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Jonathan Harvey’s String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2

Juri Seo

Nuove Musiche Numero 3 - 2017, pagine: 45-81
DOI 10.12871/97888333922334 | @ Pisa University Press 2019
Pubblicato: 20 agosto 2019


This paper examines Jonathan Harvey’s core musical processes and spiritual background in development through his first two string quartets – No. 1 (1977), and No. 2 (1988). The First Quartet’s multiple structural levels show a Schenkerian global approach; the central melody not only contains a self-similar structure within itself, but also foreshadows other structural pitches to come. This melody is preceded by an introduction that explores the kaleidoscopic timbres of a single pitch. Harvey’s idiosyncratic variations on the melody through the serialization of rhythm and pitch follow. The Second Quartet’s primary materials are derived from a melodic chain, Harvey’s own method of combining and transforming melodies. Twelve chords, created by aleatoric means, color the quiet middle section that gives rise to a remarkable melody for the cello in its highest range. Some analytical findings are shown to have direct parallels with tenets of Buddhism. Through his music, Harvey sought to encompass the reality of existence as he knew it from Buddhism, by confronting the full gamut of human suffering. He believed that musical resolution, which he achieved through tranquil passages and unified structural design, could provide healing for the listener. For him, musical ambiguity and complexity were of paramount importance because they represent the lack inherent in existence; musical discourses made such elusive philosophical concepts more palpable and tenable. Through spectral processes, for example, the solid-seeming identities of tones break down; through the melodic chain, themes lose their identities. By highlighting unity within variety and ambiguity within transcendent clarity, Harvey sought to «reveal the nature of suffering and to heal», which he considered the purpose of music.


Schenkerian structure ∙ Serial ∙ Post-spectral ∙ Melodic chain ∙ Ambiguity,

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