Black Angels (Crumb)

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Black Angels (Edition Peters, New York, no. 66304, copyright 1971), subtitled "Thirteen Images from the Dark Land", is a work for "electric string quartet" by the American avant-garde composer George Crumb. It was composed over the course of a year and is dated "Friday the Thirteenth, March 1970 (in tempore belli)" as written on the score. Crumb is very interested in numerology and numerically structured the piece around 13 and 7. The piece is notable for its unconventional instrumentation, which calls for electric string instruments, crystal glasses, and two suspended tam-tam gongs.


In the 1950s and 60s, composers began a new push in experimental music, especially with regard to electronic techniques. George Crumb was commissioned by the Stanley Quartet (then in residence at his alma mater the University of Michigan) to create just such an experimental piece. Sure that he wanted to avoid writing a typical piece for string quartet, Crumb looked to experimental piano music from the early 60s for inspiration, and decided to explore the contemporary world's religious strife in his composition. "Black Angels" reflects these haunting and mystical undertones; Crumb meant for the violin to embody the devil's music, and cast the cello as "the voice of God."

The image of Black Angels is an archetypical convention used by artists to represent an angel banished from Heaven. The "Dark Land" refers to Hell, with consistent references to Diablo, via Diabolus in Musica, the Trillo del diavolo ("Devil's Trill", from Giuseppe Tartini), and the Dies Irae (quoted in section 4 Devil-music, and as a Duo Alternativo in section 5 Danse Macabre). Crumb also makes references to other tonal works that incorporate death, such as Schubert's Death and the Maiden (quoted in section 6 Pavana Lachrymae and section 13 Threnody III).

"Black Angels" was not originally intended to refer to wartime, and Crumb only associated his work with the war in Vietnam towards the end of its composition. "I came to recognize that there was something of the feeling of that strange time. That's when I called it music in tempore belli, in time of war," he said in an interview with Philadelphia City Paper. After making the connection between his piece and war, Crumb also connected it to another contemporary wartime piece, Penderecki's "Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima." Both pieces open with high pitched extended technique on violin, and Black Angels features three important threnodies which divide it.

Construction and numerology[edit]

The first part, Departure, begins by establishing the dark mood of Black Angels and introducing the primary death theme. In the second part, Absence, the fallen angel's themes are heard. Finally in part three, Return, God prevails over evil, as presented in section 10 God-music. The titles of these three sections derive from the titles of the three movements of Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 26, Les Adieux.

Each of these parts is built around the primes 7 and 13 in some way. This might be reflected in the length of the section, its phrases, its note values, patterns of motifs, or pitch (in accordance with set theory). Crumb himself forgets how the numbers play in to every section, and warns not to read too much into their significance, as he "got carried away with the Friday the 13th thing." He views the numerology as more of a "technical, structural" experiment, and has played down the numbers' significance increasingly in the years since 1970.

Part Title Numerology
I. Departure 1. THRENODY I: Night of the Electric Insects 13 times 7 and 7 times 13
2. Sounds of Bones and Flutes 7 in 13
3. Lost Bells 13 over 7
4. Devil-music 7 and 13
5. Danse Macabre 13 times 7
II. Absence 6. Pavana Lachrymae 13 under 13
7. THRENODY II: BLACK ANGELS! 7 times 7 and 13 times 13
8. Sarabanda de la Muerte Oscura 13 over 13
9. Lost Bells (Echo) 7 times 13
III. Return 10. God-music 13 and 7
11. Ancient Voices 7 over 13
12. Ancient Voices (echo) 13 in 7
13. THRENODY III: Night of the Electric Insects 7 times 13 and 13 times 7


Black Angels is primarily written for (in Crumb's words) "electric string quartet." Though generally played by amplified acoustic instruments, the work is occasionally performed on specially constructed electronic string instruments. The music uses the extremes of the instruments' registers as well as extended techniques such as bowing on the fingerboard above the fingers and tapping the strings with thimbles. At certain points in the music, the players are even required to make sounds with their mouths and to speak.

Each of the string players is also assigned a set of instruments to play throughout the piece. Some of the equipment requires specific preparation, such as the crystal glasses, which are tuned with different amounts of water.

Violin 1

  • maraca
  • 7 crystal glasses
  • 6" glass rod
  • 2 metal thimbles
  • metal pick (paper clip)

Violin 2

  • 15" suspended tam-tam and mallet
  • contrabass bow (for use on tam-tam)
  • 7 crystal glasses
  • 6" glass rod
  • 2 metal thimbles
  • metal pick (paper clip)


  • 6 crystal glasses
  • 6" glass rod
  • 2 metal thimbles
  • metal pick


  • maraca
  • 24" suspended tam-tam, soft and hard mallets
  • contrabass bow

Stage positioning[edit]

Crumb's score includes a diagram that places the four musicians in a box-like formation. Electric Violin II and Electric Cello are located near upstage right and upstage left, respectively, with their tam-tams between them. Electric Violin I and Electric Viola are near downstage right and downstage left, respectively, but are slightly farther apart than the other two musicians in order to allow full sight of the quartet. Violin I, Violin II and Viola have a set of crystal glasses downstage of them, while Violin I and Cello have maracas upstage of them. Each of the four musicians has a speaker next to him or her.

Cultural influences[edit]

  • Kronos Quartet, which specializes in new music, was originally formed when violinist David Harrington heard "Black Angels" over the radio.[1] He thought Crumb's piece was "something wild, something scary" and "absolutely the right music to play."[2]

It was the first composition Kronos performed.[2]

  • "III. Return - God-music" is heard in the television series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage on the third episode of the series titled "The Harmony of the Worlds".[4]


  1. ^ Elizabeth Farnsworth (3 December 1998). "KRONOS" (in English). PBS NewsHour. Retrieved 9 January 2010. 
  2. ^ a b Yaple, Carol (2008). "Four Hundred Candles: The Creation of a Repertoire". Kronos Quartet. Retrieved 2009-01-26. 
  3. ^ "George Crumb" (in English). Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 9 January 2010. 
  4. ^ "Cosmos: A Personal Voyage" (in English). Retrieved 17 July 2011. 

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