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...


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