Measure by Measure

A Year in the Desert

Elliott Carter and his revolutionary first string quartet

By Sudip Bose | January 11, 2018
Ade Russell/Flickr
Ade Russell/Flickr

On New Year’s Day, the long-time first violinist of the Juilliard String Quartet, Robert Mann, died at his home in New York. Since the ensemble’s beginnings in the mid-1940s, Mann remained its constant, outlasting many of its musicians, until he retired in 1997. Strange as it might seem today, chamber ensembles a half-century ago endured a second-class existence—audiences preferred orchestral concerts and solo recitals. The Juilliard Quartet helped change that, excelling not only in the standard repertoire but also in 20th-century music. The group’s 1963 traversal of Bela Bartók’s six quartets, for example, is rightfully the stuff of legend, but even more important for me are the recordings of Elliott Carter’s first four quartets, made in 1990 and 1991. The revolutionary String Quartet No. 1, known as Carter’s Eroica, was the piece that lured me into the composer’s work, opening up an expansive and famously difficult sound world in a persuasive, compelling way. With each successive listening, I encountered new colors, new vistas, and many moments of visionary beauty among the well-placed thorns.

If Giuseppe Verdi’s completion of his opera Falstaff as he neared the age of 80 is heralded as a kind of artistic miracle, consider Carter’s wonder years between the ages of 90 and 100, when he wrote more than 40 pieces. He composed another 20 works after turning 100. (He died in 2012, a month shy of his 104th birthday.) Many decades earlier, however, when Carter was essaying pieces in a neoclassical style, staking out stylistic ground in the manner of Aaron Copland, Igor Stravinsky, and Roy Harris, even the most ardent connoisseurs of new music would not have predicted so prolific and seminal an output. Although such early works as Carter’s sonatas for piano and cello were accomplished, he had written them with the intention of appealing to a wide audience. He found little popular success, however. To make matters worse, musical fragments of a different sort kept bedeviling him, ideas that he could not incorporate into his music. He needed time to ponder them, to work them out. Above all, he realized, he needed to remove himself from the cosmopolitan world of the big-city intellectual.

So in 1950, the Manhattan-born, Harvard-educated, Paris-trained composer took a dramatic step: along with his wife and young son, Carter left New York and ended up spending more than a year in Arizona, in the vast and remote lower Sonoran Desert. There, amid the silent and austere wilderness of cacti and mesquite, of quail, snakes, horned toads, and lizards, Carter experienced something akin to a religious conversion. He wrote just one piece of music during the autumn and winter of 1950 and the spring of 1951: his String Quartet No. 1, a difficult piece unlike anything he had composed before, boldly atonal, and governed by a novel sense of rhythm, meter, and time.

Carter may have been isolated, but he wasn’t lacking in companionship, his immediate family notwithstanding. He had a neighbor in Arizona—the naturalist Joseph Wood Krutch, who was on his own Thoreauvian sojourn, gathering material for a lovely and lyrical book called The Desert Year. Carter and Krutch met almost every day to watch birds, to discuss the ecology of their arid surrounds, to embark on difficult treks to the area’s canyons. With Krutch, Carter came to better appreciate the roadrunners, tall saguaros, flowering bushes, and other kinds of exotica flourishing all around him. “It was indeed a kind of ‘magic mountain,’” Carter would later write, “and its specialness (for me) certainly encouraged the specialness (for me at that time) of the Quartet.”

Carter’s quartet is by no means impressionistic: you would try in vain to hear the sonic equivalent of a cloudburst or a desert sunrise. Yet read the following lines from The Desert Year, in which Krutch describes the elusive charms of the desert, in contrast to the more picturesque landscape to the north, and you can see why Carter might have identified with this terrain so strongly:

Though bare, jagged mountains ultimately close nearly every vista, the desert itself lies peaceful in the sun and repeats with tireless satisfaction its two themes—either cactus, paloverde, mesquite, and sand, or yucca, agave, and ocotillo, the one on the flats, the other on the slopes … Love me or hate me, the desert seems to say, this is what I am and this is what I shall remain.

The very same could be said of Carter’s artistic rebirth. “I decided for once to write a work very interesting to myself,” he would later write when discussing his String Quartet No. 1, “and so say to hell with the public and with the performers too. I wanted to write a work that carried out completely the various ideas I had at that time about the form of music, about texture and harmony—about everything.”

The opening of the quartet is like Carter’s declaration of independence. The instruments enter one by one, each playing lines that are harmonically and melodically accessible, first the cello playing a passage of some urgency, then a violin coming in with a haunting series of pizzicato notes, then the other violin playing a quiet, lyrical line, before finally the viola joins in, too. The challenge to the listener is that none of these four voices seems to have anything to do with any other. In terms of meter and rhythm, they occupy their own worlds, each governed by its own speed. Though the metrical relationships between the instruments’ lines are organized and controlled quite carefully, the impression, while trying to make sense of the complex texture, is of time being altered, of physical laws being written anew. The very notion of the musical beat appears to be upended. What Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern did for triadic harmony—blowing up a world and creating a new one from the luminous fragments—Carter appeared to be doing with meter, rhythm, and tempo.

The work is divided into four movements, yet the silences come within the movements, further blurring the lines of expectation and outcome. Carter would later explain that he conceived of the work as being governed by two sets of time: “external time” and an “internal dream time,” something he had gleaned from one of Jean Cocteau’s films. The effect on the ear is a sensation of expansiveness and rapid movement, all in a single measure. To be sure, the instruments do come together—these moments of concert have a heightened intensity, as a result—but I think it’s best to approach this piece by trying to isolate the four lines and to hear them as defiantly individual voices, one at a time. Persist with this score, and you will encounter many beautiful, songlike moments, passages of quiet and repose, with more genuine melodies than can be found in many other 20th-century works.

Over time, Carter’s style evolved; some of his most accessible pieces were composed toward the end of his life, music that, in its humor and grace, has invoked comparisons with Haydn. But for me, the String Quartet No. 1 will always remain something apart, with its mystical associations with the desert, a testament to what might result when an artist moves into voluntary exile, working in quiet and quasi-isolation. “Not to have known—as most men have not—either the mountain or the desert,” Krutch writes in The Desert Year, “is not to have known one’s self. Not to have known one’s self is to have known no one …” There in the vast expanses of the Sonoran Desert, Elliott Carter discovered his art, but he also, no doubt, found himself.

Listen to the first movement of Carter’s String Quartet No. 1, performed by the Juilliard Quartet:

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