I heard a remarkable new piece of chamber music this past January. The work, the String Quartet no. 4 (1988) by the thirty-seven-year-old composer George Tsontakis, was performed in its world premiere by the American String Quartet at New York’s 92nd Street YM-YWHA. By its excellence it not only buoyed my often drooping musical spirits; it also prompted in me some thoughts on the general subject of American quartet music, both old and new.

The composers of American classical music may be pardoned for wondering whether a facetious deity has placed them in an environment rewarding in every way save the most important: that of feeling—somewhere, somehow—that what they have composed has been listened to and not just heard, and that there is at least a chance of their work living on in the collective memory.

Americans have long been a musical people. Occasions spiritual and secular, individual and social, private and public, have always been accompanied by music-making and music-listening. Classical music, that infinitely noble but always quixotic genre, has ever been a preoccupation of our middle and upper classes, and even of significant sections of our “masses.” An American classical music, not just simply an American classical music, has been a goal of our most gifted musicians since at least the middle of the nineteenth century.

Americans have long been a musical people.

Today, as the twentieth century nears its end, America is full of music. But the sound that so permeates our fives, it goes without saying, is not the sound of traditional classical music, though that too is available in hitherto undreamt of abundance. Our sonic environment is riddled by rock and pop, those illegitimate offspring of formerly autochthonous folk cultures and the hypertrophied engines of media exploitation. The welter of sound—heard in large and small spaces and via the earphones of the Walkman generation—threatens to destroy our remaining opportunities for sober reflection and private judgment.

Over the past few decades, through the blessings of digital recording and performance technology, the sound of popular music has been changing to an ever increasing loudness and meanness. This change has been paralleled by a new phenomenon, that of minimalist music, which is based on a combination of simple, consonant chords and the obsessive, deadpan repetition of short motivic and harmonic sequences. I should make clear that this music, not as yet commercially successful (except in its application to television commercials and sitcom background scores), hardly lacks champions. The present vogue of Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and most recently John Adams is often seen as a sign of creative energy and audience approbation. The supposed relocation of musical creativity away from the traditional concert music atmosphere and toward dance spaces, downtown clubs, and the classier rock venues—celebrated by the New York Times critic John Rockwell in his 1982 book, All American Music—is hailed by many as the first coming of a truly national music. Supposedly this blessed event is all the more bounteously national, and all the more welcome, for its radical discontinuity, expressed musically in a rejection of thematic development and harmonic movement and programmatically in a rejection of a superannuated European tradition.

This radical discontinuity with the past accords well with the wider rejection so visible on college and university campuses today of what is seen as Eurocentrism. Behind the advocacy of changes in music unquestionably lies the hope of a change in society and politics. Our cultural intellectuals, whatever their opinion of Plato as intellectual nourishment for today’s youth, seem committed to his analysis of music as it is expressed in The Republic. In the following passage, Socrates (the “I” in the conversation) is instructing his two pupils:

So Damon tells me, and I can quite believe him;—he says that when modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the State always change with them.

Yes, said Adeimantus; and you may add my suffrage to Damon’s and your own.

Then, I said, our guardians must lay the foundation of their fortress in music?

Yes, he said; the lawlessness of which you speak too easily steals in.

Yes, I replied, in the form of amusement; and at first sight it appears harmless.

Why, yes, he said, and there is no harm; were it not that little by little this spirit of license, finding a home, imperceptibly penetrates into manners and customs; whence, issuing with greater force, it invades contracts between man and man, and from contracts goes on to laws and constitutions, in utter recklessness, ending at last, Socrates, by an overthrow of all rights, private as well as public.1

It will immediately be recognized that this very point has been made recently by Allan Bloom in his best-selling The Closing of the American Mind. Bloom properly remarks that the rise of the rock culture is accompanied by a corresponding loss of interest in classical music. This ordered and refined product of civilization, one suspects, does not seem “authentic” to the young. Thus, there is little music written today that at once interests the young and can be seen to be a solid part of the classical music tradition.

Behind the advocacy of changes in music unquestionably lies the hope of a change in society and politics.

