Recently, SMR member Elizabeth McLain had an article published in the Journal of Musicological Research. The article, entitled “In Tempore Belli: George Crumb’s Black Angels and the Vietnam War” (see abstract below), includes in appendix an interview with Crumb himself. Incidentally, connections between this piece and U-M run deep: a fellow Wolverine, Crumb received his DMA from the University of Michigan in 1959. He wrote Black Angels a decade later, during his tenure as composer-in-residence at U-M, and indeed the piece was a commission by U-M for the Stanley Quartet, an ensemble comprised of U-M faculty.
Crumb describes “dark currents” and “musical vibrations from the surrounding world” of the Vietnam War as crucial to shaping Black Angels. Beyond its unearthly sound palette, Crumb’s work depicts the horrors of war through spiritual symbols that permeate the work, from its architecture to foundational motives. Secularization theory is useful for exploring the work’s historical precedents and identifying Crumb’s revolutionary surrealist poetics. A comparative analysis with Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time repositions Crumb’s Black Angels as part of a larger twentieth-century trend of embracing spirituality to understand, memorialize, and heal from the collective trauma of war.