String Quartet No. 3 (Carter)

The Third String Quartet by American composer Elliott Carter was completed in 1971. It is dedicated to the Juilliard String Quartet, and it was premiered in 1973. This quartet earned Carter his second Pulitzer Prize in Music in 1973.


The quartet is divided into a pair of duos, Duo I made up of the first violin and the cello, and Duo II made up of the second violin and viola. The two duos play in their own overlapping movements: distinct tempos, articulation, and material, neither coinciding with the other. The first duo is instructed to play rubato throughout its four movements, while the second plays in strict time in six movements. In addition, each movement is assigned a characteristic interval. The ten movements are not played continuously, but rather are fragmented and recombined, producing a total of 24 possible pairings of movements between the duos, as well as a solo statement of each movement. An additional coda brings the total number of sections to 35 (Mead 1983–84, 31–32). The duos rarely synchronize and frequently clash in complex polyrhythms and dissonances.

Each duo uses a distinct interval class, dynamic range, phrasing, and bowing techniques per movement. The movements are (Mead 1983–84, 32):

Duo I:

  1. Furioso (major seventh)
  2. Leggerissimo (perfect fourth)
  3. Andande espressivo (minor sixth)
  4. Pizzicato giocoso (minor third)

Duo II:

  1. Maestoso (perfect fifth)
  2. Grazioso (minor seventh)
  3. Pizzicato giusto, mechanico (tritone)
  4. Scorrevole (minor second)
  5. Largo tranquillo (major third)
  6. Appassionato (major 6th)

Carter intended to achieve the effect of two distinct ensemble groups playing two pieces at once, clashing in sound. However, he stressed the importance of observing the combinations of sound between the two sound sources.


  • Mead, Andrew W. 1983–84. "Pitch Structure in Elliott Carter's String Quartet No. 3". Perspectives of New Music 22, nos. 1 & 2 (Fall-Winter/Spring-Summer): 31–60.

Further readingEdit

  • Bernard, Jonathan W. 1983. "Spatial Sets in Recent Music of Elliott Carter". Music Analysis 2, no. 1 (March): 5–34.
  • Godfrey, Daniel. 1987. "A Unique Vision of Musical Time: Carter's String Quartet no. 3". Sonus: A Journal of Investigations into Global Musical Possibilities 8, no. 1 (Fall): 40–59.
  • Mead, Andrew W. 1995. "Twelve-Tone Composition and the Music of Elliott Carter". In Concert Music, Rock, and Jazz Since 1945: Essays and Analytical Studies, edited by Elizabeth West Marvin and Richard Hermann, 67–102. Rochester: University of Rochester Press. ISBN 1-878822-42-X.
  • Schiff, David. 1998. The Music of Elliott Carter, second edition. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. ISBN 0-8014-3612-5.
  • Schiff, David. 2001. "Carter, Elliott (Cook)". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.

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