performed by the Composers Quartet
There are links below to the beginnings of individual sections within this recording.
Babbitt makes his processes as intelligible as possible and leads his listener from one step to the next after all the possibilities have been investigated. The result is an exhilarating piece, self-contained and exact. And the beauty is not purely formal: there are many incidental pleasures in the springing deployment of string effects, as well as elegant changes of gear at the junctions between the four principal sections.
After four other articles this week, we’re finally here. The string quartet.
(Also, if you don’t read anything else, skip to the bottom of this article for a…. notice.)
Written in 1954, it is the composer’s first published, completed string quartet. His string quartet number one was withdrawn and never published; I seem to remember at some point hearing or reading that it was never finished, but it has been performed at least once or twice, in whatever form it exists. I’ll quote from that article later.
Years ago, when I was just kind of starting to read about and listen more seriously to classical music, I turned to really modern serialist composers. It was with the same motivation that a student on the first day of his algebra class flips to the very end of the textbook to remark about how crazy the stuff is they’ll eventually get to. And there’s also that disconnect, that bit of incredulity, that I’ll be able to do it when we get around to it.
In any case, in reading around about Boulez and Stockhausen and some of these names in serialist music, I came across the below, a video I have shared a number of times already on this blog, including in an article just a few days ago.
As I’ve said before, what struck me the most was that this composer was not some lunatic mad scientist who crawls down into an evil lair to concoct spells of wicked music. He’s a white-haired, seemingly soft-spoken, incredibly intelligent, friendly, polite, even humorous professor, with a family and students and all the rest. That was compelling.
But I didn’t come across it again for at least a year or so. Every once in a while I’d pull up one of his pieces on YouTube (there were more uploaded then), and listen with amazement for thirty seconds or so at my complete lack of understanding or appreciation.
But one day, I want to say when I was either ill or very tired or something (by this time I’d bought the only album of it available that I’m aware of), put it on repeat and took a nap. I hadn’t fallen asleep, but in not trying so hard to understand it (or something), it was suddenly beautiful. Granted, by this point, I’d already kind of gotten my modern feet wet with Webern and Berg and some of that, but it was this strange epiphany, and I suddenly fell in love with the piece. I listened to it constantly, and while I didn’t really understand it, it became familiar, I began to know what was coming up next and anticipate it. It all felt… normal.
It really is a beautiful work, and one of my favorites of his quartets. It’s perhaps the easiest to ‘follow’ or pay attention to and not get lost in detail. I think.
But after this epiphany, as with any other, I had to share it with someone. Problem is, I don’t know how to explain it; I don’t understand it, but something clicked, like turning a key in the right direction or getting an image of something lined up perfectly so you see it square on.
And this was how I described it. I’ll also be sharing some quotes from one Mark Zuckerman, from his doctoral dissertation at Princeton University, an article titled On Milton Babbitt’s String Quartet No. 2, also from Perspectives of New Music, back in 1976.
I interject those sources there because I’ll be using them, but also because I’m almost entirely positive I hadn’t read Zuckerman’s article when I thought of the best way to explain the piece to someone. I am quite sure it felt to me like the best way to explain it independent of other sources, but regardless, Zuckerman says it very well.
—It’s like looking at a diamond. Each way you turn it, every time you change an angle, an entirely new experience is created because of the facets and angles and the way it refracts light. Babbitt’s music takes an idea as its starting point, and then turns and angles and repositions it in myriad ways to give many different angles or viewings of the same object, and it’s fascinating.—
That’s what I’d written a very long time ago, before having done any real research about this piece. Dutilleux took his interlocked perfect fifths from Ainsi la Nuit as his starting point and slowly manipulated them until there wasn’t any variation available, but so much change had taken place.
Babbitt’s changes and progress take place, obviously, serially, but there are a few things we can latch onto if we’re interested in understanding what’s going on with this piece, at least a little bit of it, anyway.
Aaron Boyd, interviewed in the above-linked article about the Zukofsky Quartet’s performance of these works (named after/in honor of Paul Zukofsky) says this about this work:
I remember when we played the second quartet in December. We played it alongside a Fritz Kreisler quartet — this nice, melodic Viennese piece — and people preferred the Babbitt to the Kreisler. Vivien Schweitzer, the reviewer for The [New York] Times, said that the piece, serialist warts and all, was the more musically friendly of the two. It’s not this icy cold mathematical journey. It’s great music.
First, as we’ve discussed, let’s just take a listen to it. You might notice a few things just from the first ten seconds, if you can put those ten seconds on repeat. For one, the piece begins in unison, with two of the four instruments playing an interval at octaves. Maybe you
wouldn’t exactly notice that, but listen again. Hear it? Okay. (I have this score). That’s all. The opening seven bars tell us a lot about this work, or at least the part of it we’re going to be discussing.
First, the piece is only about 13 minutes long, and played continuously, but is broken into four sections, which can be pretty clearly heard.
