Academic journal article Music Theory Online

After the Harvest: Carter's Fifth String Quartet and the Late Late Style

Academic journal article Music Theory Online

After the Harvest: Carter's Fifth String Quartet and the Late Late Style

Article excerpt

I. Introduction(1)

[1] While reflecting on Elliott Carter's Night Fantasies (1980) and those pieces that followed, David Schiff writes, "after years of ploughing through rocky soil it was now time for the harvest" (Schiff 1988, 2). As various scholars have demonstrated, in the "harvest period," Carter cultivated two main structural elements in his music: a harmonic language that focused on all-interval twelve-note chords and a rhythmic language that relied on long-range polyrhythms.(2) Almost all of Carter's works composed between Night Fantasies and the Fifth String Quartet (1995) include either an all-interval twelve-note chord or a structural polyrhythm, and many contain both. Exceptions are either occasional pieces, or compositions for solo instruments that often do not have the range to accommodate the registral space that all-interval rows require.

[2] Because of the constancy of these elements in Carter's music over a period of fifteen years, it is remarkable that in the Fifth String Quartet he eschews all-interval twelve-note chords while simultaneously removing the rhythmic scaffolding provided by a structural polyrhythm.(3) Carter has incorporated all-interval twelve-note chords in some of the compositions that postdate the Fifth String Quartet, but global long-range polyrhythms seem to have disappeared as a structural force in his music. Therefore, it can be argued that the Fifth String Quartet marks a turning point in Carter's oeuvre.(4) Schiff notes the Quartet's historical importance, suggesting that it ushers in "Carter's late late style" (Schiff 1998, 92).(5)

[3] In this article, I investigate this watershed work both philologically and analytically to gain a greater understanding of Carter's compositional approach in the absence of all-interval twelve-note chords or a single long-range polyrhythm as structural elements. Although the focus will be on the Fifth Quartet, I will also briefly consider other works. The analysis provides insight not only into the Quartet, but also somewhat into the late late style in general.

II. Harmonic preliminaries

[4] As is well known, Carter developed his own Harmony Book from 1963-67, in which he thoroughly examined the subset content of chords of three pitch-classes or more.(6) In an interview with Jonathan Bernard, Carter clarified that he prefers the word "chord" to the more commonly-used "set," (Bernard and Carter 1990, 203) and his numbering system does not correspond to that which Allen Forte outlines in The Structure of Atonal Music (Carter 2002, 23-26). Carter identifies each chord with a symbol, to indicate cardinality, and a number, which refers to the chord's placement on his list. For example, the number "1" enclosed in a triangle refers to the first trichord on Carter's list, Forte's 3-12[048]. The number "1" inside a square refers to the first tetrachord on Carter's list, Forte's 4-1[0123].(7)

Example 1. Interval scheme for the Fifth String Quartet from a March 27 sketch

[5] Although Carter's harmonic classification system presupposes equivalence under transposition and inversion, he does not recognize interval-class equivalence. "I distinguish between an interval and its inversion and often use them for very different musical effects" (Bernard and Carter 1990, 201). In many of Carter's compositions since the Second String Quartet (1959), he limits the allowable intervals for each instrument or instrument group, giving each its own characteristic sound. The chart in Example 1, found among the sketch material for the Fifth Quartet and written in blue highlighter, shows the allowable intervals for each instrument in this work. Just to be clear, these are allowable intervals, not interval classes. For example, if the first violin is playing D5, it may proceed melodically to either F5 (up an interval-3) or to B4 (down an interval-3), but it cannot proceed to either B5 or F4, because these pitches lie an interval-9 away from D5, an interval that is not allowed for this instrument. …

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