About this Recording
8.559363 - CARTER, E.: String Quartets Nos. 2, 3 and 4 (Pacifica Quartet)

Elliott Carter (b. 1908)
String Quartet No. 2 (1959) • String Quartet No. 3 (1971) • String Quartet No. 4 (1986)


In December 1958, Elliott Carter briefly broke off composing his String Quartet No. 2 to celebrate his fiftieth birthday. Much had happened to him since his New York schooldays back in the 1920s when he had first been excited by the then-new modernist masterpieces of Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Varèse, and personally encouraged in his composing by that maverick American pioneer Charles Ives. After briefly studying with Holst at Harvard in 1932, he had undergone three years of strict traditional training with the Neo-Classically inclined Nadia Boulanger in Paris. Then, back in the United States in the years of the New Deal and the Second World War, he had attempted to establish himself through the relatively accessible idiom of such scores as his Symphony No. 1 (1942) [Naxos 8.559151] after the example of his older friend Aaron Copland. Only as he approached his fortieth birthday did Carter evidently feel he had earned the right to follow through the more radically modernist impulses that had really fascinated him from the start.

Much of the later 1940s he spent redefining the very basics of his musical language—not only in pitch, rhythm and texture, but in larger concerns of continuity, contrast and the timing of entire forms. After bringing all his most uncompromising new discoveries together in his vast and arduous String Quartet No. 1 (1951) [Naxos 8.559362], he was surprised when it proved his breakthrough to international audiences. In retrospect, the work’s forty-minute span most impresses for its breadth and vision, evocative of great vistas of primeval desert and sky. Yet its teeming interior invention also encapsulates many of the techniques of Carter’s later string quartets, even if he was to develop them in unforeseen ways.

Thus, although the String Quartet No. 2 (1959), is only half the length of No. 1, it proves quite as demanding to follow because its argument is twice as concentrated. This is partly because the kind of musical events that happened one after another in the earlier work now tend to unfold simultaneously. In String Quartet No. 1, Carter had still, to some extent, made use of the traditional concept of themes and developments. In No. 2, this is wholly replaced by his idea of the score as “a scenario for the players to act out with their instruments”. Each of the four instrumental parts is composed from a different selection of basic intervals, rhythms and expressive characteristics: with the first violin given to capricious flights of fancy; the second violin, more laconic and deadpan; the viola tending to expressive scoops and sighs; the cello, to florid, accelerating tirades. The texture is wholly made up of their propositions, responses and disagreements, like four contentious individuals chattering away at one another.

This conversational texture is mapped, in turn, onto a continuous, nine-section form. The Introduction, as it were, assembles the four characters. The first violin then takes off into an Allegro fantastico, but with the other instruments recurrently offering comments. A recitative-like Cadenza for the viola follows, not without interruptions, and leading to a Presto scherzando, through which the second violin stalks in pizzicato rhythms at a different tempo from the rest. Towards the end of the ensuing accompanied Cadenza for cello, the mood calms, issuing in an Andante espressivo of wave-like paragraphs that represents the nearest point of agreement between the four instruments. But out of this emerges the first violin in an assertive solo Cadenza which sets the whole argument going again in an Allegro that spirals into ever more ferocious bouts of polymetric squabbling. Suddenly this gives way to the Conclusion, in which the four, perhaps chastened characters are heard taking their leave.

After two such contrasted quartets, there was real curiosity when the Juilliard Quartet brought forth the String Quartet No. 3 (1971). And this, indeed, proved to stand head and shoulders on both earlier works. Its basic donnée seems to have been the slow passage in No. 1 where the violins in duo alternate slow calm music with furious recitative-like passages for viola and cello duo—the two sorts of music eventually being superimposed. But, in String Quartet No. 3, this becomes the basis of the entire structure. Carter divides the quartet into Duo I, comprising second violin and viola, and Duo II, comprising first violin and cello; he additionally instructs that while Duo II should play strictly in time throughout, Duo I should play with a measure of expressive freedom, to maximize the contrast. Each Duo is assigned its own sequence of contrasting movements, comprising six different kinds of music for Duo I and four kinds for Duo II.

The two Duos unfold their movements simultaneously, but shuffled in such a way that each movement-type in the one is sooner or later heard against each in the other. There are also periodic pauses in one of the Duos so that the other can be heard alone. Since the music eventually returns to the grinding simultaneities from which it sets out, there is a sense of a gigantic musical kaleidoscope that could go on revolving for ever. Meanwhile, the already severe demands on ensemble and string technique posed by Carter’s first two quartets are here raised to transcendental levels of difficulty. It took the Juilliard a year of rehearsals before they felt ready to give the première of the work, and most quartets since have had themselves wired to click tracks in order to keep together. Yet for all the underlying strictness of its structure, a successful performance can create the sense of a wildly exuberant improvisation interspersed with touchingly poetic moments where the slower sections of the two Duos happen to coincide.

For many years String Quartet No. 3 seemed an unsurpassable ultimate in virtuosity, and when String Quartet No. 4 (1986) appeared, it was duly mistaken as something of a retrenchment. True, the work’s continuous unfolding is laid out, like String Quartet No. 1 against the background of an almost classical movement-sequence: Appassionato, Scherzando, Lento and Presto. True Carter reverts here to ‘casting’ his four players as individuals, as in his String Quartet No. 2. But this time, there is more agreement between them than before, mirroring, as Carter puts it “the democratic attitude in which each member of a society maintains his or her own identity while cooperating in a common effort”. Thus while the opening Appassionato is dominated by the forceful, if broken line of the first violin, the other three players unite in providing a volatile accompaniment; and the focus of attention passes continually between the four instruments in the muted, scurrying Scherzando.

Yet if the String Quartet No. 4, is the maturest in concept, it is also, possibly the toughest of all to follow, not only in the grittiness of its harmonic language but because its contrasts are more internal and subtle. It is not until the Lento, with its chorale-like harmonies, that a new feature, merely hinted at in the first two movements, begins to emerge as structural: the use of variously measured silences. Towards the end of the fizzing Presto, the silences become dramatic, as the fast music is increasingly opposed by music of remote stillness. Yet at the end, when the still music seems to have ‘won’, the fast music reasserts itself with just a mercurial flicker. And mercurial indeed is the divertimento-like String Quartet No. 5 (1995) [Naxos 8.559362] with which Carter has since rounded off his quartet cycle—token of an unprecedented spirit of creative renewal that has now carried him triumphantly past his 100th birthday.

Bayan Northcott

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