Part of our problem is that the classical music we still have is felt by us to belong to others despite its universality. In some important public sense, its true owners remain the lands and the peoples that gave this music birth. It may seem odd to talk about Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and the other masters of our musical tradition as not fully ours but as belonging to other peoples and other times. The fact remains, however, that nothing of the past can belong to the present until it has been, in Goethe’s word, earned. Surely this was what T. S. Eliot had in mind when he wrote (in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”):

[W]e shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of [the poet’s] work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously. . . . Tradition . . . cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour . . .  No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. . . . What happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them.

How have we fulfilled this obligation to make what we have received our own? Here the evidence suggests a contradiction between our actual achievements in serious music and the opinion some have of us as a creative society. There can be little doubt, it seems to me, that it is precisely this task of what might be called creative possession which our composers are seen as having failed to accomplish. Sometimes this perception of creative failure is formulated with an exaggerated sense of concern for our cultural well-being, as when the literary critic George Steiner found (in his 1980 essay entitled “Archives of Eden”) our past record and our future prospects in serious musical creation negligible. Sometimes a virtue is made of necessity, as when the music critic Henry Pleasants (in his 1969 book Serious Music and All That Jazz) found that American popular music in its full variety is our true art. Sometimes, too, Americans are patronizingly seen as an art-less people, as when the magazine editor Lewis Lapham, unlike Steiner and Pleasants an American resident, complacently remarked in 1981:

The distrust of the arts runs in the American grain. We have tried for two hundred years to improve the country’s sensibility, saying to ourselves, “We have money; we have commerce; we have good people—why can’t we make art?” Nobody can answer the question, and so, traditionally, the Americans have applied to Europe for poets, painters, dancing masters, violinists, interior decorators, and anybody else who promises to civilize the barbarians.

But matters are hardly so simple. The fact is that over much of this century splendid music has been written in this country. On several occasions, I have written about our achievement and about the general problems of being an American musician.2 Each time I have done so, I have felt myself in a position of lonely virtue. But this past January, sitting in the 92nd Street Y’s Kaufmann Concert Hall, I found myself thinking of the extraordinary American achievement in string quartet writing.

A book about American string quartets badly needs doing.

A book about American string quartets badly needs doing. I have in mind a genre of composition, originally European, for two violins, viola, and cello, stretching back in an unbroken line to the many works of Haydn and Mozart, continuing with the numerous works of Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms, and finding twentieth-century expression in the four quartets of Arnold Schoenberg, the six of Bela Bartok, and, most recently, the fifteen of Dmitri Shostakovich. All these quartets, along with relatively isolated works by perhaps another dozen composers, form the backbone of the quartet repertory, and as such are played (except perhaps for the Schoenberg works) all over the world by ensembles famous and unknown alike.

One could hardly hope to give a succinct definition of the musical characteristics of a continuously developing genre now two hundred years old. Any plausible list of features, however, would have to include at least the following: an aesthetic of private rather than public expression; an emphasis on the thematic and motivic interest of the musical material rather than on the effects of instrumental color and virtuosity; a related concentration on structure, development, and variation rather than on the mere alternation of contrasting large statements; and the treatment of each instrument as an independent linear partner rather than as a cog in a harmonic wheel.

Upon re-reading an article I wrote a few years ago largely devoted to the marvelous playing of the old Hollywood Quartet,3 I now find that, under the influence of my subject, I almost completely ignored American music. Among the many recordings of this group, there appears only one American string quartet—an ingratiating and soulful 1936 work by Paul Creston. The story is the same for the revered Budapest Quartet, American by long residence even though European in origin and personnel, and for two currently well-known American groups, the Guarneri and Cleveland quartets. There have been major exceptions, of course. During the more than four decades of its existence, the Juilliard Quartet has rendered yeoman service to American music, and on a less famous level, the now disbanded Concord Quartet made many vital recordings of native works. Today, the Emerson Quartet continues to play, and record, a large amount of American music. But in general the performance of American quartets has been left to little-known performing ensembles. The famous rule our composers have learned to their sorrow still applies: with new American compositions, played once, played nevermore.

Perhaps the most conspicuous quartet on the scene today is the fashionable Kronos Quartet. Punk costumes and all, they are marketed as the Talking Heads of chamber music. Hailed by critics as the solution to the problem of bringing in the young to an art marked increasingly by the playing of old pieces for old people, the Kronos eschews the traditional nineteenth-century classics, as well as almost all the major European works of our own time. The group seems particularly careful to avoid the quartet works of the heroic figures of American music, among them Roy Harris, Walter Piston, Roger Sessions, and William Schuman.

