Elliott Carter: String Quartets Nos. 2, 3 and 4
Elliott Carter—”Lento” from String Quartet No. 4 (excerpt)
There’s a funny thing that happens when a cultural figure like Elliott Carter sees his own centenary: he outlives entire eras of musical thought and invective, multiples of them, many of which he was a major part of in the first place. From the scant number of Americana- and neoclassical-infused works of Carter’s “youth” (mind that he was in his 30s when they were being written) to the torrent of works from the past decade*, he has lived through the fads, lived past the fads, and arrived at the point where the fads had nothing to do with his music anymore. This is not to say that Carter is old hat, so to speak; the premieres, celebrations, and television appearances should be enough to disprove that. But rather that Elliott Carter, the man and composer, is no longer a symbol of anything particularly threatening to anyone. The man and his ilk do come from a period where a certain (exceptionally small, it should be noted) segment of society felt put upon by the dominance of his pedaled wares; but the Euro-tinged modernism he espoused after World War II eventually evolved into a new beast, one a little less anxious for philippics and lofty dialectics, and one with less control over acceptable discourse and fellowships. Musical artists in different venues have had less and less of a contra-Carter cause as time wore on. Sure, there are those around who hold long grudges, but those of us who are unencumbered by that history, be it through youth or culturo-political clemency, can afford to see Carter’s work through a prism that’s as unencumbered by outside factors as any composer has been allowed during their lifetime.
Which makes the works on the Pacifica Quartet’s second and cycle-completing disc an interesting case. Pacifica owns Carter’s five string quartets, as anyone who has heard them do the complete set in concert can attest. But for the Carter virgin, they can be a bit overwhelming, especially the three quartets presented on this disc. Even without historical baggage, the musical baggage is still there; is there any piece that’s more difficult in the quartet repertoire than Carter’s Third? More so than ever, Carter seems to have no interest in entertaining. Whether he does or not is more a consequence of the listener’s own inner mechanisms, but by surface-level appearances it’s not on his priority list. For instance, No. 3 starts out with an almost Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima-style sound wall, at least as much as can be achieved by only four string instruments playing only four-note chords, but while Penderecki was all about a visceral aggregate effect, Carter’s visceral effect here is a symptom of a musical dialogue. This is why it’s difficult. Carter gives you the gut punch only for a scant few seconds, after which he keeps demanding your full attention, defying those who would want to revel in the shock and awe. In fact, if there’s one single thing that makes these pieces particularly demanding, it’s this very habit of deprivation. Only in the third section of the 4th quartet does Carter show any sort of generosity to the audience, allowing his stringed actors to wallow in their dissonant, vitreous beauty for almost seven minutes.
But, if not generous, these pieces are still vivid and completely gripping. This is why Pacifica is the perfect group for these works—its interpretation steers the middle ground between the Charybdis of stale academic exercise and the Scylla of Ozymandias-style Great Work, and infuses the music with breath and life, screaming and raging. There is no denying that these works can be esoteric; but there is also no denying that, if you let them, they will tear you up. They writhe with irrepressible communicative intent. After all, these are highly theatrical works, conceived of as dialogues: The second and fourth sound like an argument between four excitable yet fairly reasonable participants, while the third comes across as a tragicomic scene between two couples, one pair trying to maintain calm over the second’s alkaloid-fueled agitation. There’s all the range of emotions one would find in a short play: drama, humor, passion, etc.
The pacing and sense of space is also more dramatic than musical. A character in a play isn’t going to repeat a line of dialogue several times to allow it to sink in, and neither is a string player in a Carter quartet. While this prevents the immersion in sound mentioned earlier, it allows—and, importantly, Carter allows it to allow—for constant flashes of beauty and aggression in the same breath, like an impishly skillful writer. Listen to the “Largo tranquillo/Andante Espressivo” in the Second Quartet, or conversely, the admittedly very brief allowances in the last section of the Third, before it all descends to hell. In the former, the sheen is punctured by stabs from the cello, while in the latter, the forward drive is ever so briefly stalled by darkly luminous intervals held in the upper register of the violins. Carter is actually using the lack of a literal narrative coherence in the abstract art of music as an excuse to perform even more acrobatics and emotive modulations, trusting the listener to intrepidly follow him along the jagged road.
Because in the end it is about entertaining you. He didn’t make a big show of it, but that’s actually exactly what Carter is trying to do during every moment of music he writes. But this is the idea: Carter’s middle quartets are entertaining pieces, but they’re not passively entertaining pieces, no more than you can let the emotionally piquant dialogue of a Bergman film wash over you and expect to get anything out of it. These works ask your attention, and your respect. Give both.
*Of the 140 or so pieces that Carter has written, roughly thirty percent of them have been written after he turned 90. Think about how—in the strictest sense of the word—incredible that is.