Henry Cowell: United Quartet

Program notes for Bard Music West, The World of Henry Cowell, April 6–7, 2018.
© Benjamin Pesetsky 2018. Not to be reprinted without permission.

The festival concludes with Cowell’s grand United Quartet from 1936. The official program note from Edition Peters says Cowell wrote it in Redwood City, California, but doesn’t mention that he was in the San Mateo County Jail awaiting sentencing on a morals charge. The music, too, shows no obvious mark of these circumstances.

Instead, the piece reflects a sort of New Deal populism, and is one of Cowell’s most beautiful and conventionally musical compositions. It sounds familiar yet fresh, and anticipates American minimalism with its ostinatos, off-kilter rhythms, and direct harmonic shifts. Cowell’s explicit aim was to write a piece for everyone, echoing common elements of folk and world music, but without borrowing anything verbatim. He wrote:

The United Quartet is an attempt toward a more universal musical style . . . Although it is unique in form, style, and content, it is easy to understand because of its use of fundamental elements as a basis . . .

There are in it elements suggested from many places and periods. For example, the classical feeling is represented not by the employment of a familiar classic form, but by building up a new form . . . Primitive music is represented, not by imitating it, nor by taking a specific melody or rhythm from some tribe, but by using a three-tone scale, and exhausting all the different ways the three tones can appear . . . The Oriental is represented by modes which are constructed as Oriental modes are constructed, without being actual modes used in particular cultures . . . The modern is represented by the use of unresolved discords, by free intervals in two-part counterpoint, and . . . by the fact that the whole result is something new—and all that is new is modern!