Perhaps the most conspicuous quartet on the scene today is the fashionable Kronos Quartet.

Instead the Kronos concentrates, with few exceptions, on what seem to me rough performances, alternately dreamy and violent, of definitely trivial and often very nasty-sounding music.4 I do not find any of these performances distinguished either in musical characterization or technical grace. Their records, like their concerts, mix disparate short works by such avant-garde figures as Glass, the American expatriate Conlon Nancarrow, the Australian Peter Sculthorpe, and the Finn Aulis Sallinen, with even shorter works, usually in arrangements, by jazz, pop, and rock figures, including Ornette Coleman, Astor Piazzolla, John Zorn, and Jimi Hendrix. But whichever composer is played, the studied and provocative eclecticism of the Kronos Quartet does no service to the music, especially to the important works they occasionally do manage to play.

As an American quartet, therefore, the Kronos lacks a center in its repertory. Without doubt, this missing center is twentieth-century American music. In orchestral music, such a center comprises the American symphonism of the composers who are ignored by the Kronos and by their polar opposites on the celebrity chamber music circuit. The very term “American symphonism,” once so full of pride and hope, is now, I fear, reactionary-sounding. This ignoring of our past eliminates from the orchestral repertory all save a handful of the works of Harris, Piston, Sessions, Schuman, and, of course, Aaron Copland. More important for the subject at hand, it eliminates a large body of chamber music written in the first half of this century, including numerous string quartets.

I have already mentioned the lack of a serious book-length study of American quartets. The most recent book on the string quartet in general is by Paul Griffiths, the chief music critic of the London Times.5 Not surprisingly, it gives little coverage to Americans. Like his fellow English writers, Griffiths is concerned only with our avant-garde and its modernist precursors. Thus, detailed consideration is reserved for Milton Babbitt, John Cage, Elliott Carter, Charles Ives, and George Rochberg.6 Mainstream American composers such as those I have cited above, however, are confined to meager lists, when they are mentioned at all.

Here I ought to take a stab at defining my use of the word “mainstream” as it applies to American classical music. In negative terms, mainstream means not being mired in academicism—the pedantic use of teachable formulas to produce what are in effect textbook illustrations rather than individual statements; it also means not searching for creative authenticity solely in newness.

In positive terms, mainstream means a use of traditional formal structures from Western music since J. S. Bach; an emphasis on a long, often astringent melodic line; a quality of plaintiveness, referred to by some as a “cowboy” quality and by others as the loneliness of the city; a use of dissonance to express a beauty and sweetness similar to that of consonance; a reliance on widely spaced harmonies, what Virgil Thomson has called “struggle counterpoint”; the inclusion of jazz-inspired but regular rhythmic complications to convey musical interest and human vitality; and, above all, a seriousness of utterance, as if each piece being written were the composer’s final act. I keep a special place in my heart, too, for the touching music written at the turn of the century by Americans properly trained in Europe but conscious of living in a young and brash country.

Aesthetic definitions, I know, will differ. I can only claim for mine that, as definitions should, it both excludes and includes. It excludes both the mere imitators of European romanticism and the provocateurs. It includes a broad range of music: from George Chadwick and Arthur Foote almost a century ago, through the sadly short-lived Charles Griffes and the experimentalist Henry Cowell, to the unabashed Americanist Aaron Copland, the populist Roy Harris, the severely cerebral Roger Sessions, Harvard’s Walter Piston, Yale’s Quincy Porter, the arch-Romanticist Howard Hanson, the lushly chromatic Samuel Barber, the quintessential New Yorker William Schuman, the Kansas-born Francophile Virgil Thomson, the post-Bergian opera composer Hugo Weisgall, and even, for much of his career, the vastly complex—indeed over-complex—Elliott Carter.

Not all of these composers devoted their energies to the writing of string quartets, though with the exception of Weisgall each of them has made some contribution to the medium. I have made a rather more extensive list of important American string quartets than Mr. Griffiths gives in his book. My list is based on my own record and tape collection, and therefore is limited to what has already been recorded or broadcast. Nonetheless, it contains something over fifty pieces by some thirty composers. My list must be supplemented by many works the recordings of which I do not own; more important, it must be supplemented by the other, unrecorded works of already recorded composers. And it is at least arguable that it should be further expanded through the addition of works written on American soil by such European composers as Ernest Bloch, Paul Hindemith, and Darius Milhaud.

