Search This Blog

Monday, April 5, 2010

Composers Quartet - Quartets by Seeger, Perle and Babbitt (1973)

This is one of my favorite string quartet recordings. I have always liked 20th century classical music, and the string quartet has been a favorite format. This recording has long been out of print and I finally got it digitized so I can listen to it without having to pull out the record. I hope you will enjoy it just as much. Following are the liner notes.

The development of 20th-century music has been marked by a constant search for new means of musical organization to replace those that had been associated with the tonal system. The collapse of this system shortly after the turn of the century created a sort of vacuum characterized by the absence of a common musical language, leaving composers with the task of fashioning new languages based on new musical assumptions. Although the contributions of various European composers to the development of such languages have been well documented, it is only in recent years that there has been a full recognition of the important role played by American composers in this process. Probably the clearest symptom of this newborn awareness has been the belated interest in the music of Charles Ives, who in works written shortly after the turn of the century anticipated many of the compositional procedures which were later to occupy a central position in 20th-century musical thought. But there are other Americans, of more recent generations, who resemble Ives in their use of techniques later developed by Europeans to much greater public acclaim. The three composers on the present recording and the three string quartets by which they are here represented lend ample evidence to this claim.

Although the name of Ruth Crawford Seeger is still known mainly only to those particularly interested in modern music, she was one of the most innovative composers of the first half of this century. Born in Ohio in 1901, she wrote a series of strikingly original compositions in the late 1920s and early 1930s, only then to give up composition almost entirely, devoting her musical activities primarily to teaching piano and editing collections of folk songs in collaboration with her husband, the well-known musicologist Charles Seeger. (This interest in folk songs undoubtedly had its influence on her stepson Pete Seeger.)

Her early musical studies were completed at the American Conservatory in Chicago, and her first compositions were conservative in nature. Later, however, she developed a highly personal compositional style, which reached its greatest fruition in the String Quartet of 1931 (written while the composer was living in Berlin on a Guggenheim Fellowship), a work which—particularly in its last two movements—employs techniques that attained general currency only after the Second World War.

The opening movement, in moderate tempo, is characterized by an uncompromisingly contrapuntal texture in which each instrument has clearly differentiated material. Formally it is almost cadenza-like in conception and consists of one uninterrupted span, held together by intervallic and rhythmic correspondences and a gradual increasing of intensity to a climax near its end. The second movement is similarly contrapuntal, but here the instruments work in close cooperation to form what often sounds like one principal line made up of various subordinate ones. Faster in tempo and more motivic than the first (the intervallic and rhythmic associations of the previous movement are here placed in an explicitly imitative context), it has the quality of a scherzo. In the third movement the process of instrumental consolidation is carried a step further: the four instruments are absorbed into "clusters" whose individual parts are differentiated only by their dynamic patterns. The latter are staggered in such a way that each of the four voices alternately emerges from and recedes into the total sound mass. The form of the movement is defined by a gradual expansion of register from the low, restricted opening to a widely-spaced chord in triple stops, after which there is a return to the low register of the beginning.

From a technical standpoint (particularly in regard to its overall rhythmic organization), the last movement is perhaps the most interesting of all; it is certainly the most prophetic of later musical developments. It consists of two contrapuntal lines, one assigned to the first violin and the other, in octaves, to the remaining three instruments, which are muted. Each line undergoes its own rhythmic development: the first begins with a one-note unit which is gradually increased one note at a time until a twenty-note unit is reached at the mid-point in the movement, while the second begins with a twenty-note unit which is similarly reduced to one note at the middle. This entire process is then played backwards (transposed a step higher) so that the two lines end with the same rhythmic units with which they began. While the first line is free in its use of pitches and durations, the second moves in steady eighth notes (except for the rests which separate the units) and is strictly organized according to a ten-note pitch series that is developed by a process of rotation.

Milton Babbitt is one of the most important and influential of contemporary American composers, yet his compositions are surprisingly little known. Born in Philadelphia in 1916, Babbitt's early influences were Schoenberg and Webern. In the 1940s he began to extend the serial principle beyond the organization of pitches to such dimensions as durations and dynamics; his Three Compositions for Piano, written in 1947, is the earliest work by any composer to serialize non-pitch elements. (In Babbitt's compositions, however—unlike those of later European serialists—pitch relationships retain their traditional dominance in the hierarchy of musical structure.)

