Although the proliferation of new techniques in the 20th Century would seem to give composers a wide choice of possible styles, in reality it has had the opposite effect. For rigorous systems often restrict a composer under the guise of giving him order. Both neo-classicists and the most advanced experimenters find themselves in danger of mimicking some master. Slavish Fadism is far too common.
If a composer does not feel comfortable in any single camp, he needs great skill and daring to assimilate several influences without eclecticism--while forging his own style. Elliott Carter, one of the few American composers to reach eminence since the war, has done just that. While any musicologist can find traces of, say, Bartok or Stravinsky somewhere in his music, both are completely integrated into a distinct personal style. A performance of his new Second String Quartet, which won the Pulitzer music prize in 1960, reconfirms this opinion.
What a startling about Carter is that, within a consistent style, he has retained an astounding flexibility giving free rein to his originality. With this Quartet he for the first time used the same form twice. When he began it he discarded the emphasis on polyrhythms of his first quartet because he felt he had accomplished all he could within that technique.
Carter approaches each composition as a problem upto itself, with its distinctive problems, medium and form. Conceiving of the quartet as a "series of events," he is concerned with the internal logic and organic development of that piece alone; no larger harmonic or formal systems restrict him. He is, in Isaiah Berlin's category, a fox.
To evaluate the work without the aid of a recording or score, I must limit myself to tentative first impressions. While I frankly did not grasp same parts very well, certain aspects stood out in their orginiality and expressiveness. One was its form. There are four movements, an introduction and a conclusion; and cadenzas connect the continuous movements. One instrument dominates each movement while the rest comment upon the leader or conflict with it. In addition, each instrument has a unique character throughout the work consistent in intervals, rhythm and quality; the cello, for instance, plays predominantly rubato, and the second violin, in Carter's words, "is a very sobering influence" with regular rhythm.
This device has succeeded, I think, because the listener is less aware of the individual parts than the way in which all four cohere. Moreover, the work grows in a natural fashion and the quick, epigrammatic changes of feeling do not pull it apart at the seams. Still, I did not grasp the reconciliation of the voices that he intended in the last movement, but hope that further listening will bring it out.
Carter uses a great deal of ingenuity in this work, but it is not a puzzle-solving exercise in musical mathematics. Built on the commentary between voices, it has a dissonant restlessness that becomes first almost flippant, then explosive with sonority. Dark and intense, it is never murky and is sharply etched with sudden fast notes in the first violin and several kinds of pizzicati in the second.
I enjoed the third movement most of all. It progresses slowly on sustained notes with intense horizontal motion, broken only occasionally by brief sallies into other registers and punctuated by entrances of changing qualities. Its dilation and contraction of sound are very reminiscent of one movement of Carter's Eight Etudes and a Fantasy for woodwinds, where he keeps all four instruments on the same note but varies dynamics and the rhythm of entrances with great skill and expression.
It s difficult to separate music and performance with such an unfamiliar work. The Lenox String Quartet, which premiered the piece, seemed to handle it with perfect ease and probably mirrored the composer's intentions. The individual character of the instruments was quite clear; the cello contributed an almost booming tone and the first violin mastered well the violent alternations between long and short notes.
One hearing promised to reveal even more after continued listening. I will watch for a recording eagerly.