Elliott Carter: String Quartet No.1

Program Note

Elliott Carter (1908-2012)
String Quartet No.1 (1951)

Elliott Carter is one of the great voices of modernism of the 20th and 21st centuries. Born into a prosperous New York family, Carter spent his childhood in Europe before returning to study with Walter Piston and Gustav Holst at Harvard University. During his developmental years Carter was encouraged to compose by Charles Ives who often invited Carter to concerts, after which they would return to Ives’s home and discuss the evening’s program. At the time of this informal tutelage, Carter was more an enthusiast than a composer. In the letter of recommendation Ives wrote for Carter’s Harvard admissions application, he acknowledged Carter’s interest in music and literature, character, and sense of humor, but not his aptitude for composition. In fact, Carter had no composition lessons until a three-year period of study with Nadia Boulanger in the 1930s. Carter’s early compositions reflected Boulanger’s enthusiasm for contrapuntal compositions and general reliance on traditional models. Still finding his own footing as a composer during this time, Carter spoke of his former mentor’s Concord Sonata as “more often original than good.” A more mature Carter later analyzed and edited Ives’s music and in the opening movement of Carter’s Figment No.2 (“Remembering Mr. Ives”), the composer alludes to melodic fragments of Ives’ Concord Sonata, the same piece that Carter dismissed less than ten years earlier.

Carter’s career spanned over 75 years, during which he twice received the Pulitzer Prize: once in 1960 for his String Quartet No.2 and once in 1973 for his String Quartet No.3. He was the first composer to receive the United States National Medal of Arts, and was inducted into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame. In addition, the Government of France named him Commander of the “Ordre des Arts et des Lettres” and gave him the insignia of Commander of the Legion of Honor in 2012.

“Among the lessons taught to me during the composition of my First Quartet was one about my relationship with performers and audiences. For as I wrote, an increasing number of musical difficulties arose for prospective performers and listeners, which the musical conception seemed to demand. I often wondered whether the quartet would ever have any performers or listeners. Yet within a few years of its composition it won an important prize and was played more than any work I had written up to that time. It even received praised from admired colleagues. 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. I had felt that it was my professional and social responsibility to write interesting, direct, easily understood music.

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. Now I think there is every reason to assume that if a composer has been well taught and has had experience, then his private judgment of comprehensibility and quality is what he must rely on if he is to communicate importantly.

The First Quartet was written in the undisturbed quiet of the Arizona desert, and, like the desert horizons I saw daily while it was being written, the quartet presents a continuous unfolding and changing of expressive characters—one woven into the other or emerging from it—on a large scale. The general plan was suggested by Jean Cocteau’s film Le sang d’un poète, in which the entire dream-like action is framed by an interrupted slow-motion shot of a tall chimney being dynamited. Just as the chimney begins to fall apart, the shot is broken off and the entire movie follows after which the shot of the chimney is resumed at the point it left off, showing its disintegration in midair, and closing the film with its collapse on the ground. A similar interrupted continuity is employed in this quartet’s starting with a cadenza for cello alone that is continued by the first violin alone at the very end. On one level, I interpret Cocteau’s idea (and my own) as establishing the difference between external time (measured by the falling chimney, or the cadenza) and internal dream time (the main body of the work)—the dream time lasting but a moment of external time but from the dreamer’s point of view, a long stretch. In the First Quartet, the opening cadenzas also act as an introduction to the rest, and when it reappears at the end, it forms the last variation in a set of variations.

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 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, interrupted once by a dramatic outburst, then resumed, again interrupted by a pause, again resumed, and finally interrupted by another outburst that forms the beginning of the Adagio.

During this extended slow movement, the two muted violins play soft, contemplative music answered by an impassioned rough recitative of the viola and cellos. This Adagio forms the extreme point of divergence between simultaneous ideas in the quartet and has been led up to and is led away from by many lesser degrees of differentiation. The last section, Variations, consists of a series of different themes repeated faster at each successive recurrence, some reaching at their speed vanishing point sooner than others.”

—Elliott Carter