The String Quartet No. 2, composed in 1952, provides an excellent example of Babbitt's individual manner of treating the twelve-tone system. Here the set, or row, is an all-interval series (i.e., the intervals formed by adjacent pitches comprise all possible intervals within' the chromatic scale), and the form of the piece is determined by the gradual unfolding of these intervals. Thus the opening section presents an "exposition" of first the opening interval of the set (a minor third) and then the second interval (major third), each of which serves to generate its own "derived" set—a secondary row created through the serial manipulation of a portion of the principal row. There is then a "developmental" section based on a three-note motive comprising both these intervals, which also generates a derived set. There then follows a second large section, again consisting of an expository part (presenting the third interval) and a developmental part (based on a three-note motive comprising the second and third intervals). This procedure is continued until all intervals in the first half of the series have been introduced, at which point the first six notes are stated for the first time as a complete linear unit, and are used as the basis for the last section of the first half of the piece. The second half consists of a repetition of this entire process, only it is now the second half of the series which is gradually exposed. Finally there is a closing section in which the complete twelve-tone row appears unambiguously for the first time, representing the culmination of the formal growth of the quartet as a whole.

If this rather oversimplified description sounds somewhat forbidding, it should be emphasized that the aural effect of the quartet is quite transparent. Since each section is characterized by its own unique intervallic content, the sectional organization is easily perceivable. Further, Babbitt differentiates the expository parts from the developmental ones by emphasizing the former through octave doublings; and in the final section, the complete set is presented by all four instruments playing in unison, and is thereby distinguished from all other material in the piece. Finally, there are also textural, rhythmic, and dynamic associations which link together corresponding sections of the large two-part design.

George Perle was born in 1915 and, like Babbitt, became interested as early as 1939 in transforming the twelve-tone system to suit his own compositional ends. There the similarity ends, however, for Perle chose an entirely different direction for his extension of serialism. Perle's interest in the row has been not so much in its linear implications as in the totality of relationships existing among all of the twelve tones, including their vertical or "harmonic" associations. He has evolved an elaborate system for generating twelve-tone sets that are characterized by recurring intervallic patterns, and which can be arranged in groups so as to create closely related chordal successions. In the String Quartet No. 5, written in 1960 and revised in 1967 (with the addition of a new finale), the interval of the third plays a particularly important role—for instance, each movement ends with an identical chord placed a minor third lower at each appearance. Perle's frequent combination of these thirds into chordal units gives much of the work an almost triadic quality. Yet the underlying organization of these chords has nothing to do with the diatonic tonal system but is completely consistent with the composer's unique "twelve-tone modal" system. The result is a piece which despite superficial associations with older music, is entirely original in the

generation and application of its materials. Another innovative technique with an important formal function in the quartet is "metrical modulation," a procedure by which tempos are altered by applying new metrical groupings to previously established durations. Although this technique has attracted general interest only in recent years, Perle has himself employed it consistently throughout his compositional career.

The first of the three movements of the quartet has much in common with traditional sonata form. It begins with a gently swaying theme which is expanded throughout the opening section. After a pause, the second theme (already hinted at in the first section) appears in the first violin. Both themes are then developed and recapitulated in modified form. The second movement, which is in a brisk tempo, is quite short and develops out of the initial eighth-note motive played pizzicato in the cello and the sixteenth-note violin figure which accompanies it. (This movement, as well as the third, contains several references to the first movement.) The last movement, the most complex and dramatic of the three, is sectional in layout and features more abrupt contrasts than the first two. Like the first, the external form results from the repetition and variation of diversified melodic ideas, but here these are placed in a considerably more continuous developmental framework.

Both Babbitt and Perle are active as teachers, the former at Princeton University and the latter at City University of New York (Queens College). They have also both written extensively about 20th-century compositional techniques. Those wishing more technical background on these two composers are referred particularly to Mr. Perle's book, Serial Composition and Atonality (Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, third edition, 1972). ROBERT P. MORGAN

  • Matthew Raimondi, violin
  • Anahid Ajemian, violin
  • Jean Dupouy, viola
  • Michael Rudiakov, cello
 Track List:

STRING QUARTET (1931) (9:47)
  1. Rubato assai
  2. Leggiero
  3. Andante
  4. Allegro possibile
GEORGE PERLE (b. 1915)
STRING QUARTET NO. 5 (1960, rev. 1967) (13:52)
in three movements
  1. 1st Movement
  2. 2nd Movement
  3. 3rd Movement
STRING QUARTET No. 2 (1952) (13:00)
  1. in one movement
 Download Link: Enjoy the Music!
Other Recordings:

1 comment:

  1. Big Thanks for this music and for the Schoenberg Quintet. The Seeger quartet in particular is a real find for me and I'm looking forward to studying it in depth. The Philadelphia woodwind players are legendary and their playing in the Schoenberg is inspiring and sets a standard . They recorded that in '56? Incredible.