Elliott Carter: String Quartet no. 1

performed by the Pacifica Quartet, or below by the Juilliard Quartet

Like the desert horizons I saw daily while it was being written, the First Quartet presents a continuous unfolding and changing of expressive characters—one woven into the other or emerging from it—on a large scale. 

Elliott Carter

(cover image by Diego Jimenez)

Elliott Cook Carter, Jr. was born 11 December 1908 in Manhattan, into a wealthy family. He showed an interest in music from an early age and, I think famously, was encouraged in this pursuit by the family’s insurance salesman, one Charles Ives. Yes, that Charles Ives.

Carter was apparently in the audience for the New York premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and largely due to Ives’ encouragement, took up musical studies himself. He began attending Harvard in 1926, and Ives would take him to see the Boston Symphony, conducted by The Man Who Was Everywhere, Serge Koussevitzky himself. He was known for programming modern works. Carter actually majored in English at Harvard, but also studied music there with people like Walter Piston and even Gustav Holst. He engaged in extracurricular things like singing in the Glee Club, which he claimed, unsurprisingly, in an interview with him that I watched, was an invaluable training tool for a musician. He got his master’s degree in music from Harvard in 1932 and did what everyone else did, go study with Boulanger. He was in Paris for three years and received his doctorate in 1935.

As I mentioned with David Diamond’s outstanding first symphony, it’s a treat to have the composer’s own analysis of a work. When that is available, there isn’t any additional insight I could add, save my own thoughts or opinions. This is especially the case here, as Carter’s quartet marks a move forward, in a way, to the final section of the American Series we’ve been working on for a number of weeks.

You may remember, to recap, that I said we’d have four stages: European influence; a shift to American sources of inspiration (jazz, folk songs, etc.); an established ‘American’ sound; and finally experimentation, or avant-garde, or whatever you want to call it. While there’s not a lot of time between Schuman or Piston and Carter’s second string quartet for today, they’re from enormously different places.

Carter’s early work was not experimental, challenging avant-garde, but this piece marked a breakthrough. Again, we are fortunate to have the composer’s (rather lengthy) notes on the piece, available here, so I’ve decided there really isn’t much to discuss. I’m also copping out because really analyzing this piece is more outside my wheelhouse than most. But I’ll share my thoughts and try to make a few points I find interesting after having thought about this work for some time. For one, to that point about Carter’s paradigm shift with this work.

He says he learned an important lesson “about the relationship with performers and audiences,” that timeless conundrum that artists have. “An increasing number of musical difficulties arose for prospective performers and listeners, which the musical conception seemed to demand.” As to the before-and-after contrast, his very motivations or purposes in composing, he says:

Up to this time, I had quite consciously been trying to write for a certain audience – not that which frequented concerts of traditional music, nor that which had supported the avant-garde of the ‘20’s (which in the ‘40’s had come to seem elitist) but a new, more progressive and more popular audience…

But if you get nothing else out of this article, this statement is worth remembering and pondering over:

With this quartet, however I decided to focus on what had always been one of my own musical interests, that of ‘advanced’ music, and to follow out, with a minimal concern for their reception, my own musical thoughts along these lines.

Fascinating! We’ll discuss below a little bit of that detail and some of his approach.

The work is large, coming in at around 40 minutes. The Pacifica Quartet’s recording is divided into five tracks, although this is a bit deceptive. The piece is in fact in “four large sections” of almost equal length, labeled as three movements. The composer says:

The First Quartet is designed in four large sections: Fantasia, Allegro scorrevole, Adagio and Variations. This scheme is broken by two pauses, one in the middle of the Allegro scorrevole and other just after the Variations have been started by the cello, while the other instruments were concluding the Adagio.

