The String Quartets of Elliott CarterDavid Harvey
Booklet note for recording by the Arditti Quartet of Quartets 1-4
and Elegy, 1988
© 1988, 1997 David Harvey. All rights reserved
In 1978, on the occasion of his seventieth birthday, Elliott Carter was hailed as the 'master quartet builder of our time'. Ten years later, with a fourth quartet added to the series, these astonishing works continue to impress - just as Carter has described his personal reaction to Bach's cantatas, they are a central musical experience of the late twentieth-century. The four quartets are as unmistakably consistent (and as undeniably masterpieces) as those of Bartok, Schoenberg, Beethoven, and similarly embody not only a single compositional aesthetic, elaborated however richly and variously in each of the works, but also an approach to the medium, to music itself, and to life.
Early QuartetsAn early list of Carter's works includes two string quartets, dating from 1935 and 1937. These, along with much of the music Carter composed before the 1940s, have been disowned by their composer: even at this stage, he was well out of an early, experimental period in his output, and following the tenets of, on the one hand, Boulanger-inspired neoclassicism, and on the other, the overt Americanism with which many artists responded to the economic and social crises of the time. The Elegy is perhaps Carter's closest realisation of the teachings of Nadia Boulanger, its continuous arch of melody set in a restrained contrapuntal context. Originally composed in 1943 for cello and piano, the quartet version dates from 1946 (there is also an arrangement for string orchestra, and a more substantial reworking for viola and piano). It has become fashionable to plunder Carter's earlier music for hints of his mature style: in this case, the exercise is not rewarding. The Elegy is more remarkable for what it fails to reveal of the future development of a composer already in his fourth decade.
A Landmark in American MusicAt the time of its composition in 1951, Carter's String Quartet no. 1 was widely regarded as a landmark in American music. Given the style of Carter's previous works, it might have come as a surprise to the Quartet's first audiences that its musical language is not at all superficially 'American', in spite of the quotations from Charles Ives' Second Violin Sonata (in the first movement) and Conlon Nancarrow's First Study for Player Piano (in the last). Indeed, one source of strength in the work is the response to European cultural precedents, and their realisation in the musical language which had emerged so dramatically three years before, during the composition of the Cello Sonata.
Carter has said that "The First Quartet was 'written largely for my own satisfaction and grew out of an effort to understand myself ". Unusually, the work was not commissioned or requested, and it remains Carter's longest composition to date. To escape from the distractions of New York's musical life, and to explore the "many notions of processes and continuities, especially musical ones - fragments I could find no ways to use in my compositions", he retreated to the desert near Tucson, Arizona. In monastic near-isolation, Carter was able to free himself from the constraints of composing for a known audience or group of performers, and to consolidate the influences (not only musical!) which had become increasingly important to him throughout the 1940s - amongst others, the psychological theories of Freud; Alfred North Whitehead's 'philosophy of organism'; modernism in European and American art, literature and music; and non-western musical traditions, particularly in their rhythmic aspects. The result, in the first quartet, is a work of the highest integrity, formal daring and textural innovation. In spite of its composer's fears over its difficulties for both performers and audiences, it soon established Carter's international reputation, winning a major composition competition in Lieges.
The quartet's four large movements are articulated in three sections, breaks occurring in the second movement and shortly after the start of the fourth. This both focuses attention on the climactic points at which a movement emerges from what has preceded it, and establishes a large-scale structural counterpoint of the kind that Carter has used much more rigourously in his later music. The outer movements are both constructed from a large number of themes. In the first movement, an elaborately contrapuntal Fantasia, these are combined in many permutations, whereas in the final Variations each theme increases in speed at each appearance: the initial idea, a deliberate passacaglia-like motive introduced by the cello, becoming a rapid tremolando by the closing pages. The scherzo which constitutes the second movement is, by contrast, fragmentary, pitting rapid filigree against icily static harmonies. With the adagio, we find the strongest premonition of Carter's later textural experiments: the quartet is regrouped as two duos, the lower instruments' impassioned recitative unable to ruffle the ethereal calm of the two violins' 'harmony of the spheres'. The whole work is framed by a solo cadenza, played by the cello at the opening, and forming a goal for the ever more frantic music of the variations at the close, where it is played by the first violin. These establish a temporal and psychological space for the action of the quartet (Carter has drawn an analogy both to Cocteau's film Le Sang d'un Poète, similarly framed by an interrupted scene of demolition, and with the circular form of Joyce's Finnegan's Wake).
Conversation and ArgumentThe Quartet no.2, completed in 1959, was commissioned by the Stanley String Quartet, but received its first performance from the Julliard Quartet in the following year. In the years following its composition, it received no fewer than three awards, the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Music Critics Award in 1960, and the UNESCO First Prize in 1961.
