Last May, the current and some former members of the Juilliard String Quartet reunited for a press conference at the School to mark the release of a two-disc set of all five string quartets by Elliott Carter, who taught composition at Juilliard from 1966 to 1984. (The first four quartets are reissues that were recorded in 1990-91; the Fifth was recorded in 2013.) During the festivities, Ara Guzelimian, Juilliard’s provost and dean, recalled being at a Carnegie Hall concert with Carter, who motioned to one of the boxes upstairs and said, “That’s where I sat with Mr. Ives.”
The seatmate in question was Charles Ives, who befriended the teenaged Carter and encouraged him to attend college and to explore a career in composition. In a 2002 interview with Alan Baker for American Public Media, Carter discussed his relationship with Ives and how he loved the older composer’s “Concord” Sonata despite his disapproval of Ives’s quotations of American hymns and folk tunes. “From my point of view,” Carter said, “if you want to express, let’s say, something about America, you don’t do it by quoting ‘Yankee Doodle.’ You do it by writing what you feel about it.”
Nevertheless, some of Ives can be sensed in Carter’s work, especially the love of complexity and gleeful rhythmic energy that make these quartets daunting for some listeners—and performers. At the press conference, Samuel Rhodes, the Juilliard String Quartet’s violist from 1969 to 2013 and head of Juilliard’s viola department, mentioned that his first encounter with any of Carter’s quartets was the Third (1971), which he considers the most difficult of the five. In it, the composer divides the ensemble in half. Though all four instruments play simultaneously, the first violin and viola (in this case, Robert Mann and Rhodes) have four movements marked “quasi rubato throughout,” but the second violin and cello (former first violinist Joel Smirnoff and cellist Joel Krosnick) have six movements marked “in quite strict rhythm throughout” over the same time span.
The First Quartet (1959) is the longest—40 minutes of the composer making a startling debut in the medium and exploring new ways to think about a string quartet’s form and structure. In the Second (1960), Carter evoked Samuel Beckett, whose characters “speak at cross-purposes without much understanding,” as David Schiff (author of The Music of Elliott Carter) writes in his liner notes to this new release. The players relay signals while sitting slightly farther apart than usual, and the four movements, played without pause, reach a dizzying climax in the penultimate Allegro. In the Fourth Quartet (1986), one can hear greater cooperation (or at least, attempts at it) among the lines though in the difficult-to-navigate final Presto the four parts seem to explode in all directions.
In 2011 the ensemble welcomed a new first violinist, Joseph Lin (Pre-College ’96), who recorded the Fifth Quartet (1995) with Rhodes, Krosnick, and second violinist Ronald Copes. (Roger Tapping replaced Rhodes in 2013, but does not appear on this recording.) A fine example of Carter’s late style, the Fifth still prizes complexity but much of the earlier density has been replaced with the aural equivalent of pointillism. In his liner notes for this late masterpiece, Schiff compares Carter’s “carefree mood” to the work of the Italian writer Italo Calvino, who wrote in Six Memos for the New Millennium (1988), “There is such a thing as a lightness of thoughtfulness, just as we all know there is a lightness of frivolity. In fact, thoughtful lightness can make frivolity seem dull and heavy.”
Veteran Charles Harbutt recorded the first four quartets in the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1990 (No. 1) and 1991 (Nos. 2, 3, and 4), with an exceptional clarity that helps listeners understand the conversations among the instruments. In 2013 Steven Epstein worked similar magic on the Fifth Quartet at the Concert Hall at SUNY Purchase; his light touch matches the grace of the composer’s writing.