In any case it is clear that the American string quartet literature is rich indeed.

In any case it is clear that the American string quartet literature is rich indeed. Perhaps the largest achievement by an American in this genre is Piston’s five quartets, written between 1933 and 1962 and now at last available on records in an excellent performance by the Portland String Quartet.7 Sessions’s two very difficult but always rewarding quartets have been recorded, but only the first is currently in print, and that only on a 1945 disc of a live performance. Of Quincy Porter’s nine quartets, only four—no. 3, no. 4, no. 7, and no. 8—have been recorded on LP; I have only been able to obtain the well-played recording of the charming no. 3 by the much-missed Kohon Quartet.8 None of William Schuman’s five quartets is currentiy available, though no. 3 and no. 4 have been recorded; his most recent quartet—no. 5—was premiered by the Orford Quartet last summer. The performance of this long, demanding, and severely beautiful work at the 92nd Street Y (which I have heard on tape) was one of the few events of lasting value in the 1988 New York International Festival of the Arts.

Even in this very sketchy tour d'horizon, I must also mention the haunting Quartet no. 3 (1953) of William Bergsma, the complicated and deeply moving Quartet no. 1 (1942) of Andrew Imbrie, and Harold Shapero’s large-scale Quartet no. 1 (1940).9 The very impressive David Diamond, still prolific today at the age of seventy-three, has written ten quartets, the latest in 1966; of these, I have heard two—no. 3 (1946) and no. 4 (1951)—in beautiful recordings now unfortunately deleted.

As I mention these works, I am conscious of how many of them were written so many years ago. True, Schuman’s fifth quartet was written just last year, but he belongs to an earlier generation (Shuman was born in 1910), as does George Perle, born in 1915, who has published two lovely quartets, one in 1960/67 and another in 1973. Like other American music, the American string quartet showed great promise in the 1930s, 1940s, and early 1950s, and then was destroyed by the combined seductions of the French and German postwar avant-garde and electronic technology. The career of the greatly gifted Lukas Foss is the prime example of this destruction.10

So for many years now, the field has been given over to the mocking children of the méchant Cage, the squeal-and-beep disciples of Babbitt, and the whoosh-and-rattle followers of Ampex and Moog—or, still more recently, to the minimalist purveyors of music-by-the-yard. Is it any wonder that the Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert cycles go on and on?

But fortunately the story may not end on this unhappy note. Perhaps it is still possible for a composer who has been trained and come to maturity during the terrible times through which serious music has gone in the last forty years to write a beautiful string quartet. This is just what I think George Tsontakis has done.

I first became aware of the music of Tsontakis at the Aspen Music Festival, where he has been a faculty member since 1976. A student of Sessions and Weisgall, and briefly of avant-gardists Karlheinz Stockhausen and Franco Donatoni in Europe, Tsontakis has taken from his American teachers their traditional musical seriousness and uncompromising artistic integrity. From his European mentors, he has gained an interest in novel instrumental techniques, and (I think) an awareness of the cul-de-sac of postwar musical thought. Of Greek parentage, he is active as the Music Director of the (Greek Orthodox) Cathedral of St. John the Theologian in Tenafly, New Jersey.

I am most familiar with his previous two string quartets (a still earlier work, the Quartet no. 1, has never been performed). The Quartet no. 2 (1983), written for the Emerson Quartet, is a work of seemingly pure fury, stating and restating what strikes me as a composer’s rage at a time out of joint. Here are hammered expletives from the strings and pesante gruntings, and most of all, an entire slow movement built upon the bare opening notes of the finale of Beethoven’s last quartet, the op. 135—to which Beethoven appended the words Muss es sein? (“Must it be?”). Tellingly, in his own finale, Tsontakis cannot respond as Beethoven does—with Es muss sein (“It must be”)—but instead only gets as far as repeated outbursts of two notes conveying better than any words: “It must . . .” But he cannot bring himself to complete the affirmation with the simple “be”; instead the composition ends with repeated expletives that sound like nothing so much as no, no, no.

