• Elliott Carter
  • String Quartet No. 2 (1959)

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

Programme Note

Winner of the 1960 Pulitzer Prize for Music

Composer Note:
Allegro fantastico; Cadenza for Viola
Presto scherzando; Cadenza for Cello
Andante espressivo; Cadenza for Violin
(Played without pauses)

My Second String Quartet, commissioned by the Stanley String Quartet, was begun in August, 1958, and finished in May, 1959. In it the four instruments are individualized, each being given its own character embodied in a special set of melodic and harmonic intervals and of rhythms that result in four different patterns of slow and fast tempi with associated types of expression. Thus, four different strands of musical material of contrasting character are developed simultaneously throughout the work. It is out of the interactions, combinations, cooperations, and oppositions of these that the details of musical discourse as well as the large sections are built. Up to the end of the second movement (Presto scherzando) the various facets of each instrument’s character are presented quite distinctively. After that, in the third and fourth movements (Andante espressivo and Allegro), there is a growing tendency to cooperate and exchange ideas, while, in the cadenzas, opposition between the solo and accompanying instruments grows. The Conclusion returns to the state of individualization of the first part of the work.

The first violin reveals itself in its cadenza and elsewhere as fantastic, ornate, and mercurial, its rapid figurations and variously expressive phrases made up primarily of minor thirds, perfect fifths, major ninths, and major tenths, aside from major and minor seconds which all the instruments share in common. It dominates the first movement (Allegro fantastico) partially imposing its ideas on the others. The second violin, dominating the second movement (Presto scherzando) and the Conclusion, plays a part which consistently projects regular rhythms and which features major thirds, major sixths, and major sevenths. It has a laconic, orderly character which is sometimes humorous. The viola, using augmented fourths, minor sevenths, and minor ninths, adds its repertory of expressive motives to the group, coming to the fore in the third movement (Andante espressivo), expanding ideas first heard in its cadenza. The somewhat impetuous ‘cello part, which is characterized by perfect fourths, minor sixths, and minor tenths, frequently breaks out of the rhythmic scheme, a feature which reaches its greatest freedom in the cadenza and finally draws the other three into an agitated accelerando at the end of the fourth movement (Allegro). The form of the work does not follow traditional patterns but is developed directly from the relationships and interactions of the four instruments, that result in varying activities, tempi, moods, and feelings.

Elliott Carter