Ruth Crawford Seeger: String Quartet 1931

performed below by the Playground Ensemble

Of all the quartets discussed so far, I feel this one has the traditional(ish) ideas of Schoenberg, the dense intensity and purpose of Babbitt, and the deep impression and atmosphere of Dutilleux, although I hadn’t thought of it as an interesting balance of the previous three works until I really sat down to focus on it the way you’d look critically at a painting, stepping closer to it every few minutes.
This is perhaps even more surprising when you consider that it’s a work of only twelve minutes, never once letting up on the intensity, even though it comes and goes in different ways.
Ruth Crawford didn’t get the Seeger name until she married Charles Seeger, her composition teacher, and this quartet is considered (by some? many?) to be perhaps her greatest work, marking the culmination of a certain high point in her career, completed during her studies in Berlin, and before she got busy with arrangements of folk music. It was apparently not until decades later that she returned to an idiom like this, and by that time, intestinal cancer had taken its toll on the composer, who died in 1953.
Of avant-garde (whatever that means) modernist American composers, Ruth Crawford Seeger is probably one of the last to come to many people’s minds, or at least that’s the impression I get. In a very (un)scientific poll I did, not a single (musically-inclined) person mentioned either of the Seegers. It was Barber, (Babbitt, because they knew I’d bring him up), Copland, Ives, Bernstein, Gershwin, someone mentioned Carl Ruggles and George Crumb, which was surprising, but no R.C. Seeger.
To be perfectly honest, I’ve not listened to a single other thing she’s written, although I have learned from a bit of research that the third movement from this quartet, the Andante, has been arranged for string orchestra, by the composer herself. The program notes on it from the Chicago Symphony can be found here.
In any case, Seeger was taking part in her studies abroad in Berlin as part of her Guggenheim Fellowship when this piece was written, thankfully not a decade
later. That would have been a bad time.
Joseph Stevenson, in his write-up for AllMusic, says that Seeger:

wrote music in which a lot happens all at once, on every possible level. She exercised strict control over all aspects of the music, rhythm, and tone color, as well as the individual notes of the melodic lines, creating music of extraordinary dramatic tension.

I would agree with that statement. It’s almost refreshing to have such a bold, intense, varied piece like this in such a small package. Ainsi la Nuit isn’t long, and neither is Babbitt’s second, but Schoenberg’s was a heftier piece. The smallness of this work, at under twelve minutes, means that it’s easy to get a good look at pretty quickly, even if it’s incredibly complex during that time. The four movements break it up into even more manageable chunks.
The first, rubato assai, is the opening of the movement that I stated last week seemed almost to jump organically out of the Schoenberg work, even if it came later. They worked well together in my playlist. Could this movement pass for a Webern work? Yeah, sort of. There’s something both decidedly like and unlike Webern in this movement; perhaps it’s that it comes from the same time period and even a similar philosophy, but there’s something distinct about it. It might even have its own kind of almost-sonata like structure to it, if not very oversimplified. The droning in the background toward the end will come back later, and this leads us into the second movement, Leggiero. It is of a similar but more persistently nervous, unrelenting energy, almost never stopping for the entire two minutes it goes on. I suppose it is played ‘lightly,’ but the overall atmosphere is still quite uneasy.
The third movement is the longest and perhaps most famous of the quartet. Of it, Stevenson says:

The third movement is a remarkable study in what Crawford called “dissonant dynamics.” Each of the four instruments has its own independent rise and fall in loudness on different held notes. The assertion of one particular note transfers the listener’s attention to it, so the melody emerges note by note from an ever-shifting cloud of dissonance.

And you cannot miss that. It’s this shifting, squirming, twisting drone of sounds, almost hypnotic in nature. Apparently the arrangement for string orchestra was to make this effect even clearer, but I think it works fascinatingly well with only four instruments, making for a small but complex package of writhing sound. Wikipedia refers to it as a sound mass, which is kind of defined as the same thing as those modern tone clusters of some eleven-odd notes sounded together on a piano or something, except that in this case what we have is not a thundering clump of noise, but something more ethereal and Ligeti-like, something living and breathing and atmospheric, something that strains for what seems like forever, before it finally precipitates out into a lively passage that seems for a brief moment in unison. It ends, however, in much the way it began.
The fourth movement begins scratchily, with the first violin playing perhaps… on the bridge; Stevenson says “on the frog”; regardless, the result is harsh and intense, and at each place where the violin gives a moment for the listener to breathe, the other three instruments can be heard, mumbling almost eerily like people on the other side of a wall, or at some distance away. They grow clearer and interact more with the violin, and it seems the two parties have changed roles, eventually drowning out the violin. This movement produces a great deal of tension from this interaction among the instruments almost stumbling (ever so elegantly) over one another to be heard or accomplish some unnamed goal. Ultimately the violin gets the final word, scratching out one last sound to stifle the others and end the quartet.
Prokofiev’s ‘Classical’ symphony comes to mind here, but only because it too is a short work that embodies all of the things that a symphony should, except in a very small, condensed, almost comical package.
There’s nothing comical about Seeger’s work here, but it is also neatly, impressively, intensely compact, accomplishing so much in such a brief period. It might not be the most traditional quartet, but it says a lot very quickly, and this makes a different kind of impression. it’s a fascinating work, and one I can’t even remember how I came across, but I’m glad I did.
Schoenberg’s work, of the four we discussed in the past four weeks, is likely, I’d say, by far the most well-known, or at least Schoenberg himself is among the other composers, but his work was the one I enjoyed the least.
Aside from the string of Babbitt works I was so excited to share, Dutilleux’s work and this one were the two most rewarding pieces to listen to and familiarize myself with, which is a reminder: there’s a ton out there to learn and hear.
See you next week for something entirely different.

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