Elliott Carter's Analysis of his Piano Sonata (1945-46): A Moment of Music Historical Agnosia?

Braus, Ira

In 1948, Elliott Carter penned an analysis of his Piano Sonata for Edgard Varèse.  His analysis of the first movement, in particular, makes one ask why Carter did not subsume its recurrent two-tempo structure under “first group” of its sonata form.  Given Carter’s sophistication,  was he experiencing a moment of music historical “agnosia,” since two-tempo expositions inform  familiar Beethoven  works such as  Piano Sonata, op.31, no.2 and String Quartet in Bb, op.130. This paper explores Carter’s “agnosia” by way of internal and external evidence. Internally, it revisits the thematic chart he attached to the 1948 analysis and goes on to posit the idea that the work’s quintal neo-tonality so saturates its thematic network themes as to distort the composer’s analysis of the form, historical precedents irrespective.  Externally, the paper  compares three works by Beethoven to Carter’s Sonata as regards its two-tempo structure, using concepts borrowed from Hepokoski and Darcy’s Elements of Sonata Theory (1999).  Finally, the author revisits  writings of Carter and his circle that may explain why his analysis downplayed historical precedents to the Piano Sonata.


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August 29, 2022