About this Recording
8.559362 - CARTER, E.: String Quartets Nos. 1 and 5 (Pacifica Quartet)

Elliott Carter (b. 1908)
String Quartet No. 1 (1950-51) • String Quartet No. 5 (1995)


Although a very few composers have just about managed to keep going into their tenth decades, it is hard to think of a precedent for the inexhaustible creativity of the American master Elliott Carter as he approaches his centenary. But then as a New York schoolboy after the First World War he did have the good fortune to grow up during a particularly adventurous phase in the city's cultural history. Personally encouraged by that awesome American pioneer Charles Ives, and early excited by the modernist masterpieces of Scriabin, Stravinsky, Berg and Varèse which Koussevitzky and Stokowski were then promoting, Carter retains to this day a notion of modernism as a breaking away from convention, a continuing quest for new modes of sound and expression.

It was, however, to take him many years to sort out the implications of those tumultuous first impressions. After studying with Holst for a few months at Harvard in 1932, he submitted to three years of strict instruction in Paris under the neo-classically inclined Nadia Boulanger – only to find that the New Deal United States to which he returned in 1935 favoured a more populist reaching out to the masses in the manner of his friend Copland. For a time Carter emulated his example in such approachable works as the Symphony No. 1 (1942) and Holiday Overture (1944) [Naxos 8.559151], but by the mid-1940s it was evident that the neat forms of neo-classicism and the simplicities of populism were too restrictive to contain his more modernistic aspirations.

With the appearance of his majestic Piano Sonata (1946), he embarked upon a radical redefining of every aspect of his compositional technique from the most basic elements of rhythm and pitch to the 'time-sweep' of entire musical forms. However, unlike some of the more doctrinaire figures of the newly resurgent avant-garde after the Second World War, such as Stockhausen, Carter never regarded technical innovation as an end in itself, but as a means to capture – with a 'focussed freedom' – the teeming simultaneities and changefulness of modern life.

This, he found, was not easily done: 'Each new piece is a crisis in my life,' he once remarked. But the result was a slowly appearing succession of vastly detailed masterpieces from the epic String Quartet No. 1 (1951) by way of the grandiose Variations for Orchestra (1956) and coruscating Double Concerto (1961) to the tumultuous Concerto for Orchestra (1969) and kaleidoscopic A Symphony of Three Orchestras (1976), which established his international reputation. The reward for this heroic middle period has been the increasing ease and spontaneity of his composing in more recent decades, enabling him to complete not only the largest orchestral project of his life Symphonia (1992-6) in his late eighties and his first opera What Next? (1998) at the age of ninety, but a dazzling array of further pieces – an Indian Summer that has now lasted over a quarter of a century.

The String Quartet No. 1 was a turning-point in Carter's development, the first work in which he decided to bring together all his most advanced techniques on the largest scale, without worrying too much whether the result would be easy to play or listen to - a score as complex in its rhythmic relationships as it is uncompromising in its gritty harmonic language. Although the piece is laid out against the background of an almost classical four-movement sequence – Fantasia, Allegro scorrevole (a kind of scherzo), Adagio, Variations – there are only two short pauses in its 45-minute unfolding, and these occur not between, but within movements: the first pause in the middle of the Allegro scorrevole, and the second shortly after the beginning of the Variations. Moreover, Carter begins with a jagged solo cello recitative that is only completed by the violin at the end of the quartet, as if to suggest that everything that happens in between is a gigantic parenthesis in Time.

The Fantasia that emerges from the opening cello solo is constructed as a wave-like sequence of paragraphs, fluctuating in tempo, and within which the simultaneous instrumental lines themselves often seem to be unfolding at different speeds. Suddenly this collapses into the Allegro scorrevole, a whirling continuum of thematic scraps, interrupted only by a more sustained trio-like section and the first of the work's two pauses. At length the Allegro scorrevole slows into the Adagio, which alternates, and later superimposes, aggressive recitative-like figures for viola and cello and remotely floating lines for the two violins. This in turn yields to a transition of flying scales and jerky rhythms, throwing up terse figures which, after the second pause, prove to be the themes of the ensuing Variations. Recurring in different combinations and speeding up at different rates, these themes eventually evaporate, leaving the solo violin to complete the grand design, fading into the stratosphere.

If the String Quartet No. 1 has a rough-hewn, pioneering bigness about it, Carter's ensuing quartets embodied not only further developments but concentrations of its discoveries. In the tense String Quartet No. 2, (1959) he assigned each of the four instruments its own materials and playing techniques, deriving his form from their conversation – like four different characters interacting in a drama. In the String Quartet No. 3 (1971), he divided the players into two duos, each pursuing its own movement-sequence – the form derived from the superimposing and cross-cutting of the two – while the String Quartet No. 4 (1985) reverts to some extent to the texture of No. 2, but against a four-movement plan and making more dramatic use of pauses. Yet, in seeking to round off his quartet sequence, Carter opted in his String Quartet No. 5 (1995) not for some monumental summing-up but for a more playful, divertimento-like farewell.

The even-numbered movements in its continuous twelve-section unfolding comprise a suite-like series of character-pieces, each focussed on a particular area of expression or tone-colour: a nervy, volatile Giocoso; a Lento espressivo of slowly shifting chords; a scurrying scherzo-like Presto scorrevole; an Allegro energico of forceful rhetoric; a remote Adagio sereno of high string harmonics; and finally, a bizarre pizzicato coda marked Capriccioso. By contrast, the comparatively random-sounding (though exactly notated) Introduction and linking Interludes I-V evoke those breaks in rehearsal when individual players may be heard simultaneously practising snippets of a movement just played, or the next to come. The result is a teasing kind of double focus in which the same materials are heard in contexts of order and (apparent) disorder – raising interesting questions about the nature of musical coherence and continuity, and typical of the mercurial lightness of spirit that has increasingly characterized the later works of Elliott Carter.

Bayan Northcott



Composer's note

I probably decided to write what was to be the First Quartet when I read about a composition prize in Liege, Belgium, because there were many ideas swarming around in my imagination about expression, rhythm, and harmony, mostly derived from my Cello Sonata. I read through all the Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Debussy, Ravel, Bartók, Berg, and Ruth Crawford Seeger quartets to find a way of using the four instruments to present my ideas. As I began to compose, with a Guggenheim Fellowship, in Tucson, Arizona, I soon realized that the work would make such demands on performers that it might never be performed, yet I continued. To my surprise it won the Liège Prize and the Walden Quartet became the first of many to play it. Then my Second, Third, and Fourth Quartets developed my imaginings in different ways until I began to realize that soon I would exhaust this direction, and so my Fifth Quartet became a farewell to the previous four and an exploration of a new vision. All the quartets were written about ten years apart. Now the Pacifica Quartet has had the courage and mastery to present all of them on the same program, which is amazing.

Elliott Carter


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