The String Quartet Through the Ages: Crumb’s Black Angels Explored

21 April 2015

The String Quartet Through the Ages: Crumb’s Black Angels Explored

George Crumb’s Black Angels acts as an excellent demonstration of the drastic difference between an avant-garde quartet of the later twentieth century, and a traditional Beethovenian string quartet of the early seventeenth century. The first difference between Crumb’s piece and other more traditional works is that his quartet is played with electric strings as well as maracas, crystal glasses, glass rods, metal thimbles, metal plectrums, tam-tams, and even the occasional spoken recitative. This widespread array of sounds creates an atmosphere quite distinct from the more conventional quartet, in particular, Ludwig van Beethoven’s D-Major Quartet, Op. 18 No. 3 of 1800. Crumb’s Black Angels and Beethoven’s quartet in D-Major differ in innumerable ways, including aspects of structure and sonority, extra-musical elements, and techniques of communicating with the listener.

The structure of Black Angels is entirely unique. It is organized on a basis of seven and thirteen, which gives the piece its own version of organic unity as well as symmetry. The quartet is made up of thirteen systems inside of three larger movements: “I. Departure”, “II. Absence”, and “III. Return.” The symmetry lies in the numerology associated with each system. As marked in the score, the numerologies of the first six systems are, respectively, “13 times 7 and 7 times 13,” “7 in 13,” “13 over 7,” “7 and 13,” “13 times 7,” and “13 under 13.” Those of systems 8-13 are the opposites of those already mentioned so that symmetry is created around system 7. For example, system 8 is marked “13 over 13,” the opposite of of system 6. The seventh system’s numerology is “7 times 7 and 13 times 13,” which Crumb states is the “numerological basis of the entire work” in the program of his score. I will discuss further the significance of these numerologies in the next paragraph. One more aspect of Crumb’s large-scale structure is the labeling of systems 1, 7, and 13, as Threnodies I, II, and III, which, again, maintains the overall symmetry. The unparalleled and complex structure of thirteen short units organized into three larger movements varies largely from the structure of Beethoven’s string quartet. In the quartet in D-Major, there are four longer movements, as is common in the traditional string quartet. This simpler framework makes for a more predictable work of music, whereas when listening to Crumb’s piece without looking at the score, one becomes easily confused or lost.

On a smaller scale, the structure of each system within Crumb’s piece is also worth comparing to Beethoven’s. In Black Angels, the reoccurrence of seven and thirteen is so carefully organized that after learning it, one is able to understand the piece as a whole with much more clarity. The numerologies describe different ways of compiling these amounts in each system. For example, as explained in an article by Victoria Adamenko, the first system on page 1 of the score, “Night of the Electric Insects,” is marked “13 times 7 and 7 times 13.” The score includes numbers like seven, four, and three under bracketed sections of music in this system. This is meant to dictate how many times each section should be repeated, or of how many seconds each section should consist. Each eighth-note beat is meant to equal one second and there are 91 eighth-notes in the first system, so ideally, it should be 91 (the product of seven and thirteen) seconds long. The thirteenth and last system on page 8, also titled “Night of the Electric Insects,” is marked “7 times 13 and 13 times 7,” the converse of the first system. Fittingly, the majority of this system, excluding the Coda section at the very end, is similarly underscored by numbered brackets, and part of it is identical to a section in the first system. System 13 should also add up to approximately 91 seconds.1 This parallel structure creates brilliant symmetry in the piece, which in turn creates unity, not unlike a more traditional string quartet. In Beethoven’s quartet in D-Major, the first movement is in the sonata form, so the opening theme is heard again in the recapitulation at the end of the first movement in m. 158, but with some variations. Crumb’s piece certainly does not demonstrate the sonata form because it is not in any particular key to contrast with others, but he does use the repetition of earlier themes to create a unified sound.

Crumb’s work is extremely abstract in that upon first hearing it, one does not think it is pleasant, but bizarre, abhorrent, and perhaps even horrifying. He has created an unusually dark piece, but not with minor tones which are used to do this in more conventional compositions. Instead, he uses atonality and unpredictable rhythms, dynamics, and sounds. His titles are quite provoking, as well. Many of them are reminiscent of folklore and myth and virtually all of them remind one of death and despair. System titles like “Sounds of Bones and Flutes,” “Devil-music,” and “Danse Macabre” (Dance of Death) are just a few examples of allusions to his dark theme. These noteworthy labels are much more revealing than the standard Allegro, Andante con moto, and Presto used in Beethoven’s quartet as moment titles. These are simply tempo markers, which dictate how one is to play the piece, but does not give as much insight into what exactly the composer was thinking about when writing a particular movement, as one can infer given Crumb’s titles.

