A Web of Words: Elliott Carter’s End of a Chapter

  • DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.18177/sym.2016.56.sr.11127

Over the course of his career, Elliott Carter set the work of a variety of poets to music. Among these are some true early 20th century modernist pioneers–Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Louis Zukofsky–as well as the recent master John Ashbery. In addition, he also has set the work of a number of poets who followed a much more traditional path, including Robert Frost, Mark van Doren, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell and John Hollander. I will consider his choice of such a curious and diverse group of writers at the end of this paper.

Under consideration here is the last song in Carter’s set Of Challenge and of Love (1994), based upon five texts by Hollander.1 This brief composition exemplifies two aspects of Carter’s music which, those familiar with his work will recognize immediately: the fixing of pitches in musical space (register), and the fixing of time through the use of rhythmic grids constructed from simultaneous streams of different pulsations. As this study will show, these techniques are used to underscore and enhance both the sound and meaning of the text. Through these devices the composer creates a web of space and time in the piano part (the clichéd “picturesque”). Carter envelops the singer in this web. Each time she enters, the soprano breaks free from the web (the “true beauty” from which we are so long “distracted from its absence”), partially in section C and almost entirely in C’. This process of separation culminates in bar 47 (a few bars before the end) when, for the only time in the piece, both the fixed pitch-space field and the time field break down completely and the web binding everything together momentarily disappears. At this point, of course, the soprano sings the word “absence.” This moment, I believe, is the expressive core of the song and its climactic event.

Over the past few decades a great deal of scholarship on Carter’s music has emerged. Book length studies by David Schiff and James Wierzbicki are both extremely valuable general surveys of Carter’s life and work, and serve as invaluable general introductions to their subject. John Link’s comprehensive guide to Carter research (up to 2000) contains a fully annotated bibliography, discography, and a complete list of works, as well as a catalog of Carter's own writings. The collection Elliott Carter Studies, edited by Link and Marguerite Boland is also a valuable resource for numerous issues relating to Carter’s music. It contains a range of essays covering such topics as sketch studies and text setting. The recent publication of Guy Capuzzo’s book length study of Carter’s What Next? constitutes an especially penetrating look at the composer’s only opera. Perhaps the most useful resource for the present essay is a special issue of the Chicago Review entitled Elliott Carter: Settings. This collection contains numerous essays by composers, performers, poets and scholars, devoted to Carter’s lifelong interest in contemporary poetry and his interest in vocal music in general.

Those most relevant to the present study are papers by Brenda Ravenscroft, Mark Sallmen and Jeff Dolven, all of whom examine Carter’s text settings in detail.2  Ravenscroft deals, in part, with the same song as the present essay. There are some similarities in these analyses as well as significant differences. In particular, Ravenscroft focuses much more on the use of the all trichord hexachord to which I allude only briefly in this paper. In general, our treatment of fixed pitch fields and rhythmic streams, and their interactions in support of the text are quite different, as will become clear. My understanding of the formal design of the song is also quite different and more complex than Ravenscroft’s analysis suggests. Indeed, the brevity of this song belies its extraordinary complexity. Most significantly, however, my approach to this song–and, indeed, any composition–involves consideration of a great many essential details. It seems to me that a successful composition must achieve some balance between the level of the local detail and that of the larger design (though this may not be true of certain modernist works involving indeterminacy). Each informs the other in an organic, symbiotic relationship. Indeed, it may well be that form is not possible without this symbiosis. In Carter’s music each detail typically has so many dimensions that it becomes a world in microcosm. This in turn activates other details which eventually activate a large-scale form. Thus, I find it impossible to identify the general design of one of Carter’s compositions without consistently attending to a significant level of detail.


The text for the final song from Of Challenge and of Love is a very short prose poem entitled End of a Chapter first published in Hollander’s book In Place (1978), and subsequently reprinted in his Selected Poetry (Hollander, 1993, p.180).

End of a Chapter

…But when true Beauty does finally come crashing at us through the stretched paper of the picturesque, we can wonder how we had for so long been able to remain distracted from its absence.3

At first, the text appears to be a brief bit of prose, but, despite the fact that it is not lineated, through careful control of rhythm, alliteration (picturesque indeed), and sound, it veers toward poetry. Even a casual reader will note how it gradually builds to rhythmic and sonic emphasis on “crashing,” culminating in the two strong accents on “come cra-”, which dramatically slow down the rhythmic momentum which has been building to this point. This is followed immediately by a rapid retreat from “crashing” with a jangle of noisy sibilants and plosives–“crashing at us.” And, of course, the alliteration of “paper” and “picturesque” that follows nicely underscores the sense of clichéd sentiment to which the passage alludes.

