Black Angels

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George Crumb (b. 1929)

Black Angels (1970)

Thirteen Images From the Dark Land
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

“Things were turned upside down. There were terrifying things in the air… they found their way into Black Angels.”  —George Crumb

George Crumb’s Black Angels, inspired by the Vietnam War, 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.”

Crumb was born in Charleston, West Virginia, in 1929. He studied at the Mason College of Music in Charleston and studied for the Master’s degree at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. He continued his studies at the Hochschule für Musik, Berlin, and received a DMA from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Crumb’s music often juxtaposes contrasting musical styles. The references range from music of the Western art-music tradition to hymns and folk music to non-Western musics. Many of Crumb’s works include programmatic, symbolic, mystical and theatrical elements, which are often reflected in his beautiful and meticulously notated scores.

Crumb has been honored with festivals devoted to his music from Los Angeles to Moscow, and from Scandinavia to South America. He is the winner of a 2001 Grammy Award and the 1968 Pulitzer Prize in Music, and was named Musical America’s Composer of the Year in 2004. He retired from his teaching position at the University of Pennsylvania after more than 30 years of service. Awarded honorary doctorates by numerous universities and the recipient of dozens of awards and prizes, he makes his home in Pennsylvania. Crumb’s music is published by C.F. Peters and the ongoing series of “Complete Crumb” recordings, supervised by the composer, is being issued on Bridge Records.

About Black Angels, Crumb writes:

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 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. ... There are several allusions to tonal music: a quotation from Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet; an original Sarabanda; 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).”

Kronos’ recording of Black Angels is available on the Nonesuch recording of the same name.


Kronos has built an international reputation taking on extreme musical challenges like this one, and it is hard to imagine any other ensemble topping this gripping, technically exacting and superbly choreographed performance.

Kyle MacMillan, Denver Post

George Crumb's scorching, Vietnam War-haunted string quartet, "Black Angels," was violinist David Harrington's inspiration to form the Kronos Quartet in 1973...Crumb's score hasn't lost its power to jolt -- bowed gongs, tuned water glasses and shouted text alternate with shrieking and whispering string writing -- and the evocative lighting by Laurence Neff and creative sound engineering of the amplified strings by Brian Mohr set the quartet's riveting performance in even bolder relief.

Joe Banno, Washington Post

A collective gasp was heard among audience members during "God-Music," when Mr. Harrington, John Sherba and Hank Dutt, on raised platforms, bowed crystal goblets lighted from beneath as Jeffrey Zeigler played a haunting cello soliloquy...a vivid, powerfully realized staging.

Steve Smith, The New York Times

For Black Angels:
Laurence Neff, lighting and stage designer
Brian Mohr, sound designer
Calvin Ll. Jones, technical director

Kronos’ 2008 production of George Crumb’s Black Angels was supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts as part of American Masterpieces: Three Centuries of Artistic Genius, with additional support from the Williams Center for the Arts/Lafayette College. Kronos’ original staged version was commissioned by Hancher Auditorium/University of Iowa in 1988.

10-20-15New York, New YorkIntrepid Sea, Air & Space MuseumIntrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum
5-9-14Stockholm, SwedenStockholm Concert HallStockholm Concert Hall
5-5-14Paris, FranceThéâtre de la VilleThéâtre de la Ville
3-14-14Los Angeles, CaliforniaRoyce HallCenter for the Art of Performance at UCLA
2-15-14Burlington, VermontFlynn CenterFlynn Center for the Performing Arts
1-17-14Ann Arbor, MichiganPower CenterUniversity Musical Society, University of Michigan
12-7-13Berkeley, CaliforniaZellerbach HallCal Performances, University of California - Berkeley
1-24-12London, EnglandHackney EmpireBarbican
10-29-10San Francisco, CaliforniaNovellus Theatre / Yerba Buena Center for the ArtsYerba Buena Center for the Arts & Kronos Performing Arts Association
10-28-10San Francisco, CaliforniaNovellus Theatre / Yerba Buena Center for the ArtsYerba Buena Center for the Arts & Kronos Performing Arts Association

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Concert Schedule

Jan15Stanford, CaliforniaBing Concert Hall
Jan18Tucson, ArizonaCrowder Hall, University of Arizona School of Music, College of Fine Arts
Jan19Phoenix, ArizonaMIM Music Theater
Jan20Phoenix, ArizonaMIM Music Theater
Jan23Hanover, New HampshireSpaulding Auditorium
Jan25New York, New YorkZankel Hall

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