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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 6 Standoff (II)
Richard Taruskin

Carter's next major work after the First Quartet was Variations for Orchestra, composed between 1953 and 1955 on commission from the Louisville Orchestra. It took the quartet's tempo modulation technique a step further, applying it not only to discrete proportional relationships (comparable to gear shifts), but to gradually executed accelerandos and ritardandos as well. This technical refinement, and a great many others, went into the Second Quartet (1959), the style of which was much influenced by Carter's European success and the respect he now enjoyed among the younger composers there (as well as his generational peers, like Luigi Dallapiccola and Goffredo Petrassi, the senior Italian serialists, who heard the First Quartet at its Rome premiere). Carter now had a new peer group with which to compare himself, and a new source of approbation. It led him, in particular, to look for ways of replacing the traditional thematic basis on which his music, even in the Quartet, had always proceeded.

The Second Quartet was commissioned by the Stanley Quartet of the University of Michigan, a counterpart and competitor of the Walden Quartet of the University of Illinois, who were now the proud dedicatees of a famous work. On seeing the score the Stanleys withdrew (though they did negotiate to keep the dedication), and the premiere was actually given by the Juilliard Quartet, the Parrenin Quartet's American counterpart, at a Juilliard School concert.

Where the First Quartet was expansive in structure and highly continuous in its unfolding, the Second Quartet is very concentrated in form and its texture, somewhat like that of the European avant-garde music of the same decade, is extremely fragmented. The work follows a logic of abrupt contrasts rather than methodical transitions. Again following up on an idea of Ives, embodied in the latter's Second Quartet, the instruments are given consistent “characters,” and (as Carter put it) the quartet unfolds like a Samuel Beckett play, a colloquy of archetypal personalities who are basically oblivious of one another.

The four characters — “mercurial” first violin, “laconic” second fiddle, “expressive” viola, and “impetuous” cello—are distinguished from one another not only by general style, but also by a rigorous assignment of musical materials. Among them, in keeping with the principles of the First Quartet, are characteristic tempos, of which the second violin's pulse of MM70/140 is the most rigorously maintained (just as the second violin represented the square and stolid “Rollo” of Ives's Second Quartet.) But this time Carter tried to differentiate the members of the quartet in ways having to do with pitch or harmony as well, in reaction to what he evidently perceived as a failing in the First Quartet, in which the organization of pitch is far less rationalized or consistent than that of rhythm. Even sympathetic critics used terms like “a complete morass”36 to describe the harmony in the First Quartet, and William Glock had ended his review with a caveat: “I do not know whether every aspect of this quartet is satisfying, whether, for example, the harmonies will prove to be right and convincing after many hearings.”37 Having decided that an atonal, or at least a dissonant and chromatic harmonic language was a contemporary necessity, but being skeptical of serialism—especially “total” serialism—as an organizing principle for reasons having to do with the dilemmas of harmonic randomness openly broached for the first time by Ernst Krenek in 1960 (see chapter 1), Carter was faced with the necessity of finding a way, as he put it in an interview, “to regain the sensitivity to individual notes.” In other words,

I felt it became more and more important in a dissonant style to make it seem as though every note counted in some way, or that if something wasn't the right note it would make a great deal of difference. Now, it's very difficult to do that in a very dissonant music, especially in music that moves rather quickly and rather thickly. But I've been very concerned with trying to, so to speak, re-energize the tensions of the notes, the qualities of individual pitches.38

In practice, this came down to the qualities of the various intervals. In a memoir of Stefan Wolpe, published shortly after the latter's death in 1972, Carter gracefully gave Wolpe (who took over a class for him at Dartington, William Glock's summer school, in 1956) credit for giving him the idea.

