ELLIOTT CARTER – As Modern As It Gets – String Quartet No. 1

American composer Elliot Carter [1908-2012] wrote five string quartets. He is a late Modernist composer, and the first I have posted within this style. I should like to discuss String Quartet No. 1, written in 1951. Please be aware that this is very modern, abstract, atonal music and all movements should be appreciated in this light.

The opening movement, marked fantasia, begins with a strong solo cello. Eventually some pizzicato accompaniment ensues, soon to be joined by some melodies on the first violin. Now all of the ensemble are engaged, with the cello still being prominent. The piece is quite disjointed. The intensity drops for a time and it becomes quite beautiful in its Modernism. Very sparse sections are contrasted with intense melodic phrases. Some of the violin melodies are quite alluring, particularly in the duo violin passages. The energy level rises and falls as the movement unfolds. Also, there is a degree of dissonance to be heard; this is definitely not tonal music. A duo violin passage morphs straight into the next movement.

The short second movement follows on with skittish violins. It then moves into a sparse section which is slowly energised. A solo cello brings in a new mood with dissonant violins. They scurry about for a time in an agitated duet. The cello is used sparingly as interjections. Then the music just stops.

The even shorter third movement is also agitated. It settles into long tones, making for a wonderful, albeit brief, soundscape. It ends on a pizzicato flourish and one lonely cello note.

The cello carries over into the fourth movement. It plays alone for a time until a solo violin ever so quietly comes to prominence. Then the solo cello returns, to be joined by the solo violin, as before. This passage is ever so delicate, and deeply moving. There are occasional cello interjections and finally we have the whole ensemble in play. The mournful violin is sustained but now other things are happening around it. The cello is outrageous in its projection, being very agitated. A long atonal violin phrase brings us back to the sound of the solo violin again. Eventually the second violin adds its influence to the mood. This is a wonderful abstract soundscape. A flurry of violin takes over and the cello jauntily joins in. Carter dissects this passage as individual instruments assert themselves. A pizzicato violin carries the piece to its conclusion as a violin and cello fade out.

The final movement, which is quite long, opens with a distant sounding violin in the high register. It is joined by the ensemble and drops back to a lower register. There is some gentle abstraction as instruments switch in and out. Occasional there is some hint of a tempo, but not very often. Now the violins are working overtime and the cello again features. The mood then drops back to indeterminate phrases and dialogue. There are some interesting feelings projected as Carter edges the piece forward. It really is a collection of random sections with no semblance of structure. Some extremely loud cello ensues, leading to further violin and viola dialogues. Occasionally there are some harmonised passages, but mostly it is every man for himself. This leads to some fascinating, serene abstract passages; very evocative. As we near the end of the piece there are some attempts at chordal accompaniment, but they are soon abandoned, leaving a lone violin to conclude.

I really like this piece. However a lot of people probably wouldn’t consider it as music. For me, it doesn’t cross the line into noise, as did many of Carter’s contemporaries. I can’t recall any composer who sounds like Carter, he definitely has a unique Modern style. I intend at later date to discuss his SQ No. 2 which won the composer a Pulitzer Prize.

String Quartet No. 1 is readily available on Amazon US and UK, as two complete 2-CD sets, each containing the five quartets. I have the Juilliard Quartet, who were personally associated with the composer for a long period of time. It is on the Sony Classical label and is very reasonably priced. The other complete set is by the more contemporary Pacifica Quartet on Naxos, which I haven’t heard. Several individual CDs featuring this work are also available.

Some of the single CDs are on Spotify and a variety of quartets and movements exist on YouTube. There are several versions of most Carter quartets on earsense.

Listenability: Difficult music for some…


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