The Quartet as the Pure

Classical music has been commonly considered as the metaphysics of all art. That is why philosophers, following the advice of Socrates’ daemon (“Σώκρατες, μουσικὴν ποίει καὶ ἐργάζου”, Phaedo 60e), “make music,” and the best of them form a quartet to “work at it” better.


This notion of music as the meta-physics of the physics of the arts becomes manifest in two major instances. First, as Walter Pater confirmed in his essay “The School of Giorgione” (1877), moderns since Baudelaire believe that “all art constantly aspires to the condition of music” since only music can achieve a “perfect identification of matter and form. In its consummate moments, the end is not distinct from the means, the form from the matter, the subject from the expression; they inhere in and completely saturate each other; and to it, therefore, to the condition of its perfect moments, all the arts may be supposed constantly to tend and aspire.” Second, since the early 19th century moderns also believe that music is the way in which the spirit appears in history without becoming historical. That is why they treat “music as philosophy” (Michael Spitzer’s book title). Within the metaphysics of classical music, symphony represents the absolute, (Dahlhaus, The Idea of Absolute Music, 1978, pp. 14-7), opera the total, and the quartet the pure, that is, the synthesis of form and idea, which Adorno pursued in the 2nd movement, “Nicht zu langsam, doch schleppend im Ausdruck,” of his Six Studies for string quartet (1920).

I am reflecting on the quartet together with my “other self,” Pantelis Polychronidis, who always says that the two of us think dialectically, namely, in counter-point to each other. As a collaborative pianist, Pantelis has been teaching me by example that collaborative music making requires constant collective thinking, deciding, performing, changing. (Comparable examples may be derived from collaborative work in laboratories, editorial boards, theater troupes, academic committees, reading groups, jazz bands, or activist collectives.)

But the work of the quartet is probably the most intense collaborative occasion. One reason is that, in contrast with, say, violin or voice recitals, let alone concerts of any size, where musicians may look in various directions, the quartet players sit in a semi-circle and must look at each other all the time: the personal contact is constant. Another is that the quartet repertoire is almost never programmatic, in most cases not even emotive, and so its players have no narrative or even “content” to appeal to in their discussions.  The contours of their reference are non-mimetic.  All they can aspire to is, if not to play together, at least to finish together. Thus the quartet may well be the only classical genre which is at the same time fiercely co-operative and competitive. Yaron Zilberman’s A Late Quartet (2012), itself a quartet of a movie, dramatizes this condition with memorable intensity by focusing on the members of the Fugue Quartet who on their 25th year (re-)negotiate everything they cherish while working their way through Beethoven’s 14th (1826), op. 131.

Since the 1750s, when Haydn gradually moved beyond the diverting functions of the divertimento to invent the quartet as a genre (and compose some 70 examples of it), this classical form has shown remarkable versatility and resilience: while other genres fade out of urgency or popularity, composers continue to find it open to renewal and innovation. Connect the dots in this improvised (and offensively canonical) list of names and see for yourselves: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Smetana, Dvorak, Debussy, Ravel, Sibelius, Bartok, Janacek, Schönberg, Skalkottas, Shostakovich, Cage, Feldman, Nono, Xenakis, Stockhausen, Ligeti, Henze, Lachenmann, Crumb, Tippett, Scelsi, Reich, Finnissy, Ades. Somehow in this long, uninterrupted tradition every new work questions and at the same time affirms (or, as we say, in a word, deconstructs) the repertoire, seeking to be incorporated into it. For the best evidence, consider that over the last four decades the greatest force in new (classical and not only) music has been … a traditional string quartet!

The complexity of relations among the four players of a quartet who go everywhere together and appear always together is unique. “These ambiguities of identity, the lines between the individual and the collective, the lines between instrument/instrumentation and performer/personalities, the interpersonal roles and tensions, the group dynamic that could shift from democratic collective to the authoritarianism of a ‘lead singer’ in a flash, all combine to create a fascinating zone for experimentation” [Cassidy, “The String Quartet as Laboratory and Playground for Experimentation and Tradition (or, Opening Out/Closing In),” Contemporary Music Review 23:2, 2013]. Several norms and practices converge in this particular genre to mingle, clash, negotiate, and risk as the quartet presupposes on the part of both performer and listener major capacities such as a bourgeois discerning taste, the sociability of a cultural circle, a refined yet self-restrained virtuosity, a turbulent depth of self, and above all an autonomous artwork. Allegorically speaking, the musical aesthetics of the instrumental, the disinterested, the artistic, and the pure emerged together one stormy night in Jena around 1800 during heated disagreements among friends and fellow Idealists about the role of Bildung.

As the movie The Late Quartet argues movingly, the collaborative work of the four players over time may be compared to the collaborative work of friends. Early on, they play the score on their stands. Later, on the basis of their shared work on it, they annotate the score and perform the history of their performances. Last, having negotiated their camaraderie, they close the score and play their mutual understanding of each other. We may then conclude that all collaborative music making “constantly aspires to the condition” of friendship — to quote Eliot’s 4th quartet, “Α condition of complete simplicity/(Costing not less than everything).”

June 4, 2015

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