Going Beyond the Impossible to the Musical: The JACK Quartet play the Complete String Quartets of Elliott Carter.

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The JACK Quartet prepare to tackle Carter’s Third String Quartet. Photo ©2019 Michael Miller.

Elliott Carter
String Quartet No. 2 and No. 5

String Quartet No. 1

String Quartet No. 4 and  No. 3

Sunday, April 13
Gilder Lehrman Hall of the Morgan Library

The string quartet literature is notable for throwing super-complex challenges at the players; after all, this is the most cohesive medium for ensemble playing, and quartets play together for years or decades and can polish their communication and coordination skills to the highest degree. For that reason, composers have striven their utmost to present path-breaking difficulties and daring quartets to conquer them. One sub-history of 20th/21st century music has been the interplay between quartet composers and the groups performing their music. The avatar of all of this is late Beethoven, whose Große Fuge pushed the boundaries of playability in its day, and whose late quartets were composed with the skills of the Schuppanzigh Quartet in mind. 

It has often been stated that the successors to Beethoven’s late quartets were those of Bartók. (That is not to say that the four of Schoenberg or the six of Hindemith are without equal merit; they just don’t push the technical and expressive boundaries of ensemble playing in the same way.) Successful performance of Bartók’s half-dozen canonic works certifies that an ensemble has arrived at the top echelon of quartets. Newer and greater challenges have been subsequently posed by the quartets of Conlon Nancarrow, Giacinto Scelsi, Brian Ferneyhough, Ben Johnston, György Ligeti, Sofia Gubaidulina, and others. But the most cohesive and representative body of quartets produced by one composer in the later 20th century is that of Elliott Carter, who, in his 103 years, got close to the magic number six but stopping one short. Five quartets, however, spread out over 45 years, is enough to tell a profound story about the creative process of this ever-changing, ever-curious composer who regularly turned to the quartet medium to inscribe each phase of his unpredictable development. The set had been recorded by the Juilliard in 1991 when it was thought to be complete at four before Carter came along and wrote no. 5 at the age of 88. They subsequently added this and formed the first complete recorded set. They have the longest history with this music, having played and recorded the premier of no. 2 in the early ‘60’s and returning to it three times. Another group that issued their set of four in 1988, also before no. 5, was the Arditti Quartet, which played the premier of no. 5 but has not recorded it thus far. That leaves the more recent Pacifica Quartet which has performed the complete cycle multiple times and recorded them eloquently on Naxos. 

Now along comes the JACK Quartet, which has been performing all five quartets this past winter, with a culminating performance in one afternoon at the Morgan Library. The program lasted three hours, including two 20 minute intermissions. It gave an unprecedented opportunity to compare the works, which superficially resemble each other, and to savor their individual qualities as much as their common characteristics. But first it must be said that the degree of virtuosity, musicality, and ensemble cohesiveness on display were transcendent—the group performed with the (apparent) ease, control, understanding and unanimity of vision one would expect in seasoned performances of Mozart or Beethoven. The structural and expressive qualities of each work were projected with preternatural clarity belying the common claim that these works are obscure and accessible only to some imagined musical intelligentsia.  What was revealed, common to all the works, was a deeply humane, highly dramatic compositional voice across half a century, grappling with the assaults of modern life on our social and individual sensibilities, and expressing our struggle to resist and assert our humanity.

The order and structure of the program was apt: the earliest quartet, from 1950, was placed in the middle position, surrounded by breaks. It is about twice as long as the other four (40 minutes versus 20) and in some way stands out stylistically. Carter and his biographer David Schiff usually describe this as his “break-out” work, written (in 1950) in disregard of popular reception and of performing difficulty. It was preceded in the program by no. 5 and no. 2. History is often told in forward chronology, but we experience it in reverse: we understand the past in terms of our present situation. Thus, hearing the final quartet first and working back from 1995 to 1959, to 1950 offered a helpful perspective and revealed the extent to which the first quartet was both prophetic and a product of its own time. In this context, it was possible to hear that Carter was in many ways of the generation of his more conservative mid-century contemporaries (including William Schuman, Samuel Barber, and David Diamond, all younger than Carter). The long, singing lines sounded in this context positively romantic as well as American, and the slowly evolving linear textures had a lucid quality in comparison to the radical density of its neighboring Second Quartet, which in many ways forms the expressive and stylistic center point of the set. The long-spun melodies of no. 1 weave the grand tapestry of four movements whole, a structure that will only reappear in vastly different guise in quartet no. 2. The relaxed performance emphasized the lyrical character of this work, as well as its expression of a form of American post-war idealism.