He started talking about his Passacaglia (1938), a piano work built of sections each based on a musical interval—minor second, major second, and so on. At once, sitting at the piano, he was caught up in a meditation on how wonderful these primary materials, intervals, were; playing each over and over again on the piano, singing, roaring, humming them, loudly, softly, quickly, slowly, short and detached or drawn out and expressive. All of us forgot time passing, when the class was to finish. As he led us from the smallest one, a minor second, to the largest, a major seventh—which took all afternoon—music was reborn, a new light dawned, we all knew we would never again listen to music as we had. Stefan had made each of us experience very directly the living power of these primary elements. From then on indifference was impossible.39

Carter's solution to the harmony problem was to combine Wolpe's idea of characterizing intervals with the avant-garde or serialist idea of algorithms. Each of the “characters” in Carter's Second Quartet is assigned a characteristic group of intervals; only major and minor seconds are “unclaimed,” to allow for stepwise melodic lines as neutral material. The leaps, from thirds to tenths, are allocated in keeping with the instrumentalists’ “personalities” as Carter envisaged them, and allied with expressive styles or playing techniques:

Violin I: m3, P5, M9, M10 (bravura style)

Violin II: M3, M6, M7 (strict style; six types of pizzicato)

Viola: tritone, m7, m9 (“romantic” style; glissando, portamento)

Cello: P4, m6, m10 (impulsive style; tempo rubato)

The cello's rubati are actually prescribed in the notation, Carter inventing a dotted slur with an arrowhead to indicate spans where the cellist should deliberately rush (or, more rarely, slow down) while the other instruments keep strict time.

In Ex. 6-14, the first score page of Carter's Second Quartet, in which the four characters are introduced, is juxtaposed with the last, in which they take leave of one another after their various attempts at interaction have failed (immediately following the cellist's brief success at seducing or forcing the rest into a dizzy group accelerando and a—literally—shattering climax). An idea of the degree to which Carter has concentrated the form and thematic content of the music, and the deliberateness with which he has done so, may be gained by comparing the cello's opening solo phrase with the expansive cello “cadenza” that opened the First Quartet.

A Wholly Disinterested Art?

fig. 6-2 Metronomic plan for Carter's Second Quartet (after David Schiff).

The atomistic texture makes recognition of the characters easy. The instrumental parts do little but display their intervallic and stylistic properties in a perpetual mosaic. Every distinguishing feature identified above can be located in the appropriate parts. Most characteristic and Carterish of all is of course the rhythmic behavior of the second violin part, which plays even notes that move in a constant hemiola against the notated meter and tempo, so that its implied pulse is MM105, or MM70. David Schiff has published a chart (Fig. 6-2) showing how all the other pulses in the quartet relate to this basic one, always maintained by the second violin, who thus emerges as something more than a Rollo — perhaps the “Chronometros” (that is, Carter) himself.

As to overall harmony, the great problem of the First Quartet, Carter found a solution that was already implicit in the earlier work. Once the various intervals had been assigned to the different instruments, the trusty all-interval tetrachords could be mobilized to provide a suitable nexus between the lines. In the Second Quartet, therefore, Carter tried to put the parts in a counterpoint regulated throughout in the way the passage from the first Quartet in Ex. 6-12d was regulated. The normative character thus invested in the /0 1 4 6/ tetrachord made it (so Carter decided) a suitable melodic close for the entire quartet, executed, as might be expected, by the controlling second violin.

A Wholly Disinterested Art?A Wholly Disinterested Art?

ex. 6-14a Elliott Carter, String Quartet no. 2, first score page (all-interval tetrachords circled)

A Wholly Disinterested Art?

ex. 6-14b Elliott Carter, String Quartet no. 2, last score page (all-interval tetrachords circled)

The intricacy of these pitch manipulations, on top of the tempo manipulations “inherited” from the First Quartet, made the process of composition Beethovenishly laborious. The sketches for this sixty-two-page composition, now housed at the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel, Switzerland, run to some two thousand pages (a fact that was publicized at the time of the premiere). The Second Quartet brought Carter recognition in America comparable to what the First had brought him in Europe. It won three major awards, including the Pulitzer Prize. Major performing groups now clamored for the honor of presenting his music, because he now commanded, and his name conferred, as much prestige as theirs. And he continued his efforts to maximalize his style; indeed he was locked into them, for every new work of his was expected to embody some new technical feature that could be touted as a breakthrough. All were eagerly awaited and received as major events.

