"There were terrifying things in the air," said George Crumb of the Vietnam War years. Events of the time provided inspiration for Black Angels, subtitled "Thirteen Images from the Dark Land." The score of this eerie, sometimes downright scary work (completed, by no means coincidentally given Crumb's fascination with numbers, on a Friday the 13th, in March 1970) is inscribed "in tempore belli" (in time of war). The Stanley Quartet gave Black Angels its premiere on October 23, 1970, in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
The quartet of stringed instruments is amplified "to the threshold of pain," and the musicians are called upon to play their instruments in many unusual ways, including trilling on the strings with thimble-capped fingers. The four players also whisper, chant, shout, and employ percussion instruments -- maracas, tam-tams, and water-tuned crystal goblets. Crumb wrote of the work: "Black Angels was conceived as a kind of parable on our troubled contemporary world. 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 first movement, Departure, begins abruptly and frighteningly with "Threnody I: Night of the Electric Insects," and moves into "Sounds of Bones and Flutes" and the mysterious "Lost Bells." Crashes of the tam-tam punctuate the wild "Devil-music," and the last section is a submerged-sounding evocation of Camille Saint-Saëns' Danse macabre. The movement ends with whispered counting from the musicians.
The opening section of the second movement, Absence, is titled "Pavana Lachrymae"; Schubert's Death and the Maiden quartet is quoted here in an evocation of ancient viol music. Yelling and further insect sounds are heard in "Threnody II: Black Angels!" Viols are again imitated in "Sarabanda da la Muerte Oscura," and the movement closes with "Lost Bells (Echo)."
The final movement, Return, opens with "God-music," in which an ethereal glass harmonica effect from the water-tuned goblets combines with a wandering, nearly static melodic line. "Ancient Voices" consists mainly of a series of little pizzicato (plucked string) sounds. An almost silent "Ancient Voices (Echo)" leads into more pizzicato sounds and a reprise of the insect music in "Threnody III: Night of the Electric Insects."