The Quartet no. 3 (1986), written for the Blair Quartet, is subtitled Coraggio (“Courage”). From the beginning it inhabits a more consonant and tonal world than its freely dissonant predecessor. The consonance, one feels, is merely provisional. Ecstatic wisps of melody struggle throughout with extended passages of obsessive, febrile energy, again reminiscent of late Beethoven, in this case the fast movements of the opus 130, op. 131, and op. 132 quartets. It is as if Tsontakis’s musical mind was locked into not just Beethoven but also Adrian Leverkuhn, the anti-hero composer of Thomas Mann’s great novel Doktor Faustus (1947). It is a sign of Tsontakis’s integrity that, like Leverkuhn, he nowhere in his music takes the two easy ways out that are so common in our time—Dadaism or minimalism.

The Quartet no. 4, written for and splendidly played by the American String Quartet at the 92nd Street Y, proclaims from its opening measures that the way out of the musical predicament lies not in insanity, in petty craziness, or what might be called (after a collaborative 1920 work by Erik Satie and Darius Milhaud) “furniture music.” The work begins with a simple but rich four-part statement of a Russian Orthodox chorale, and the entire work is a set of variations and transformations of this elemental material. The restless timbral experimentation that had marked Tsontakis’s two previous quartets is now gone, subsumed in a fluent and idiomatic instrumental style. There are moments of gaiety, of majesty, and of ecstasy; the wonderfully full harmonic texture moves freely and always naturally between consonance and dissonance, with the chords always serving to support and make clear the melodies in which the work abounds. And with a last, lone B-natural played at the top of the violin’s range and at the limits of audibility, the work dissolves in pure song.

With his latest quartet, George Tsontakis has, I think, produced a masterpiece. In itself, it exists at the highest—and rarest—level of contemporary composition. Furthermore, it makes us look again at the entire corpus of American string quartet writing to which it now so clearly belongs. In Eliot’s terms, it makes a new sense not only of Tsontakis’s earlier works but of American music as a whole. His three quartets must immediately be recorded by the ensembles that gave them birth on the stage, for they give hope that what had seemed impossible is truly possible: beautiful new music can be composed (as it used to be said) from the heart to the heart, even today, and we can begin the urgent process of reclaiming our musical heritage.

  1.  The English translation is by Benjamin Jowett.
  2.  See, for example, “American Music: the Years of Hope,” in Commentary, March, 1981; “Music and Musical Life: the Road to Now,” in The New Criterion, Summer, 1985; “Virgil Thomson’s Lord Byron” in Grand Street, Spring, 1986; and “Doing New Music, Doing American Music,” in The New Criterion, November, 1987. For a discussion of the relationship between the American and European musical worlds, see “American Music’s Place at Home and in the World,” in The Annals, Winter, 1988.
  3.  “The Hollywood and Other Quartets,” in Commentary, February, 1983; reprinted in The House of Music (1984).
  4.  I know of only four such exceptions. Three of these—the Webern Six Bagatelles op. 9 (1913), the Bartók Quartet no. 3 (1927), and the slow movement (famous, in its orchestral version, as the Adagio for Strings) of the Barber String Quartet (1936)—are available on records. The fourth—Elliott Carter’s Quartet no. 4 (1986)—can be heard on a broadcast tape.
  5.  The String Quartet, by Paul Griffiths; Thames and Hudson, 1983; paperback, 1985.
  6.  Tellingly, Rochberg is given serious treatment in the Griffiths book not because of any mainstream position but rather because of his widely discussed reaction against Schoenbergian serialism. This has led him, in several of his recent quartets, to write extended passages in the styles of the great composers of the Romantic and Classical periods.
  7.  Arabesque 216, 214, and 208.
  8.  CRI-235.
  9.  The Bergsma, Imbrie, and Shapero quartets were all available in the Columbia American Modern Music series of the 1950s. The brainchild of Columbia executive (and composer) Goddard Lieberson and very much overseen by Virgil Thomson and several colleagues, this multi-disc series recorded outstanding works of then-contemporary American music. Many of these records were available during the 1970s on special order; they have all been deleted, though a few are now available on the CRI label.
  10.  The 1960/67 work is available on Elektra/Nonesuch H-71280, and the 1973 work is on CRI S-387. Mention should be made here of a work of fundamental importance in keeping track of American music on discs: American Music Recordings: A Discography of 20th-Century U.S. Composers (1988), edited by Carol J. Ola.

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