Carter at 100: Part 8

3. String Quartet No. 5 (1995)

One of the hallmarks of postmodernism is art about art. There has always been meta-art, though more often than not the references to art-about-art were localized within a given work, but recent decades have seen the idea raised to a controlling principle in a great number of works in all artistic media.

The string quartet, as both medium (the combination of two violins, viola, and cello) and as genre (pieces for string quartet that make full musical statements, as opposed to occasional pieces), has been an important part of Carter’s development for most of his career. In the Second (completed in 1959) and Third (1971), Carter pushes the genre in new (for him) poetic directions.

The four players in the Second Quartet are given distinct musical characters and expressive styles, which are derived from individual interval content and rhythmic characteristics. The drama inheres in how these four individuals communicate—and how they don’t. In the Third Carter reconfigures the ensemble into two duos and asks that they be seated as far apart on the stage as possible. He then gives them a different number of movements to play (one of the duos has six movements, the other has four) and arranges them so that each movement of one duo is played simultaneously (at some point in the piece) with every movement of the other duo.

In the Fifth Quartet Carter takes this idea of anthropomorphizing the instruments into characters acting out what Carter has called “auditory scenarios” to the meta-art level. Here the instruments/characters are members of a string quartet in rehearsal. The Quartet is structured along lines that are a familiar part of Carter’s late late style—a kind of returning music alternates with contrasting movements, which are more or less fully developed. In this piece, as opposed to the returning “rain music” of Boston Concerto, the links between movements consists of fragments. The fragments consist of snippets of previous movements, hints of what is to come, and brief improvisatory phrases based on each instrument’s interval repertoire.

The links convey the feeling of being in a rehearsal. As the ideas are tried out and lines “practiced”, agreement is eventually reached on what kind of music to rehearse. The Quartet’s six movements are examples of most of Carter’s characteristic textures and modes, especially from his quartets. These include “scorrevole” (“scurrying”, one of Carter’s favorite, regardless of medium), energetic, slashing chords, and serene chorale phrases.

A favorite narrative strategy of Carter’s is overlapping forms. This is a natural outgrowth of his interest in structural heterophony. I mentioned that the duos in the Third Quartet have different numbers of movements and that all possible combinations of movements between the duos occur over the course of the piece. The most telling moments of the piece happen when a new movement starts in one duo while the other duo continues playing its own movement.

This strategy is pervasive in the Fifth Quartet. The fifth, and final, Interlude is dominated, for the most part, by the fantastic, aggressive phrases of the first violin, while the rest of the group attempts to “rehearse” other parts of the piece. Finally, the rest of the ensemble begins the last movement (“Caprriccioso”) several measures before the first violin finishes her own capricious playing.

This final movement is a dance played entirely pizzicato (plucking the strings instead of bowing them)—the pizzicato playing in the other instruments is one reason the overlap is so apparent here. The strumming and plucking continues to an exuberant climax and a brief relaxation, only to suddenly build to another climax. This is followed by a very brief (less than three measures) bowed section—it moves to a kind of resolution. The rehearsal ends.

Part 1: Sonata for Cello and Piano (1948)/Duo for Violin and Piano (1974)

Part 2: Night Fantasies (1980)

Part 3: Enchanted Preludes (1988)

Part 4: Symphonia: Sum Fluxae Pretium Spei (1996)

Part 5: Boston Concerto (2002)

Part 6: Clarinet Concerto (1996)

Part 7: A Mirror on Which to Dwell (1975)

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