Violist Clifton Harrison on the Timeless Qualities of Ives’ String Quartet No. 2

By Clifton Harrison

Ives’ Second Quartet is a work of conversation, discussion, argument, and reconciliation. Ives himself described it as such. I see it as an abstract expression of human interaction using language that is quintessentially modern. Each of the three movements is different in style and feel, yet they are connected by similar grammar and expression. This work is filled with character, musical quotes, jokes, and commentary that transcend time and era. 

I am a big fan of 20th-century chamber music, especially repertoire that boldly challenged the conventions of the time. For me, this quartet is that and so much more. It exemplifies what a string quartet should be and how players interact and respond to each other. There is no messing about, no intellectualized rhetoric, esoteric metaphors, or any of the other trappings oftentimes associated with “classical” music. It is full of quotes and nods to past composers and popular music of the time but it is presented in a way that listeners and players alike can understand its meaning.

I am also extremely passionate about this quartet because it represents the essence of collaborative music making. Each player has an equal role and is responsible for his or her own voice being heard and acknowledged. To do this properly, everyone is forced to listen, react, and reply accordingly.   

“Ives refused to play by the rules. He knew his music was difficult and he knew some wouldn’t like it or even understand it. He was fine with that.”

This quartet has greatly influenced how I approach modern music, especially the string-quartet genre. Ives refused to play by the rules. He knew his music was difficult and he knew some wouldn’t like it or even understand it. He was fine with that. Other composers have had the same sentiment. György Ligeti, Michael Finnissy, and Gloria Coates come to mind straight away. It’s a very complicated work both technically and mentally so a good preparation of the notes makes the whole experience all the more enjoyable. Having said that, the quartet is so well written that it is almost sight-readable, despite the immense technical challenges and intricate language.


My quartet—the Kreutzer Quartet—is preparing this wonderful work for performance as part of our program in the 2018 Americana Festival at St. John’s Smith Square in London on October 12. We’re using the Peermusic 2016 critical edition, which uses Ives’ two-stave pencil score sketch as its primary source. It is a difficult pencil score to decipher, which has led to many mistakes and editorial discrepancies in earlier editions by George Roberts (mid-1930s), Lou Harrison (1944), John Kirkpatrick (1958, 1965, and 1967), and the Peer International Corporation edition by Malcolm Goldstein and Wayne Shirley (1970).

I feel this edition closely matches Ives’ intentions for the quartet as it disregards editorial preferences of previous editions and relies primarily on the original music and direct comments from Ives written in the original manuscript. This edition includes comprehensive comments and a guided history of the performances and subsequent recordings of the work, which provides a clear lineage of its performance practice.

I would recommend this piece to anyone wishing to gain insight into what a string quartet should and could be, especially string players with an interest in contemporary music. This work is as bold and exciting today as it was the day it was written. This quartet has many layers. The more you probe into it, the more insight you gain. With that in mind, I strongly suggest spending as much time as you can getting to know it with and without your instrument. 

Player  Clifton Harrison is an American violist and viola d’amore player. He has performed throughout the world as a soloist, chamber musician, and orchestral player, and also performs as the violist with the Kreutzer Quartet. Based in London, he performs on both modern and period instruments with many of London’s leading ensembles.


Title of Work Being Studied String Quartet No. 2

Composer Charles Ives

Date Composed 1911–13


Name of edition studied Peermusic Classical: Ives Society Critical Edition, edited by Malcolm Goldstein 2016.
This edition is primarily based on Ives’ pencil score sketch.

ST280 Cover Web

This article originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of Strings magazine.