It was fascinating to hear how similar the sound of the final quartet is to no. 2, a work of 36 years earlier, and also how diametrically opposite the formal strategies of these works are. Quartet no. 21 can be divided into eight nameable sections, but a single dramatic process unfolds seamlessly through these eight phases with over-arching dramatic and harmonic logic, bound together by a unique control over meter and rhythm. On the other hand Quartet no. 5 is a collection of twelve fragments whose connections are looser. The logic of their connection (with Carter, there is always a structural logic at play) is that of a rehearsal, in which the players try out bits of what is to come seemingly at random in an introduction and five interludes preceding sections of typically Carteresque (or Cartesian?) character: Giocoso, Lento espressivo, Presto scorrevole, Allegro energico, Adagio sereno, and finally Capriccioso (a favorite modality of late Carter). In short, no. 5 emphasizes a humorous and playful aspect while no. 2, despite the presence of wit and irony, is deeply serious. Cellist Jay Campbell surprised me afterwards when he said that no. 2 was in many ways the most difficult to perform. The surprise is that on a technical level, that description would seem to apply to no. 3, which concluded the afternoon (more about that below), but no. 2 apparently offered the greater interpretive challenge: to maintain the character of the individual instruments (sharply defined by the composition) during varieties of dense interplay. I having heard this work many times since 1962, when the Juilliard performed it during the opening week of Lincoln Center, and the most convincing live performance I had previously encountered was one given by the New Fromm Players at the 2008 Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music which that year was devoted exclusively to Carter’s music in observance of his centennial. In this performance, each player thoroughly embodied the character that Carter assigns to their instrument: flamboyant, extroverted and egotistical first violin, OCD time-keeping nerd second violin, dreamy and wistful viola, and impulsive, lyrical-romantic cello. Carter designed this as a drama, influenced as much by Beckett and Pirandello as by Ives or Schoenberg. As dense as the interplay could be, each player never fell out of character (nor does the part-writing ever lapse in this respect). The JACK’s performance was equally compelling and coherent, with the balance between individuality and communion tilted slightly more toward the latter, without sacrificing the former.

After the second intermission, the chronology looped around to the Fourth Quartet of 1986, and concluded with the technically fierce-some third, where, after 100 minutes of Carter, it could have fallen victim to fatigue. There was no need for such concern. Positioning the Fourth Quartet after the First had its own logic. David Schiff describes this work as in many ways the most “classical” of the group, meaning that it divided into four distinct movements like no. 1, that each instrument maintained a clear individual character determined by rhythmic subdivisions and interval vocabulary, and that the sections were parallel to the the movements of a classical period quartet.2

That said, there is nothing neo-classical-sounding about this work; it resembles no. 2 in the density of its polyphony and rhythmic interplay, and in some ways offers the listener the greatest challenges. 

It was interesting to hear it juxtaposed with no. 3, which seemed hopelessly dense and knotty when first heard in 1973, and also on some of the recordings. While Carter had asked the players of no. 2 to sit further apart than usual to allow the distinct characters to be more clearly perceptible, in no. 3 he went further, dividing the ensemble into two duos whose music should sound distinct, each duo having its own structure across the entire composition. The complexity of this arrangement precludes full description here; suffice it to say that one duo plays in four modalities, the other in six—Carter calls them “movements” but they recur multiple times. At some point over the course of the work, each modality coincides with all those of the opposing duo, resulting in all 24 possible combinations. This is no numbers game, as each combination offers a unique split-level expressive experience; the work is kaleidoscopic in its textures, color and drama, it possesses an compelling overarching structure, and the performance was the most complete realization of its potential that I have experienced. 