Listen to the piece from beginning to end after you’ve given those first 10-15 seconds many repeated listenings. What do you notice that makes an appearance over and over and over again? It’s those octave intervals that opened the piece. When you look at the score, what you see is that it’s violin 1 and viola playing XY and then violin 2 and cello playing YZ, with this call-and-response back and forth kind of interlocking of jumps between pairs of instruments. This motif appears obviously throughout two major sections of the piece, and quite prominently in the first section. As these kinds of punctuations reappear, the pitches, their lengths, and the intervals change, but it’s a common theme throughout the piece. Notice that. If I did years ago, it can’t be that hard to notice. But I wasn’t sure why. That’s the focus of what we’ll discuss.
The second section is much quieter and more subdued, without the intervals-at-octaves (which we shall get back to), and also much shorter. Our interval motif reappears in the third (and longest) section of the piece, and in the fourth and final, it seems to finally have settled down and reached its mature state, which we’ll talk about.
That cursory above estimation has almost nothing to do with the actual serial techniques or ideas present in the piece; it’s simple an easy way to hear the piece from a very removed, strictly musical and not serial place. It’s very musical.
So that was what intrigued me the most, this idea that’s so obvious. There has to be something to it. And at the beginning, the extent of my research went as far as Wikipedia’s article:
The pitch material is developed gradually in the opening bars. An interval of a rising minor third predominates in bars 1–3, followed by a concentration on falling major thirds in bars 4–6. The following bars continue in this way, presenting a single interval or pair of intervals… The quartet alternates such sections of intervallic exposition with sections that develop the intervals presented up to that point … until, in a moment referred to by Babbitt as “telling you the butler did it”, the set that controls the entire musical structure is revealed… (Straus 1986, 22).
Sounds fascinating, no? Well, that was as far as I got for a while, and some of the basic ideas are the same as with previous works. We don’t get a tone row or set of pitch classes laid out in the open like with Schoenberg or early twelve-tone music; instead, it’s hidden, woven into the very fabric of the work, controlling all aspects of it without making itself outwardly known until the very end. That’s drama, right? Musical foreplay, putting of the big reveal until the very end.
Well, thankfully, Dr. Zuckerman’s paper addressed these exact qualities of the music, those important intervals, and we can use them as mile markers, landmarks in our exploration of (for now just) the first movement.
As I said, I have the score to this piece, so I can follow along and see all the things Zuckerman is talking about that I wouldn’t be able to observe otherwise, and I’d be hard-pressed to identify them by ear alone. So here’s what we have.
Zuckerman outlines three basic passages in the first movement (section) that form the outline of the whole piece. We will call them, as he does, ‘octave episodes’, four-part episodes, and two-part episodes, or OE, 4E and 2E for short.
The piece opens with a rather long octave episode (OE) with violin 1 and viola playing at octaves an interval of a minor third followed by second violin and cello with a major sixth, and then the parties switch intervals.
This continues for six measures, with the pairs playing the same notes with the same dynamic markings back and forth, never switching partners, until bar seven. That begins the first 4E, where all four instruments play their individual parts. The whole outline of the section looks like this:
The shorter second section is, I suppose, one of these, as it has none of the very obvious octave episodes. They do, however, return in the third section, but (at least to my eyes, without the structure present in the first section of alternating between different ‘episodes.’
The final section, based on the explanations above, is one where the content previously introduced is used to the full, and it’s the section that sounds warmest, richest, and to me, literally a bit breathtaking. There has been so much development, working for and against and back and forth, and this is the first time where all four instruments are playing in unison, at octaves, at last for one bar.
The first and third sections were at a tempo of 96 bpm (quarter note), the second at 72, and this final section is at the slowest tempo, 60 bpm.
|Those are 64th notes, but I suppose they don’t jump around a lot|
This broader, slower tempo makes this rich opening feel spacious and open, but the unison slowly decays and the instruments begin to do their own things again, but the broader tempo allows for some really intricate passages here and there. The piece finishes abruptly and almost lonely, with a solo cello played sul ponticello, with an almost grating C#- D finish (that, might I say, leads interestingly to the third quartet, but I’m not saying there’s any relation).
And that’s it for the second quartet.
And now, for my notice. For the thing I’ve been thinking about and calling and writing and pestering people (Babbitt’s students, friends, colleagues, his own daughter) about for coming up on six months now. Had some very exciting conversations, but nothing has actually happened.
Babbitt wrote five finished string quartets, but the aforementioned (and now defunct) Zukofsky Quartet did manage to acquire and perform the first (withdrawn) one in some form. I can’t find the actual recording date for the Composers Quartet recording, but I assume it was made in the 50s or 60s. The third and fourth quartets were each written and recorded another decade later (late 60s, early seventies), with the fifth in the eighties and the sixth in 1993. 1993 isn’t that long ago, but I feel strongly about a few things:
- These are important, historical works of genius from one of the most influential (American) composers in history.
- If people knew how to approach or had greater exposure to these quartets, they would come to appreciate them more.
- The pieces (especially the earlier ones) (no offense to the performers) could benefit greatly from more modern recordings with better editing, sound quality, etc.
- There’s never one definitive recording, and a fresh look could be interesting.
- Babbitt’s centennial is coming up next year, and it would be an appropriate time to take note of these fantastic works.