Black Angels (1970)

George Crumb

quatuor à cordes électrique


Notes de programme

[traduction française non disponible]

Thirteen images from the dark land

Things were turned upside down. There were terifying things in the air… they found their way into Black Angels. - George Crumb, 1990

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. The score bears two inscriptions: in tempore belli (in time of war) and “Finished on Friday the Thirteenth, March, 1970”.

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 symbolize 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; e.g., in terms of length, groupings of single tones, durations, patterns of repetition, etc. An important pitch element in the work -- descending E, A, and D-sharp -- also symbolizes the fateful numbers 7-13. 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 (“Day of Wrath”). 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.

[Program notes in CD booklet, Elektra Nonesuch 7559-79242-2 extracted from this passage.]