Notable, is the ellipsis with which the text begins, which, as we will see, instantiates the sense of immediacy that suffuses the prose poem. When I first encountered this song, I was immediately struck by this ellipsis, which, of course, suggests that we are entering, in medias res, a discussion already in progress. I wondered how Carter had “set it” to music, which, as we will soon see, he did.


I divide this song into sections for the purpose of discussion, though one must note that, as is always the case with Carter’s music, overlaps, disjunctions and ambiguities of continuity render the process of sectionalizing his pieces difficult, if not often impossible (See Figure 1). Generally, in this song, I mark the sections by the presence or absence of the text/singer. However, as I have noted in the score as well as in numerous diagrams, when the voice enters and initiates a new section, typically, either the music of the piano from the previous section continues through the entrance of the voice, or the voice spills over into a new section initiated by the piano. The sections, as I have marked them, are as follows:

Section A (m. 1)

Section B (mm. 2-12; overlaps section C from mm. 9-12)

Section C (mm. 9-32; overlaps section B from mm. 9-12, overlaps the return of section B from mm. 24-32)

Section B return (mm. 26-33; overlaps entirely with section C)

Section D (mm. 33-47; overlaps section C’ from mm. 39-47)

Section C’ (mm. 39-47; overlaps entirely section D)

Section B’ (mm. 48-50)


Figure 1: Graph of Sectional Divisions by Instrument, End of a Chapter


In this song Carter focuses on the trichord as the source of his basic sonorities. Toward this end he favors what is known as the all triad hexachord. In “The Music of Elliott Carter,” an excellent introductory study to Carter’s music, David Schiff writes:

Technically all five songs [in Of Challenge and of Love] are composed… using the all triad hexachord 6-35 [in reference to Carter’s own numbering system for his pitch material]…; the first notes of the voice part [of End of a Chapter] are the pitches from the all triad hexachord… 4

This all triad hexachord, in one transposition, is F#, G, G#, A#, C#, D. From this hexachord Carter extracts several related trichords which constitute the overriding harmonic basis of the song, and which repeatedly saturate the 12-note collection (See Figure 2).


Figure 2: Basic Trichords, End of a Chapter


As noted earlier, the fixing of pitches in musical space underscores the text in significant ways and constitutes one of the central expressive and structural elements of the piece. Two distinct aspects of pitch-space are in play here: the general movement of pitches throughout musical space and the fixing of pitches in specific registers (See Figure 3).5


Figure 3: Pitch-Space Chart, End of a Chapter

Section A (m. 1) is the shortest of the song. It opens with a brief explosion: a wild dispersion of all twelve pitches throughout musical space. Each pitch sounds once; all twelve are spread out over 5 ½ octaves (F1– B6). F1 is the third lowest note of the piece (C1 is heard twice, in bars 16 and 42; E1 is heard once, in bar 23); B6 is the highest note of the piece (in fact, nothing else is ever heard in that register) (See Figure 4). The first section truly feels as though it spans the entire range of the piece.


Figure 4: Fixed and Shifting Notes between Sections A and B, End of a Chapter

In section B (mm. 2-12), all pitches are fixed in a very narrow range of 1 ½ octave (G3 – D5). Five pitches continue to sound in the same register in which they were heard in A; the other seven pitches move inward, compressed within the space of the aforementioned 1 ½ octave range. Throughout this second section all twelve pitches remain fixed within this compact space (See Figure 4). The sudden spatial compression experienced as the song moves abruptly from section A to section B conveys a sense of constraint, a loss of flexibility (an absence of creative freedom?). In hindsight, this gives us the first inkling of the meaning of the initial ellipsis of the text for when the voice enters in the next section, the listener feels that the music is already emerging from some pre-existing state of constraint.

One detail of significance is the continuation of one trichord from section A into section B, namely C#5-F#4-G#4 (drawn from the all triad hexachord) (See Figures 5 and 6). This is one of the basic trichords of the song and will be featured prominently at key moments throughout. For example, these are the first three notes that the soprano sings at the start of her first entrance, and are prominent among the first group of notes that she sings at the start of her second entrance. In addition, we note the constant, almost obsessive repetition of the F#-G# dyad of this trichord (spelled Gb-Ab in the score) from bars 2-7 (and later in bars 28-32) (See Figure 6). This repetition serves to further intensify the developing sense of constraint and inflexibility.


