Today is the 82nd birthday of one of my favourite composers, George Crumb. To mark the occasion, here’s a recording of a performance of one of his most well-known and loved pieces, the great and formidable string quartet Black Angels, which received its first performance 41 years ago yesterday (hmm, 82 and 41; Crumb would no doubt approve of the numeric connection). Completed in 1970, Crumb subtitled the work “Thirteen Images from the Dark Land”, and the tone throughout is a profoundly troubled one; Crumb hints at an explanation in an inscription in the score—”in tempore belli” (“in time of war”)—referencing the Vietnam War, and it’s that subject matter, together with allusions to Penderecki’s seminal Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima that form the core of the work. The bedrock is structured with Crumb’s trademark fastidiousness and rigour, in which the numbers 7 and 13 are fundamental. Black Angels comprises 13 short sections, grouped into three parts that parallel the Christian notions of falling from grace (Departure), concomitant spiritual poverty (Absence) and subsequent redemption (Return). Throughout, the quartet is amplified, and are required to do very much more than merely play their string instruments. Alongside extended techniques—many of which are commonplace today but were novel at the time—Crumb employs the most imaginative methods to obtain specific timbral colours and effects.
Part I falls into five sections, opening with “THRENODY I: Night of the Electric Insects”, a rapid, dissonant-strewn (almost unison) episode with startling glissando ‘calls’. This is followed by a pair of highly contrasting, delicate movements, “Sounds of Bones and Flutes” and “Lost Bells”, the quartet tapping uncannily while a strange melody emerges and then falls into distant fragments. Things then liven up, first with rude tritone interjections and scraping bows in “Devil Music”, tam-tam strikes creating an air of religiosity or ceremony, and then in a “Danse Macabre”, the first time a pulse has been heard, underpinning an unsettling dance accompanied by maracas and tunes whistled by the players.
The second and third parts have four sections each. Part II begins with “Pavana Lachrymæ”, a bizarre skeletal rendition of tudor melancholy, the players bowing their strings above their fingers, an extreme kind of sul tasto that saps all life and warmth from the timbre. This is sharply interrupted by a sudden return of the insect music from at first, the second threnody—bearing the title of the work—inducing the players to wild shouts and rapid descending glissandi, culminating in a massive tam-tam strike. The wan tone of the tudor music returns in “Sarabanda de la Muerte Oscura” (Sarabande of the Dark Death), fizzling into an icy melody on harmonics, echoing the “Lost Bells” movement from earlier.
The final part begins with glacial stillness in “God-music”, the quartet re-creating a glass harmonica by bowing on wine glasses; this continues into “Ancient Voices”, the cello emerging to articulate an evocative, wistful melody, growing in passion and intensity. Another “Echo” movement follows it, the cello now barely tracing a line in the air, blending with the glasses. And so to the 13th and last section, “THRENODY III: Night of the Electric Insects”, no mere recapitulation but a largely subdued memory of the insect music, tainted by a momentary appearance of the maracas; the players descend into ever softer percussive noises, concluding with tapped wine glasses and whispers.
It’s often struck me that Black Angels really ought not to work; the brevity of the sections, and their diverse character, plus the kaleidoscopic way in which the players flit between a plethora of performing techniques could easily render the piece a spectacle of disjointed incoherence. But it’s Crumb’s keen sense of narrative—a feature of all his work—that saves the day, enabling what might be discontinuity in lesser hands to become tense, immersive, edge-of-your-seat listening, seemingly much longer than its 25-minute duration. This performance of Black Angels was given by the excellent Smith Quartet on 11 July 2001 as part of that year’s Cheltenham Music Festival, and was broadcast live by BBC Radio 3 (the rest of the concert featured quartets by Steve Reich and Conlon Nancarrow; i’ll aim to feature those on here in due course). More details about Black Angels and a helpful summary of the movements can be found on the Wiki page; further info can be found on Crumb’s own website, here. Happy Birthday, George!