Black Angels – Thirteen Images from the Dark Land [Finished on Friday the Thirteenth, March, 1970]

Composer: George Crumb (b. 1929)
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Composer: George Crumb (b. 1929)

Performance date: 28/06/2023

Venue: St. Brendan’s Church

Composition Year: 1970

Duration: 00:22:13

Recording Engineer: Gar Duffy, RTÉ

Instrumentation: 2vn, va, vc

Instrumentation Category:String Quartet

Artists: Ardeo Quartet - [String Quartet]

Black Angels – Thirteen Images from the Dark Land [Finished on Friday the Thirteenth, March, 1970]

In tempore belli

I. Departure

  1. Threnody I: Night of the Electric Insects

  2. Sounds of Bones and Flutes

  3. Lost Bells

  4. Devil-music

  5. Danse Macabre

II. Absence

  6. Pavana Lachrymae

  7. Threnody II: Black Angels!

  8. Sarabanda de la Muerte Oscura

  9. Lost Bells (Echo)

III. Return

  10. God-music

  11. Ancient Voices

  12. Ancient Voices (Echo)

  13. Threnody III: Night of the Electric Insects – Sarabanda de la Muerte Oscura (Echo)

Black Angels is probably the only quartet to have been inspired by the Vietnam War. The work draws from an arsenal of sounds including shouting, chanting, whistling, whispering, gongs, maracas and crystal glasses. Black Angels was conceived as a kind of parable on our troubled contemporary world. The numerous quasi-programmatic allusions in the work are therefore symbolic, although the essential polarity — God versus Devil — implies more than a purely metaphysical reality. The image of the black angel was a conventional device used by early painters to symbolise the fallen angel. 

The underlying structure of Black Angels is a huge arch-like design, which is suspended from the three Threnody pieces. The work portrays a voyage of the soul. The three stages of this voyage are Departure (fall from grace), Absence (spiritual annihilation) and Return (redemption). The numerological symbolism of Black Angels, while perhaps not immediately perceptible to the ear, is nonetheless quite faithfully reflected in the musical structure. These magical relationships are variously expressed, for instance in terms of length, groupings of single tones, durations, patterns of repetition. An important pitch element in the work – descending E, A, and D sharp – also symbolises the fateful numbers seven to thirteen. At certain points in the score there occurs a kind of ritualistic counting in various languages, including German, French, Russian, Hungarian, Japanese and Swahili. 

There are several allusions to tonal music in Black Angels: a quotation from Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet (in the Pavana Lachrymae and also faintly echoed on the last page of the work); an original Sarabanda, which is stylistically synthetic; the sustained B-major tonality of God-Music; and several references to the Latin sequence Dies Irae. The work abounds in conventional musical symbolisms such as the Diabolus in Musica (the interval of the tritone) and the Trillo Di Diavolo (the Devil’s Trill, after Tartini). 

The amplification of the stringed instruments in Black Angels is intended to produce a highly surrealistic effect. This surrealism is heightened by the use of certain unusual string effects, e.g. pedal tones (the intensely obscene sounds of the Devil-Music); bowing on the ‘wrong’ side of the strings (to produce the viol-consort effect); trilling on the strings with thimble-capped fingers. The performers also play maracas, tam-tams and water-tuned crystal goblets, the latter played with the bow for the glass-harmonica effect in God-Music. 

Note by the composer