The majority of the essay at Carter’s home page, linked above, addresses the background of the work, his thoughts on composing it and its inspiration. He speaks of a Jean Cocteau film, whence he got the inspiration to frame his quartet with a cello cadenza that begins the quartet, only to end with a solo violin at the end. There’s a lot that happens in the middle, and it’s a work I have listened to many times, and have come to enjoy, I could say, but I can’t talk about it intelligently at all. In fact, even the composer isn’t terribly detailed about the nuts and bolts:

The first section, Fantasia, contrasts many themes of different character frequently counterpointed against each other. It concludes with the four main ideas being heard together, fading in and out of prominence. This leads directly to a rapid Allegro scorrevole, a sound-mosaic of brief fragments…

And it goes on.

So then, instead of analysis, I have questions, as follows:

(this is like a Q&A with myself)

If the composer, in having written much about his thoughts and background of the work, doesn’t discuss the techniques or theory behind it, are those details necessary for a listener?

Well, many people would say no. These questions, really, are quite related, I think. Many people enjoy Mozart, fin dit incredibly beautiful, without being able to talk about modulations and key changes and the harmonies he uses, or Brahms’s development of themes, etc. The major difference is that Mozart and Brahms, many would say, have more immediate, universal charms to their work, although comprehending their internal structures does undeniably lead to a greater appreciation of the piece.

Are there different approaches or means to writing ‘modern’ or ‘avant-garde’ or ‘atonal’ music, and with what different results?

Elliott Carter never wrote serial music or used any kind of 12-tone approach. An unfamiliar listener may hear this work and immediately lump it in with Schoenberg, but Carter’s compositional process is entirely different, and I submit that it’s audible. In much of Schoenberg’s music, pieces like his concertos for violin or piano, or the fourth string quartet, or even the pre-row op. 11, one can clearly hear the thematic material, row or otherwise, as the underlying basis for the work. That informs the entire approach to the piece. Here, Carter isn’t working with a row (we call it ‘series’ nowadays, I think). Wikipedia says that “Carter’s chromaticism and tonal vocabulary parallels serial composers of the period,” but he himself says the following:

I certainly have never used a twelve-tone row as the basis of a composition, in the way described in Schoenberg’s Style and Idea, nor are my compositions a constant rotation of various permutations of twelve-tone rows.

Instead, he uses collections of pitches and explores their possibilities. Wikipedia tells us that his piano concerto uses “the collection of three-note chords for its pitch material,” the third string quartet all four-note chords, etc. There’s also his metric modulation. So while it is not serial, it is a system. But why though?

What is the listener supposed to walk away with from this quartet, or a similar work, if it is, as the composer seems to suggest, a bit esoteric?

Well, I found Carter’s statement about indulging in his interest in ‘advanced’ music very compelling. To my knowledge, while that wasn’t necessarily the case in this quartet, using his pitch sets as the basis of pieces hadn’t been done before. That’s something unique to him. As a listener, we get to enjoy, even after centuries of music, something new. And, as discussed above, even if you (like me, likely) can’t discern the compositional processes behind the work, the detail that’s there is compelling, a world of color and sound in which to be engrossed. And to my earlier statement, yes, there are remarkably beautiful moments in this quartet, very memorable. It’s just quite large.

Now that that’s finished, I’ll say that yes, this work, or others like it, present unique challenges for listeners. There’s no sonata form here, no perfect cadences and all that, but we do have a variations movement! It’s a big, hefty piece, but even putting it on while you’re doing other things, like washing dishes or folding laundry or doing your daily origami, it’s still an engrossing piece of music.

We’ve made it to the most modern portion of our American series, but it’s not all challenging avant-garde stuff, so please do stay tuned. There will be a few names you’ll certainly recognize. Thank you so much for reading.

2 thoughts on “Elliott Carter: String Quartet no. 1

  1. Great article! Just want to throw one thing out there about composing with sets. The composer Nikolai Roslavets composed using sets as well, in the first 2 decades of the 20th century. His music is highly recommended, I love his 3rd piano trio especially

    1. Hey! I was going to write the exact same thing down here when I read that line! And my name is also Alex and I also love roslavets’ 3rd trio! Freaky stuff

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