The Third Quartet (1971), commissioned by the Juilliard School for the Juilliard Quartet to follow up on their success with the Second, maximalized the salient feature of the First Quartet's third movement, which (as we have seen) was in turn a maximalization of the main musicopoetic idea in Ives's Unanswered Question. The whole quartet is built around the opposition of two duos—Violin I and Cello vs. Violin II and Viola—that play what amount to two different pieces at the same time. Duo I, which plays in rubato style throughout, plays four movements (Furioso, Leggerissimo, Andante espressivo, Pizzicato giocoso) in the time it takes Duo II, which plays strictly at all times, to play six movements (Maestoso, Grazioso, Scorrevole, Pizzicato giusto, Largo tranquillo, Appassionato). But these movements are not played straightforwardly through by either duo; after their initial appearances in the order given they are crosscut so that they coexist in many different contrapuntal combinations.

Tempo modulations are so frequent, and the resulting polyrhythms so complex, that the publisher prepared a click track to guide the players (wearing earphones) through their individual parts. (The Juilliard Quartet managed to learn the piece well enough to dispense with the click tracks at the premiere; most ensembles use them in performance.) The form is generated, in a manner borrowed from the Double Concerto, by large background polyrhythms (20:21 and 63:64), which determine the placement of the main structural events. Meanwhile, on the audible surface, the individual parts are of concerto difficulty; the textures are “dense and overgrown,”40 to quote David Schiff, who compares them to a “rain forest” of microscopic detail; and to top things off, each movement played by each duo is characterized by a different dominating interval. Needless to say, this astounding tour de force of calculation and construction won Carter another Pulitzer Prize. It represented a very pinnacle of “maximum complexity under maximum control,” to recall the shibboleth of New Criticism.

But, as Schiff went on to observe, “events in the work are sometimes gratuitous acts, seemingly without motivation,” although the large gestures form “an unbroken circle, … at once a series of sharply contrasted moments and a continuous process.”41 Comments celebrating the complexity of the contrapuntal writing (“traditional species of academic counterpoint never extended to rhythmic proportions as complex as these …”) may ring a bit hollow in a world of emancipated dissonance; but Carter had indeed made great efforts to avoid the harmonic fortuity that governed the world of total serialism, even if the listening ear was thwarted by the sheer density of detail from discovering the algorithms that were in operation. Any suspicion that Schiff's use of words like “overgrown” and “gratuitous” bore ironic overtones was carefully countered by the traditional modernist verdict: “although the instruments are never called upon to produce untraditional sounds, the overall sonority is strikingly new.”42 (Actually, the instruments are called upon to produce several new kinds of pizzicato.)


(36) Joseph Kerman, “American Music: The Columbia Series,” The Hudson Review XI, no. 3 (Autumn 1958): 422.

(37) William Glock, “Music Festival in Rome,” Encounter II, no. 6 (June 1954): 63.

(38) Benjamin Boretz, “Conversation with Elliott Carter,” Contemporary Music Newsletter II, nos. 7–8 (November–December 1968): 3.

(39) Elliott Carter, untitled memoir, in “In Memoriam: Stefan Wolpe (1902–1972),” Perspectives of New Music XI, no. 1 (Fall–Winter, 1972): 3.

(40) Schiff, The Music of Elliott Carter (1983), p. 260.

(41) Ibid., pp. 260–61.

(42) Ibid., p. 260.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 6 Standoff (II)." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 28 Jan. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-006006.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 6 Standoff (II). In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 28 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-006006.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 6 Standoff (II)." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 28 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-006006.xml