Piston's Fourth Quartet was commissioned by the Coolidge Foundation in celebration of the centennial of Mills College, and is dedicated to Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. It was premiered on May 18, 1952 by the Hungarian Quartet. It is closely related to Piston's Fourth Symphony (Pollack 1982, 108).
The quartet is in four movements:
The first movement is a sonata-allegro in D major, whose harmonies are pandiatonic rather than triadic. The second theme is given in the high register of the viola, with the other instruments softly accompanying sulla tastiera (near the fingerboard). The slow movement features the cello in a pensive cantilena, and a shifting, unstable harmony that settles on E minor only at the end (DeVoto 1984).
The third movement is a fugal scherzo with a fleetness comparable to Mendelssohn and a dense chromaticism that recalls Schoenberg (Pollack 1982, 109). Its exaggerated staccato and duple meter resemble the scherzos of the Flute Quintet and the Sixth Symphony, respectively, while the pizzicato A-minor chords at the opening and close recall the scherzo movements of the string quartets by Debussy and Ravel (DeVoto 1984).
The finale is in sonata-allegro form like the opening movement, but with an expressionist tone. The first theme is dramatic, marked by contrasting textures, sharp dissonances, crescendos starting forte, irregular downbeats, and abrupt rests. The second theme is a grotesque march. The urgent character of this movement is similar to Piston's finales from the early 1940s, and this may be because it, too, was written in wartime--the Korean War in the present instance (Pollack 1982, 108-11).