The Quartet Romantic for two flutes, violin, and viola is the first of Henry Cowell's two "rhythm harmony" quartets, based on theoretical principles outlined in his book New Musical Resources (1930). The basic principle employed is the use of overtones -- the numerous harmonics that give a fundamental pitch its characteristic sound and tone color, and of which we are usually unaware -- to create perceptible musical patterns and events. Cowell first encountered this possibility when he entered the University of California at Berkeley, in 1914. Working with a friend in the physics department, Cowell discovered the overtone effects created by sounding two sirens. In Quartet Romantic, Cowell sought to apply the organizing principle suggested by the use of overtone series as a structural basis for composition.
Cowell composed the first section of Quartet Romantic in strict adherence to his basic plan, without regard for whether the music was playable in a practical sense. "This piece is humanly impossible to play!" Cowell noted upon the top page of his manuscript. "But if at some time in the future a performance does become possible, this is how I want it to sound." The most active melodic lines are to be found in the flutes; the rhythms of the violin and viola are stated in slower note values, providing the illusion of support, although the four parts are melodically independent. During the opening of the first movement, rhythms are exceedingly complex. To take a randomly chosen example, bar 22 calls for a bracketed value of 7 1/2 in the first flute, 6 in the second, 4 1/2 in the violin, and 2 1/4 in the viola. Eventually the first flute has a solo; then the other instruments gradually re-enter, playing in quicker note values and in a more broken-up texture. Finally the whole movement repeats, and then closes with a brief coda that is made up mostly of stuttering, repeated notes. The second movement is shorter and more rhythmically conventional. The texture is thinly applied, some of it stated in two voices only. There is a brief, contrasting section where the instruments break into rapid figurations. The whole second movement of the Quartet Romantic is playable under average conditions.
Despite its basis in experimental techniques, the Quartet Romantic is aptly named, as its sound is warm and richly Romantic in texture, even though the piece has no tonal orientation. However, the lack of accents and the extreme flexibility of the rhythm tend to obscure any sense of punctuation; at times this highly disorienting music nearly sounds like it is traveling in reverse. Despite its extreme level of rhythmic flexibility, the Quartet Romantic leaves the impression of being rhythmically static. Quartet Romantic remained unpublished until 1974, and it was first heard at Alice Tully Hall, in 1978. This premiere and the recorded performance that followed it were achieved utilizing click tracks, like those used in motion picture synchronization.