Figure 5: Fixed Pitches Carried Over from Section to Section, End of a Chapter

Figure6DelioDeLioFigure 6b

Figure 6: Fixed Trichord F#-G#-C# throughout End of a Chapter

Section C (mm. 9-32) begins with the first entrance of the soprano. Initially, both the singer and piano carry forward the fixed pitch-space established in the section B, but within the span of a few bars both break away from this spatial field. The soprano opens with the aforementioned trichord C#5-F#4-G#4, three of the five pitches that were carried over fixed in register from sections A and B (See Figure 6). Eventually the pitches in the vocal part loosen up and become unfixed, none sounding in their old spatial positions (See Figure 7). I believe that here Carter is teasing out the meaning of the ellipsis with which the text begins. The soprano first sings “… But when true” to the fixed pitches C#5-F#4-G#4-D5 as though she were continuing the fixed spatial field of section B-as if she were continuing something that was already in progress (though picking up something sounded previously only by the piano, as if unspoken).

In this section, the piano shifts to a very low register, reaching C1, the lowest note of the piece, in bar 16. The soprano, in contrast, sings well above the piano. This separation further enhances the sense that the both are breaking away from the web of fixed pitch-space established by the piano over the previous two sections.

The return of the B section (mm. 26-33), is characterized by another intense, sudden compression of pitch-space, much like the one encountered at the start of the first B section, though here the pitch-space narrows even more than it did earlier (See Figures 3 and 5). Once again, the pitches are fixed and, from bars 28-32, the soprano joins the piano as it articulates the fixed pitch-space field (and as we will see this is also true of rhythm). This is the only moment in the song where both piano and voice are completely tied to the pitch web for any length of time, playing material associated with section B, fixed in a very narrow register. Moreover, the soprano here takes up the rather obsessive, mechanical repetition of F#4-G#4 first heard in mm. 2-7 in the piano part. This is all tied to the phrase “stretched paper of the picturesque.” It seems clear that the word “picturesque” is used at this moment in reference to those things that are commonplace, lacking freshness and originality. The almost obsessively reduced range of musical activity (both in terms of pitch and rhythm) beautifully reflects this sense of banality insinuated by the text.

Sections D (mm. 33-47) and C’ (mm. 39-47) are best considered together. A new fixed pitch-space field is established in D in the piano part (See Figures 3 and 5). The soprano, of course, has dropped out but the piano continues sounding in the same low register first heard in C. Initially, in D we find a great deal of pitch-space fixing. But, gradually, the fixed notes begin to change their spatial positions (a process that continues through the next section, C’) and the fixed pitch-space field become unstable (much like the time field, as we will see).

At the start of Section C’ the soprano again opens with the F#4- G#4-C#5 trichord (though here spread out over the first three bars of the passage); these, of course, are the same pitches fixed in sections A, B, and the opening of section C (See Figure 6). After these three pitches, however, she breaks free of the earlier fixed pitch-space field. In addition, as in section C, the soprano separates in space from the piano, which remains in its low register through the end of the piece.

Section B’ (mm. 48-50) re-introduces the narrow type of fixed pitch-space field associated with the other B sections. However, there are several significant differences. In both previous B sections the same pitch-space field (un-transposed) was fixed in the instrument’s mid-range and played generally soft. In B’, in contrast, the field is transposed to new pitches, shifted to a much lower register (essentially the same as that of the piano in sections D and C’) and played very loud (See Figures 3 and 5). Thus, while the end feels like a return to the character and structure of both previous B sections, it also feels new due to these striking changes. Section B’ marks a return to the rigidity of the fixed field of pitches, yet suggests an awareness of new possibilities.

Comparison of the Two Melodic Lines in the Soprano

Carter divided the text into two parts for his setting:

…But when true Beauty does finally come crashing at us through the stretched paper of the picturesque,

we can wonder how we had for so long been able to remain distracted from its absence.

