What message does Black Angels, which you composed during the Vietnam War, have for us today? George Crumb



George Crumb
Photo by Sabine Matthes
Courtesy C.F. Peters

I think that Black Angels should inspire a sense of terror although, toward the end, I introduce a note of optimism. As black as things are, there is a progression from the dark to the light over the course of the work, even though the final page again has a flashback to the hysterical music of the opening page. It’s not uniformly black, but the prevailing sense is probably very much that.


LISTEN to an excerpt from Crumb’s Black Angels

Kronos Quartet
[Nonesuch 79242]
Order from Amazon


The project started with a simple commission from the University of Michigan for the Stanley Quartet, so I was first of all faced with the task of coming up with a string quartet. I had not worked in that medium since my student days. At the outset, I wasn’t planning anything like a political statement; I was just writing a piece of music. But very soon after I got into the sketching process, I became aware that the musical ideas were picking up vibrations from the surrounding world, which was the world of the Vietnam time. And there were dark currents operating and those things were somehow finding their way into the conception of the string quartet. By the time I finished writing the whole piece, in token of this recognition of its character and identifying with that very dark time, I inscribed the work “In Time of War” using the model of Joseph Haydn‘s Mass In Time of War.

I think that when I hear this piece played in very recent times, I’m struck with the haunting sense that here we go again. We’re heading right into a very dark period for America. It’s surprisingly reminiscent of so many things that worried us about the Vietnam time. I heard the piece played several times just in the last year and a half and I kind of shudder that things move in cycles. We get ourselves into these awful, abysmal messes. We can’t seem to avoid that every so often in our history.

People have come up to me also and have expressed the same opinion that this work seems to speak again to the times right now, the present time. It’s sort of reborn for this moment because of all the associations it had originally.