Crumb’s use of quotation is also a helpful tool in portraying the meaning of his work to his audience. A theme from the second movement of Schubert’s quartet in D-Minor, “Death and the Maiden,” is quoted in the sixth system, “Pavana Lachrymae,” on page 4 of Crumb’s quartet.2 However, it is quite distorted in order to coincide with the bizarre tone established in Black Angels. Nevertheless, this reference, already associated with death, can perhaps enhance the composer’s supposed message of death as a consequence of war and violence. Black Angels made its debut in 1970, in the midst of the Vietnam war. Given this historical context, as well as the knowledge of the typical definition of “threnody” – a song or speech of lamentation, especially for the dead – it is very possible that this piece acts as a tribute to those who have fallen in the war. Also briefly quoted in this piece as well as mentioned in the score is “Dies Irae,” an ancient Gregorian chant also associated with solemnity since it was recited at the Mass for the Dead in the Middle Ages.3 It is woven into the fifth system on pages 3 and 4, “Danse Macabre,” and instantly evokes dread. These quotations provide another distinction between the works of Crumb and Beethoven; by using other sources to better connect to his listener, Crumb is able to create a more coherent, albeit dark, atmosphere throughout his piece.

Though there is very little tonality in Black Angels, Crumb finds other ways for the instruments in his quartet to converse with each other. One means of communication unique to Crumb’s piece is the use of spoken word, either shouted or whispered by one or more of the musicians. However, even though speaking is the most typical form of communication, these utterances seem at first solitary and cryptic. Only after considering the piece’s structure, a basis of seven and thirteen, can one begin to comprehend the meanings behind the spoken words. In the seventh system on pages 5 and 6, the performers shout out the word “thirteen” in many different languages, thus emphasizing the structural pattern, both for the individual system and for the piece as a whole (Adamenko 346). As another method of instrumental dialogue, Crumb is able to reinstitute a motif from the beginning of his work and incorporate it in a later section. For instance, the electric “insect sounds” the listener is introduced to at the very start of the piece reappear later in other systems such as “Pavana Lachryme” on page 4 of the score. While the cello, viola, and second violin engage in new musical material in this system, the first violin adds the insect sounds from the beginning in response. Violin I seems to react to the much more stable harmonic music that is introduced by calling it back to earlier themes. This “conversation” is indeed strange, but not unlike the conversation between instruments in Beethoven’s work. In the quartet in D-Major, the second ending after the repeat in the first movement, starting on m. 108, uses material from the opening theme, but it is distorted, as it must flow with the new music that played before it. This incorporation of earlier themes later in the score is a way of keeping the interplay of instruments familiar, but still fresh.

Similar to the way the violins seem to respond to each other by repeating and varying material in the first several bars in the D-Major quartet, there are also numerous methods of immediate communication between the vast array of instruments in the electric string quartet. Violins I and II play swooping notes one after another in the first system, “Night of the Electric Insects” on page 1, like two insects diving after each other in combat. This constant exchange of motifs, this call and response idea, can be found in both pieces and is typical of the string quartet genre.

Each quartet is distinct in the manner in which it attempts to capture the listener’s attention and tell its story. Upon first hearing the avant-garde Black Angels, the piece seems to have no rhyme or reason, especially in comparison to one more easily followed, like Beethoven’s quartet. However, after careful inspection, one finds that Crumb’s quartet contains well placed symbolism and patterns. The random-sounding collection of tones is actually meticulously and brilliantly organized into a coherent work of modern art; a memorial tribute to those who have died fighting. Only after investigation does the beauty within the hideousness become apparent.

  1. Victoria Adamenko, “George Crumb’s Channels of Mythification,” University of Illinois Press, 23.3 (2005), 324-354.
  2. Richard Steinitz, “George Crumb,” The Musical Times, 199.1628 (1978), 844-847.
  3. Robin Gregory, “Dies Irae,” Music & Letters, 34.2 (1953), 133-139.

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