Each of these parts is set to related melodic lines (sections C and C’), which exhibit both striking similarities and differences (See Figure 7). Each outlines the same basic arch-like shape, peaking on G5 and A5. However, in each passage the singer reaches these peaks in a different way: In section C, G5 and A5 are reached separately, the result of several, intertwining melodic arcs. In contrast, in section C’, the vocal line spans a single arc peaking one single unified high point (G5 and A5 are nearly contiguous). This single arc is unified in other ways: its first peak, G5, is reached through a succession of intervals all smaller than or equal to 6; indeed most of the ascent is constructed from 1s, 2s, and 3s. After the second peak, G5, is reached, the subsequent descent unfolds rapidly through intervals mostly wider than 6, none of which are stepwise. Thus the compressed ascent is followed by a rapid, explosive descent that provides a sense of release–a dramatic recognition of the “absence” of “true beauty.” 6


Figure 7: Comparison of vocal lines from C and C’, End of a Chapter


In the first bar Carter establishes the two basic pulses streams that run simultaneously throughout the piece. The metronome marking in the score is quarter = 144. One stream is built upon the eighth note pulsation (eighth = 288); the other, the triplet eighth (triplet eighth = 432). In those sections in which only the piano is heard, it takes on the role of articulating both pulses. Whenever the soprano enters, she articulates the eighth pulse and the piano, the triplet eighth. The two never share the same pulse within the same section.

Both pulses are heard at numerous speeds (See Figure 8). The eighth note pulse stream is presented at speeds in multiples of three: dotted quarter (3x the basic pulse), dotted half-note (6 x the basic pulse), etc. The triplet eighth pulse stream is used at speeds in multiples of two: triplet quarter (2x the basic pulse), triplet half-note (4x the basic pulse) etc.


Figure 8: Basic Pulsations, End of Chapter

A brief note is in order here with regard to my reference to the presence of different speeds within each pulse stream. Typically, in Carter’s music a polyrhythm (in the case of this song, a 2 x 3 polyrhythm) determines the basic pulse streams of a composition. These may be represented as two tempi (here, eighth = 288 and triplet eighth = 432). In the view of some scholars, whenever one encounters changes in the number, or density, of attacks within either of these tempi the speed of the pulse stream is not viewed as either speeding up or slowing down. My conception of the pulse stream is more complex in that each stream consists of multiple, related, speeds of articulation (See Figures 8 and 9). This gives rise to the particular sense of rhythmic flux which we experience throughout this song (and indeed much of Carter’s music), as each stream speeds up and slows down in, one might say, rhythmic counterpoint to one another. This is most obvious in the very of first bar of End of a Chapter where we actually hear the basic speeds of the piece (eighth and triplet eighth) for the only time in the piece. After this we hear only multiples of these basic pulses. Carter creates a continuous temporal ebb and flow, frequently speeding up and slowing down within each pulse stream (See Figure 9).




Figure 9
: Pulse Streams, End of a Chapter

Through section A (m. 1) each pulse stream gradually slows down leading to a simple transition into section B. The eighth stream expands from eighths (1x duration of basic pulse) to dotted quarters (3x), which is the speed at which it is first heard at the beginning of section B. The triplet eighth expands from triplet eighth (1x) to triplet quarter (2x) to triplet half-note (4x), the speed at which it is first heard in section B (See Figure 9).

In section B (mm 2-12) the eighth pulse stream establishes a succession of short-long values articulated through an alternating pattern of dotted quarter (3x) and dotted half-note (6x) durations. In contrast, the triplet eighth pattern falls into a simple succession of triplet half-notes (4x). In section B time is as rigidly fixed as pitch.

In section C (mm. 9-32) there is a clear rhythmic separation between voice and piano. The soprano articulates the eighth pulse exclusively, while the piano only the triplet eighth pulse. The piano begins very slowly projecting a speed 32x the basic triplet eighth pulse. However, gradually, over the course of this section, the piano accelerates through pulses of 16x, 8x, and 4x durations, driving through toward the return of section B where the duration of triplet half-note (4x) is re-established (See Figure 10). In counterpoint, in section C, the voice begins by firmly articulating the eighth pulse carried over from section B. Soon, however, the singer starts to veer off the fixed temporal field, just as she veers away from the fixed pitch field as discussed above. In this way she underscores the sense of the text at this point: “…But when true Beauty does finally come…” – “true Beauty” now associated with freedom from the rigid boundaries imposed by the fixed fields.