In the Second Quartet, the maturity initiated by the Cello Sonata and First Quartet bears fruit. Work on the quartet interrupted the composition of the Double Concerto, to which it is closely related in technique. Both are the result of Carter's further refinement of musical language during the late 1950s, marked by a three-year break in his output. This is most apparent in the highly compressed time-world embodied by the quartet. There are still 'themes', but here (and henceforth) these are no more than fragments, momentary characteristic assertions of the intervallic, rhythmic and articulative vocabularies of the individual instruments. Here Carter is composing against the traditions of the genre - each instrument has a unique group of intervals and a typical mode of musical behaviour, the quartet being concerned with varying degrees of relationship between the four parts. The first violin's music is virtuosic, assertive and fantastical by turns. The second violin plays in regular rhythms throughout, the character of its part described by Carter as "laconic, orderly...sometimes humorous". The viola's expressive lines tend towards the theatrically doleful, while the cello is given an impetuous nature, in music characterised by frequent acellerandi and decellerandi. Each instrument in turn 'leads' a movement, the others interpreting the gestures of the leader in terms of their own repertoire of intervals and articulations. Through the four movements there is a tendency for the parts to become more and more co-operative, the cello in the last movement drawing the other three instruments into a sweeping acceleration which leads to the quartet's climax (although even here, against a carefully notated accellerando, the second violin attempts one last assertion of its regular pulse). Against this move towards co-operation, the movements are separated by cadenzas (for viola, cello, and first violin) in which the instrumental characters become increasingly opposed: the viola's lamentations are answered with outbursts of "laughter or ridicule", the cello's expansiveness with insistence on regular pulse and constricting fixed-pitch schemes, and the fireworks of the first violin with silence. As in the First Quartet, the whole is 'framed', the brief Introduction and Conclusion presenting the characters of the instruments in polite companionship.
For all that it appears to be composed against the traditions of the quartet, Carter's Second Quartet projects a classical balance between form, process, material and expression. In it, Carter rediscovered a pair of four-note pitch collections which he had used for the first time in the First. These collections each have the property of containing all possible intervals between their members, and are hence often referred to as the 'all-interval tetrachords'. In these collections, the intervals are related in well-defined ways, and they are used in co-ordinating and framing functions throughout the work, often articulated as a referential texture, pairs of intervals linking all four instruments. The metaphor of conversation often used in association with this quartet is apt - the four instruments seem constantly to be inventing for themselves new figures of speech, appropriate and pointed responses to the statements of the others. This impression of improvisation in performance stems from the conversational ease with which Carter composes both with and against his chosen materials (although paradoxically over 2000 pages of sketches exist for this 62-page score).
Worlds in CollisionIf conversation at the human level serves as an appropriate metaphor for the Second Quartet, an equivalent characterisation of the Third Quartet may need to embrace cosmology. For here, the quartet is divided strictly into a pair of duos - not, as in the First Quartet's adagio, the upper instruments against the lower, but violin with cello (Duo I, playing quasi rubato throughout) against violin and viola (Duo II, in strict time). No material is shared between the duos, and the articulations between the many short movements of each never coincide. Here is no harmony of the spheres, but a celestial clockwork resplendent in its chaotic complexity - worlds in collision.
Compositional virtuosity in the handling of interval is a hallmark of Carter's style, demonstrated perfectly in the movements of the two duos in the Third Quartet. Each uses a single, unique interval class (with all of the first duo's music using, in addition, the major second). In spite of this apparent restriction, each type of music is perfectly characterised. The patterns in which the sections are sequenced, repeated and cross-cut allows each individual movement to be heard alone just once, but as always with Carter it is change and contrast which lie at the heart of the argument: the contrast between the materials and characters of the duos, and the changes, sometimes imperceptible, more often abrupt, between the duos' individual movements.
The quartet was completed in 1971, and is dedicated to the Julliard Quartet, who gave its first performance in 1973. It, too, earned for Carter the Pulitzer Prize, in 1973.
Reconstituting the MediumBetween the completion of the Third Quartet in 1971 and that of the Fourth Quartet in 1986, Carter's music moved away from the high-point of transcendental complexity achieved in the Concerto for Orchestra and Third Quartet towards a less rigorously deterministic conuterpoint of characters. This tendency is apparent not only in the three vocal works of the period (A Mirror on Which to Dwell, Syringa, and In Sleep, In Thunder), but also in such large-scale endeavors as A Symphony of Three Orchestras. A further result of this new-found fluency is a series of short instrumental solos and duos, which seem to crystalize individual aspects of Carter's style.
The Fourth Quartet is dedicated to another ensemble closely associated
with Carter's music, the Composers String Quartet, who gave the work its
first performance in 1986. As in the Second Quartet, each instrument is
characterised by a unique repertoire of intervals, expressive characteristics,
and modes of articulation. However, unlike the earlier work there is no
sense in which the instruments are pitted against each other. Rather, all
four contribute in their own terms to a continuous and elevated discourse,
in a framework of clearly defined movements which is Carter's closest approach
to the classical quartet model. The protagonists' task might indeed be
defined as a reconstitution of a language for the medium, after the modal
disintegration of the Third Quartet. Despite the deliberate eschewal of
harmonics, and the restriction of pizzicato to the cello's music, the textures
of the work are, if anything, more refined and differentiated than in any
of Carter's previous chamber music. The sonorous potential of intervals,
sometimes subsidiary in Carter's music to their function in an intense
dialectic, comes to the fore, particularly in the last half of the quartet,
in a way which promises much for Carter's music in the next decade.