ELLIOTT CARTER – SQ No. 2 – A Unique Work

American Modern Contemporary composer Elliott Cook Carter Jr [1908–2012] wrote five string quartets. I am going to discuss String Quartet No. 2, written in 1959, which was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. There is much discussion as to his fundamental style, with many opinions that he was a serial composer, a concept that Carter denied.

The structure of this work is unusual. It consists of four movements, which are bookended by an introduction and a conclusion. Also, the first three movements are followed by cadenzas for cello, viola and violin, respectively. A cadenza is a term for a solo instrumental passage, near or at the end of a composition where a soloist usually improvises in the style of the work. They are rarely found in chamber music, but are often associated with piano concertos. In this quartet, the cadenzas are not exclusively solo.

The short introduction commences with a probing violin, in an atonal mood. Other instruments drift in and out, leading to a moment of intensity, which is not sustained.

There is no pause between movements and we are straight into some moderate abstraction, mostly led by the first violin. The texture then thickens and Carter’s innate sense of dialogue eventually prevails. This music has no apparent structure, it just burbles along. Some dramatic statements do occur, giving way to a period of angst which concludes the movement.

The first cadenza, for viola, is brief and sparse in its texture. The viola laments as numerous interjections occur although some solo passages are evident.

A new movement opens with string sound effects for a time, with plenty of pizzicato. The mood is measured, and a constant dialogue evolves, characterised by a sparse texture. An important part of Carter’s style is attention to timbre, which is the textural sound of the instruments. Sometimes, there appear to be woodwinds in the ensemble. Again, there is no recognisable structure and the movement ends with a solo cello section.

The next cadenza is for cello, which gently probes a sparse mood. Slowly, the ensemble presents supporting tones. Ultimately, the cello dominates this section, however it is never really assertive, but maintains the sparsity.

The third movement, marked andante, begins in a very peaceful manner. Totally without tempo, Carter paints a mildly atonal soundscape. This is very moving music, while still maintaining a high level of abstraction. The harmonies are just so gentle, it is a fascinating space to be in – this is a marvellous movement.

The following violin cadenza is mostly solo violin. It wanders all over the fingerboard in a fascinating statement with many shrill passages. A long pause gives way to another very shrill violin sound and, nearing the end, there is a hint of other instruments, barely audible.

The final movement has the two violins in an extended exchange. Another aspect of Carter’s freedom in composition is that he treats rhythm like melody, making it subject to all kind of interesting variations – you can never feel a constant tempo in this work. There is very little of the viola or cello here until the violins lower the dynamics substantially and other voices become evident. Moving towards the end, the mood becomes quite chaotic, frantic even, for a short time.

We have now reached the conclusion, which is a typical Carter scenario, no structure and intermittent musings from all instruments. A lamenting violin appears, only to gradually fade into nothingness.

For me, Carter’s quartets are an acquired taste. When I first came across them, over 25 years ago, I found them impenetrable. Now I am very fond of their expressive, abstract, atonal beauty.

My review 2-CD set is titled Elliott Carter: The Five String Quartets by the Juilliard Quartet, who had a long association with Carter and premiered all of his quartets both in performance, and on recordings. This version is freely available. There are also other complete sets, the Pacifica Quartet sounds promising.

The quartets can be sampled on Spotify, YouTube and earsense.

Listenability: An unconventional style – difficult for some.


2 thoughts on “ELLIOTT CARTER – SQ No. 2 – A Unique Work”

  1. Interesting, Steve. I don’t know much about Carter’s other compositions but I recently acquired some of his late music which I haven’t listened to yet. I also have recordings by the Juilliard from an LP in 1974, Quartets No. 2 and 3. These are fascinating, very earthy versions. The later, reviewed version of No.2 seems pristine by comparison.

    Speaking of changing tastes, about ten years ago, I went through hundreds of SQs that I had collected and put them into accepted, rejected and maybe categories. Yesterday I had my interest piqued by a composer who was in the reject folder, Richard Danielpour. It was just a fabulous experience, I love his work! How time can change perceptions. FWIW I’m still trying to appreciate Elizabeth Maconchy after many years.

    Thanks again for your always stimulating comments.


  2. I love Carter’s music, and I’ve always considered his first SQ one of my favorite pieces. I have the Juillard set you have, as well as the volume wherein the Pacifica plays #1 and #5. Good point about Carter using rhythm as melody, in this SQ especially.

    There are recordings of some of Carter’s earliest music, and it’s shocking to hear how conventional he sounded! His most daring music, like the Variations for Orchestra, came later in his career. I find it difficult to hear a lot of the detail in gargantuan pieces like the Piano Concerto on CD. Back in 2008 I went out to Tanglewood (the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the Berkshire Mountains) for a concert commemorating Carter’s 100th birthday, and the composer himself was in attendance. I finally got to hear the Variations live, as well as the Clarinet Concerto and the percussion-heavy Double Concerto. Carter applauded the musicians generously, until he fell asleep shortly after the intermission.

    It might surprise you to know that there’s a lot of challenging modern music for which I haven’t yet acquired the taste. It’s only in the last couple of months that I’ve been able to appreciate Brian Ferneyhough’s string quartets, which I previously considered ghastly. I still haven’t been able to warm up to Lachenmann’s music. Carter’s music was a great way for me to get familiar with the sound world of modern composition.

    Great work. Keep it up!

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