Figure 10: Gradual Acceleration of Triplet Eighth Pulse in the Piano, End of a Chapter (mm.9-32)

The return of material from section B (mm. 26-33) re-establishes the fixed time and pitch-space fields established in sections A and B. After the acceleration of the triplet eighth pulse through section C, the piano finally returns to the original speed of this pulse stream established in the first B section, triplet half-notes (4x), though varied with the occasional interruption of triplet wholes (8x). The soprano continues in the eighth stream and re-introduces the short-long pattern of alternating dotted quarter (3x) and dotted half-note (6x) durations, though here the pattern is varied somewhat (See Figure 9).

As was the case with the fixed pitch-space field, in section D (mm. 33-47) the rhythm field becomes especially dense.7 The triplet eighth stream is extensively subdivided culminating in the first articulation of the triplet sixteenth pulsation (.5x the basic eighth pulse) (See Figure 9). Furthermore, in this section, for the first time in the composition, the two pulse streams seem to lose their individual identities. In bars 34, 36, 37 and 38 elements from both streams coincide, a rare event in the song. In bars 34 and 38 they coincide on downbeats, a natural result of the eighth/triplet eighth polyrhythm, though with only two other exceptions Carter carefully avoids simultaneous attacks on downbeats. (The two exceptions occur, fittingly, at the beginning and ending of the piece: the downbeat of bar 2–the first articulated downbeat of the piece–and the downbeat of bar 50, the final downbeat of the piece.) In mm. 36 and 37, attacks from both streams coincide as a result of internal subdivisions of the triplet eighth pulse, the aforementioned triplet sixteenths.

The material played by the piano in section D extends into section C’ (mm. 39-47). The piano again focuses exclusively on the triplet eighth pulse stream (continuing its complex subdivisions). Significantly, however, when the soprano, enters she avoids both pulse streams; she seems to be floating in an undefined rhythmic space, as she pulls away from the fixed time points of the rhythmic web almost entirely (certainly much more so than in section C), yet another reflection of the text: “…we can wonder how we had for so long been able to remain distracted from its absence”–referring to the absence of “true beauty.” The soprano’s process of freeing herself from the constraints placed on her “song” by the fixed pitch and time fields culminates in the final bar of the section where, on the word “absence,” both rhythm and pitch fields momentarily disappear (m. 47).

In the final section, section B’ (mm. 48-50) the voice disappears and the piano re-establishes both pulse streams in a rigid temporal field, as well as a fixed pitch-space field. To me, this provides a faint reminder of the web from which the soprano has broken free. The piano re-asserts the condition from which the singer removed herself – “crashing through” the false and rigid “picturesque.”8


For the sake of brevity, numerous details were left out of this discussion. All, in one way or another, contribute to the overall dramatic flow of events. For example, at the beginning of section B, in the triplet eighth pulse stream, we hear two simultaneous rhythmic events unfold. The first is based on a repeating pattern of three half-note triplets, the last of which is articulated as a single note played staccato (See Figure 11). This gesture shrinks from three attacks (at the half-note duration), to two attacks and finally to one attack. Against this process of compression, we hear a succession of single staccato attacks that increase from groups of one attack, to two attacks, to three. The transition from a three-note pattern to a series of single attacks leads us on into the next section where the piano plays sparsely placed, isolated notes.


Figure 11: Local Rhythmic Detail in Section B, End of a Chapter

Details such as this are very significant, as it is their accumulation that fully articulates the larger scheme and renders it audible and expressive. They constitute the musical content that informs the composition’s design and brings it to life. The richness of such detail is, of course, a hallmark of Carter’s music. Through them he energizes the large-scale design of each composition, which takes the form of a multi-layered evolution of such moments, all culminating in an inevitable synthesis. In his fine study of Carter’s music James Wierzbicki notes that Carter:

…invariably treated instants not as singular moments in a linear progression of ideas but as fragments of an always imaginable whole. “I was interested in flow, Carter said, “in the contribution of the past to the present and the effect of predicted futures on it, in dealing with the process of an emerging present.9


