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Evolution and Process in Elliott Carter's String Quartets


My dissertation examines compositional process in Elliott Carter's five string quartets. Because Carter composed five quartets over a period of five decades (1951-1995), it creates an advantageous setting to systematically explore the stylistic changes within the same genre. Supplementing my analyses with sketch study, correspondence, and text manuscripts, I shed new light on the understanding of each quartet individually, and draw conclusions on their collective meaning and place in Carter's evolving compositional processes.

The First String Quartet (1951) was written at a time when Carter became increasingly interested in new and unusual ideas, which stem from his interest in time perception. Seeking new ways to address this notion musically, Carter turned to the modernist literature, primarily Marcel Proust. Chapter 1 examines Carter's First Quartet from the perspective of Proustian time: the superimposition of multiple temporal strands and the role memory plays in relating all events in time and space.

Musical expression in the Second String Quartet (1959) evolved from Carter's explorations in the First. Chapter 2 examines the similarities between the two quartets and the crucial differences that set this work apart from its predecessor. I argue that the Second Quartet is the piece in which Carter solidified his harmonic language, through his experimentation with serialization, as well as borrowing compositional techniques of other composers, namely Béla Bartók and Anton Webern.

For Carter, the audience's experience was the most important factor in the Third String Quartet (1971). Chapter 3 examines the ways space relates to music. It also tracks the development of the concept of spatialization in Carter's music by looking at his earlier works (the first two quartets, the Double Concerto and the Concerto for Orchestra), as well as evaluating the spatial techniques of Carter's initial source--Charles Ives.

Chapter 4 focuses on sketch study to decipher the rhythmic, harmonic, and formal designs of the Fourth String Quartet (1986). My examination reveals a logical hierarchical system in Carter's compositional process, starting with a long-range polyrhythmic outline of the piece, adding distinct intervallic constraints to each instrument, and lastly forming a general effect of the piece. I argue that by the time Carter finished sketching the rhythmic, harmonic, and formal elements, he had already conceived the entire quartet, and was ready to write out the piece in a nearly fair-copy format.

In Chapter 5, I examine how Carter's choice of harmonic, intervallic and rhythmic constraints, combined with the development of a conceptually novel form, reflect the composer's aesthetic objectives and technical preferences in his Fifth String Quartet (1995). In addition to the novelties in his technical language, I shed light on Carter's meta-compositional concept in this piece--this final quartet is not only a composition in itself, but it captures the processes of a rehearsal, discussion, analysis, and performance, all working together to reveal the composition.

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