Deborah" in London at the King's Theater in the Haymarket (Gregorian date: March 28);

  • 1846 - Verdi: opera "Atilla," in Venice at the Teatro La Fenice;

  • 1867 - Brahms: Waltzes, Op. 39, for piano, in Vienna;

  • 1879 - Tchaikovsky: opera "Eugene Onegin," in Moscow (Gregorian date: Mar. 29);

  • 1882 - Glazunov: Symphony No. 1, in St. Petersburg (Gregorian date: Mar. 29);

  • 1892 - Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 1 (first movement only) (Gregorian date: Mar. 29);

  • 1945 - Miakovsky: Cello Concerto, in Moscow;

  • 1951 - Dessau: opera "Die Verhör des Lukullus" (The Sentencing of Lucullus), in East Berlin at the Deutsche Staatsoper (Berlin State Opera); This opera was revised as "Die Verurteilung des Lukullus" (The Judgement of Lucullus) at the same theater on October 12, 1851; The libretto is by the German poet and playwright Bertold Brecht;

  • 1954 - Quincy Porter: "Concerto Concertante" for two pianos and orchestra, in Louisville, Ky.; This work won that year's Pulitzer Prize for Music;

  • 1967 - Levy: opera "Mourning Becomes Electra" (after the play by Eugene O'Neill) at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City;

  • 1972 - Crumb: "Vox balaenae" for three masked musicians, in Washington, D.C.;

  • 2002 - Paul Schoenfield: "Partita" for violin and piano, at a Chamber Music Society of Minnesota concert in St. Paul, by violinist Young-Nam Kim, with the composer at the piano;


  • 1830 - Frederic Chopin makes his concert debut in Warsaw, performing his own Piano Concerto in f-minor.

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About Composers Datebook®

Host John Birge presents a daily snapshot of composers past and present, with timely information, intriguing musical events and appropriate, accessible music related to each.

He has been hosting, producing and performing classical music for more than 25 years. Since 1997, he has been hosting on Minnesota Public Radio's Classical Music Service. He played French horn for the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops Orchestra and performed with them on their centennial tour of Europe in 1995. He was trained at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Eastman School of Music and Interlochen Arts Academy.

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