As noted at the beginning of this paper, over the course of his career Elliott Carter set the poetry of an extraordinarily diverse group of writers ranging from modernist pioneers like Pound, Williams and Zukofsky to much more conventional lyric poets as Frost, Bishop and Hollander. While it is not my purpose to debate the curious mixture of poetic attitudes exhibited by this list of writers I would argue that Carter’s settings of the latter group are more successful, in that his compositional style fits the lyrical, linear, dramatic aspects of their work while, at least it seems to me, his settings of poems by the former group fail to underscore the linguistic revolution ushered in by their decidedly more experimental use of language and form. I find that Carter typically forces their work into a linear, dramatic mold which does not resonate with their poetry. An obvious case in point is his setting of Pound’s Canto LXXXI, which he truncates radically for his composition On Conversing with Paradise (2008). Of the first part of the poem, consisting of 96 lines of verse, he keeps only four complete lines and one partial line (the first line, part of the third line and the last three lines). He then proceeds to set almost the entire second part of the poem, 79 lines (leaving out only three or four). The first part of the poem is written in Pound’s characteristically elliptical style: interspersing sudden changes of language, tone, historical references, and personal associations with dizzying speed. Pound creates a vortex of many other times and places against which his own present situation resonates. The second part of the poem is much more lyrical and dramatic, indeed it begins as a libretto (Pound’s label), anchored in an older time and place. The second part only really makes sense when juxtaposed with the first, against which it is reflected.10 This is all lost in Carter’s setting which reduces the poem to its lyrical shadow. Poets such as Pound, Williams and Zukofsky excelled in creating a more elliptical, non-linear, and decidedly non-dramatic poetry in which language itself rises to the surface as subject.11 Carter seems to have approached the task of setting all 20th century poetry in the same, essentially lyrical manner. Either he consciously viewed the work of such disparate poets as Pound and Hollander as representative of the same poetic tradition–of which many commentators have noted they are not-or he simply had no strategy for setting the poetry of such radically experimental figures as Pound and Zukofsky (often described as the forefathers of so-called Postmodernism). It is then all the more curious that, on several occasions, he attempted to set to music the poetry of such experimentalists.12

This being said, the purpose of this essay was to explore the masterful way Elliott Carter merges sound and text in a setting of a short prose poem by John Hollander, certainly the most conventional of poets he chose to set over the last half century of his life. As we have seen, Carter underscores the text through the use of a web of sonic elements against which the soprano, reflecting both the meaning and sound of the text, struggles to break free. The ebb and flow of this struggle constitutes the composition’s formal evolution, articulated both through its large-scale design and local detail. In this way, Carter’s setting of John Hollander’s text becomes a vivid dramatic scene of compact dimensions.


1Carter, Of Challenge and of Love.

2Ravenscroft, “Layers of meaning: expression and design in Carter’s songs,” 271-291; Mark Sallmen, “Listening to the Music Itself: Breaking Through the Shell of Elliott Carter’s "In Genesis”; and, Jeff Dolven, “Disjunct Quatrains,” 147-153.

3Hollander, Selected Poetry, 180.

4Schiff, The Music of Elliott Carter, 166.

5See Ravenscroft (endnote 2) for a more thorough examination of the use of the all trichord hexachord in this piece. Her discussion suggests that the use of this hexachord can function as a unifying sonority linking the fixed and unfixed pitches. However, this does not negate the significant differences in their functions throughout the piece.

6There are, of course, other ways to consider spatial motion in a composition. A spectrograph, for example, visually represents sonic material with great subtlety. It provides a window into dimensions of our experience of the actual sound of a musical composition not immediately apparent from an examination of a traditional musical score. For example, with the help of a spectrograph we can clearly see how dynamics and articulation heighten our experience of the compression and subsequent expansion of pitch-space that takes place between sections A and B and C of End of a Chapter. Specifically, in section A, due to the loud dynamic indication (forte throughout), the piano projects overtones high above the registers of the pitches notated in the score. In contrast, in section B, not only are the notes compressed into a narrow range, but because the dynamic indication is generally soft (p and mp), far fewer high overtones are activated than in section A. In section C, as we have seen, the piano part becomes quite sparse and moves to a very low register. When the soprano enters she is well above the piano and gradually rises even higher, generating what appears to be a large spatial gap between the two. However, the piano is called upon to play quite loud in its low register and so, once again, sends overtones shooting up into the range of the soprano and well beyond. Thus, even though piano and soprano seem, on paper, separated from one another spatially (out of each other’s grasp, so to speak) the soprano is, in fact, surrounded by the upper partials of the piano. This conveys, in yet another way, a sense that the soprano is caught in a web projected by the piano. Note that the wide rhythmic spacing of the piano attacks, and its consistent staccato articulation prevent it from covering the soprano in this passage, while still surrounding her with upper partials.

