• Elliott Carter
  • String Quartet No. 1 (1950)

  • Associated Music Publishers Inc (World)
  • 2 vn, va, vc
  • 45 min

Programme Note

Composer Note:
Among the lessons taught to me during the composition of my First Quartet was on about my relationship with performers and audiences. For as I wrote, an increasing number of musical difficulties arose for prospective performers and listeners, which the musical conception seemed to demand. I often wondered whether the quartet would ever have any performers or listeners. Yet within a few years of its composition it won an important prize and was played more than any work I had written up to that time. It even received praised from admired colleagues. Up to this time, I had quite consciously been trying to write for a certain audience – not that which frequented concerts of traditional music, nor that which had supported the avant-garde of the ‘20’s (which in the ‘40’s had come to seem elitist) but a new, more progressive and more popular audience. I had felt that it was my professional and social responsibility to write interesting, direct, easily understood music.

With this quartet, however I decided to focus on what had always been one of my own musical interests, that of ‘advanced’ music, and to follow out, with a minimal concern for their reception, my own musical thoughts along these lines. Now I think there is every reason to assume that if a composer has been well taught and has had experience, then his private judgment of comprehensibility and quality is what he must rely on if he is to communicate importantly.

The First Quartet was written in the undisturbed quiet of the Arizona desert, and, like the desert horizons I saw daily while it was being written, the quartet present a continuous unfolding and changing of expressive characters – one woven into the other or emerging from it – on a large scale. The general plan was suggested by Jean Cocteau’s film Le sang d’un poète, in which the entire dream-like action is framed by an interrupted slow-motion shot of a tall chimney being dynamited. Just as the chimney begins to fall apart, the shot is broken off and the entire movie follows after which the shot of the chimney is resumed at the point it left of, showing it disintegration in mid0air, and closing the film with its collapse on the ground. A similar interrupted continuity is employed in this quartet’s starting with a cadenza for cello alone that is continued by the first violin alone at the very end. On one level, I interpret Cocteau’s idea (and my own) as establishing the difference between external time (measured by the falling chimney, or the cadenza) and internal dream time (the main body of the work) – the dream time lasting but a moment of external time but from the dreamer’s point of view, a long stretch. In the First Quartet, the opening cadenzas also act as an introduction to the rest, and when it reappears at the end, it forms the last variation in a set of variations.

The First Quartet is designed in four large sections: Fantasia, Allegro scorrevole, Adagio and Variations. This scheme is broken by two pauses, one in the middle of the Allegro scorrevole and other just after the Variations have been started by the cello, while the other instruments were concluding the Adagio. The first section, Fantasia, contrasts many themes of different character frequently counterpointed against each other. It concludes with the four main ideas being heard together, fading in and out of prominence. This leads directly to a rapid Allegro scorrevole, a sound-mosaic of brief fragments, interrupted once by a dramatic outburst, then resumed, again interrupted by a pause, again resumed, and finally interrupted by another outburst that forms the beginning of the Adagio.

During this extended slow movement, the two muted violins play soft, contemplative music answered by an impassioned rough recitative of the viola and cellos. This Adagio forms the extreme point of divergence between simultaneous ideas in the quartet and has been led up to and is led away from by many lesser degrees of differentiation. The last section, Variations, consists of a series of different themes repeated faster at each successive recurrence, some reaching at their speed vanishing point sooner than others.

Elliott Carter