Carter’s note in the score reads in part: “The two duos should perform as two groups as separated from each other as is conveniently possible, so that the listener can not only perceive them as two separate sound sources, but also be aware of the combinations they form with each other.” The key phrase here is “as is conveniently possible.” The two early performances I saw by the Juilliard had the duos facing each other but occupying the center of the stage. The JACK Quartet fearlessly pushed their chairs as far apart as the stage of the Morgan Library auditorium permitted; they were perhaps 25 feet away from each other. I sensed no loss in coordination; I noticed, however, that in each duo, the players were conducting with their instruments, offering visual cues to their partners and possibly to their opponents across the stage. Despite the apparent independence of the duos, their rhythmic coordination must be split-second precise; no accidental alignments can occur without damaging the 4-layer (2X2) polyrhythmic structure. Adding to these rhythmic challenges is the density of the writing, with 3- and 4-note chords (for single instruments!) cropping up regularly in Duo I’s “Furioso” and Duo II’s “Giusto, meccanico” (pizzicato) modalities, along with 2-note double-stops throughout, all moving at great speed in complex rhythmic subdivisions. What had seemed hyper-complex and impenetrable suddenly opened into a dazzlingly colorful, varied, and emotionally intense but satisfying experience, both exhausting and revitalizing at the same time. The decision to place this central work of the canon last was vindicated by the integrity and transcendent virtuosity of the performance.

It is perhaps easy for critics to condense the character of each of these five works into a few words, thus reducing their musical value and historical significance. What these performances revealed, however, is that each work represents a powerful and fully realized statement of a new phase of Carter’s evolving musical practice. The juxtaposition of any two quartets will reveal common as well as divergent features; the non-chronological ordering presented by the JACK Quartet seemed designed to maximize the opportunities for such juxtapositions without trying to construct a facile time-line. This allowed each work to stand forth in its own light, and supported the listeners in their journey of discovery. One can hope that they will be recording the five works, but even more, one does hope that this program can be repeated and made accessible to more audiences. While Carter has embraced recordings and even factored the possibility of repeated listenings into his complex vocabulary, the music only reveals itself fully in real acoustical space, which was shown to be a crucial dimension of the experience. 

  1. This quartet won both the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Music Critics Circle Award in 1960. It also won the International Rostrum of Composers Award (UNESCO) in 1961. Quartet no. 3 also won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973.
  2. David Schiff, Elliott Carter, Oxford University Press, 2018, p. 153: “…the highly ornate and virtuosic writing advances beyond even that of the Third Quartet, yielding a dense welter of sounds, spread across the entire possible range of the instruments, often in an aggressive, harshly dissonant way.…All these structural and dramatic strategies produce a surfeit of information, much harder for the listener to assimilate than the similar procedures in Triple Duo or Penthode.”
About the author

Larry Wallach

Larry Wallach is a pianist, musicologist, and composer who lives in Great Barrington, Massachusetts and heads the Music Program at Simon’s Rock College of Bard. He has also taught composition at Bard College. He studied piano privately with Henry Danielowitz and Kenneth Cooper, and was trained at Columbia University where he studied music history with Paul Henry Lang, performance practices with Denis Stevens, and composition with Otto Luening, Jack Beeson, and Charles Wuorinen. He earned a doctorate in musicology in 1973 with a dissertation about Charles Ives. In 1977, he was awarded a grant to become part of a year-long National Endowment for the Humanities seminar at the University of North Carolina directed by William S. Newman, focussing on performance practices in earlier piano music. He went on to participate in the Aston Magna Summer Academy in 1980, where he studied fortepiano with Malcolm Bilson, both privately and in master classes.

Larry Wallach has been an active performer of chamber music with harpsichord and piano, and of twentieth century music. He has collaborated with harpsichordist Kenneth Cooper, with recorder virtuoso Bernard Krainis, with violinist Nancy Bracken of the Boston Symphony, with violinist/violist Ronald Gorevic, with gambist Lucy Bardo, and with his wife, cellist Anne Legêne, performing on both modern and baroque instruments. He has appeared with the Avanti Quintet, the New York Consort of Viols, and is a regular performer on the “Octoberzest” series in Great Barrington. He has been on the staffs of summer early music workshops at World Fellowship and Pinewoods Camp.
In 1996, he presented a program at the Bard Music Festival devoted to Charles Ives designed around a performance the composer’s Second Violin Sonata along with all the source tunes that are quoted in it. Part of this program was repeated at Lincoln Center in NY. He has also appeared on programs in Washington DC, and at St. Croix VI. As a composer, his works have been heard in New York, Boston, Amherst, the Berkshires, and at Bard College.

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