7This is a point that highlights a significant difference between my analysis of this song and that of Ravenscroft. In her essay (see endnote 2) she states: “The rhythmic design is also a model of refinement …with few non-pulse attacks clouding the structural framework …” (Ravenscroft, 279). I see these non-pulse attacks, especially those in section D and throughout the vocal part as central to the structural and expressive design of the composition. Indeed, as I show, they are essential to our understanding of the relationship between music and text.

8In his essay “Disjunct Quatrains” (147-153) Jeff Dolven misunderstands the role of rhythm in the song entirely. He states that the poem End of a Chapter offers:

…a carnival stage show that tears mere prettiness aside to replace it with sudden Beauty. Is that replacement an answer? A final rescue from irony, as though it had served its purpose and birthed out of its restless dialectic a final ravishing clarity? But as Carter scores the poem, the asynchronous attacks of the rest of the cycle persist unabated.

Dolven does not seem to hear that those “asynchronous attacks” constitute the source of “true Beauty.” As the singer breaks from the song’s omnipresent rhythmic grid she creates an even more complex asynchronous texture which is not merely ironic but truly breathtaking in its sonic richness. Does he really expect Carter to create “true Beauty” with a simplification of his rhythmic scheme? Dolven goes on to describe the song’s climax as “melodramatic”; no explanation is given for this description but it seems a misreading. Finally, he ends his essay stating that, at the end of the song “The music becomes self-important, with an almost silent-movie tremolo in the left hand…” To describe the tremolos (all fully notated components of the rhythmic scheme) in this way is to miss their significance in driving the rhythmic design forward in this crucial moment in the song.

9Wierzbicki, J., Elliott Carter, 63.

10For a remarkable defense of Carter’s reductive shaping of Pound’s poems into his text see the essay “Elliott Carter’s Ezra Pound” by Rachel Blau DuPlessis (173-185). In this essay the author fails to see that poetry such as Pound’s Canto LXXXI demands a different notion of text setting entirely from that characteristic of Carter and, failing to do so, the author defends Carter’s transformation of the poem into a shadow of itself more accommodating to his compositional style.

11For a detailed examination of the two parallel branches of modernism in poetry which these two groups of writers represent see Marjorie Perloff, The Poetics of Indeterminacy. In this study, Perloff notes that “…what we loosely call “Modernism” in Anglo-American poetry is really made up of two separate though often interwoven strands: the Symbolist mode that [Robert] Lowell inherited from Eliot and Baudelaire and, beyond them, from the great Romantic poets, and the “anti-Symbolist” mode of indeterminacy or “undecidability,” of literalness and free play, whose first real exemplar was the Rimbaud of the Illuminations.” (p. vii). Perloff proceeds to locate the work of William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Louis Zukofsky and John Ashbery squarely within the latter tradition; Lowell in the former (and with him, one would assume, poets such as Elizabeth Bishop and John Hollander).

12See Marjorie Perloff, The Poetics of Indeterminacy and Postmodern Genres; Charles Bernstein, A Poetics; Peter Quartermain, Disjunctive Poetics: From Gertrude Stein andLouis Zukofsky to Susan Howe; Joseph M. Conte, Unending Design: The Forms of Postmodern Poetry.



Bernstein, C. A Poetics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Boland, M. and Link, J. Elliott Carter Studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Calahan, J. and Wilding, C. eds., Elliott Carter Settings. Chicago Review, 58:3/4 (Summer 2014).

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Thomas DeLio

Thomas DeLio is a composer and theorist, internationally renowned in both fields. His compositions have been performed worldwide and are recorded on numerous labels including Wergo (Germany), 3D Classics (France), Neuma, Centaur, Capstone, ERMMedia and Spectrum. He has published over thirty essays in such journals as The Journal of Music Theory, Perspectives of New Music, Interface, Artforum, Contemporary Music Review (London), Revue d'Esthetique (Paris), and MusikText (Cologne), and numerous books including Circumscribing the Open Universe (University Press of America; Italian translation, Semar Editore, Rome), The Music of Morton Feldman (Greenwood Press), and The Amores of John Cage (Pendragon Press). A book about his work, entitled Essays on the Music And Theoretical Writings of Thomas DeLio was published by The Edwin Mellen Press (2008), and a companion volume entitled Thomas DeLio: Collected Essays Vol. I (1980-2000) will be published by the Mellen Press in 2013. In 2011 the Special Collections Division of the University of Maryland Library established an archive, The Thomas DeLio Papers. A companion volume entitled Thomas DeLio: Collected Essays Vol. I (1980-2000) will be published by the Mellen Press in 2016. 

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