Laura Emmery

Gender, Identity, and Gesture in Jonathan Harvey’s String Quartet No.2 

Jonathan Harvey’s String Quartet No. 2 (1988) features peculiar annotations: how to perform the temperature markings (“cold,” “cool”,” “warm,” and “hot”), which represent ascending degree of tone-energy as differentiated from dynamic level, and also gender identities he assigns to the themes of the masculine and feminine personalities (Example 1). The gender roles are rather stereotypical: the masculine theme is characterized by dissonance and employment of quarter-tones, loud dynamics, brash articulation, and frequent triple-stops (Example 2). The theme exuding feminine personality, in contrast, is notated in harmonics in the cello, hence featuring the highest register of the instrument. It employs consonant sounds, soft dynamics, vibrato, a “sighing” motive of a descending minor second, and descriptive words (“dolce,” “espressivo,” and “cantabile”), as illustrated in Example 3. Building on the scholarship of identity and feminist theory (Lochhead 2016, Butler 1990, Grosz 1994, Cusick, 1994) and musical gesture and embodiment (Rao 2016, Hatten 2004, Lidov 2006, Leong and Korevaar 2004), I question the female and male identity and examine musical gestures, such as register, pitch, tuning, rhythm, dynamics, timbre, and articulation, associated with each. On a larger scale, I show how these signifiers articulate both spectral and spiritual transformation of the gendered themes.

The cello melody generates the material for the entire Quartet. It consists of four pitches, each in a distinct register: A 6, B 4, G#2, and C 5 (Example 4). The microtonal pitch collection stems from Chord 12, one of twelve chance-derived chords that frame the harmonic structure of the piece (Example 5). Even though Harvey implements the technique of “chain melody,” in which he links the neighboring melodies to form a composite one, this cello theme is not subjected to such a transformation. Rather, it undergoes its unique spiritual transformation as it dissipates into a single quivering pitch, E7 harmonic. For Harvey, a resonance of a single sound can promote both spectral and spiritual explorations—spectral in the sense of technical workings inside sound itself, spiritual in the way that such workings can serve the purpose of an expression which aspires to the numinous, the transcendent. With this gesture, the cello melody completes its large-scale transformation to a spiritual singularity.

The cello theme, described by Harvey as displaying an “emotional personality,” undergoes abrupt temperature fluctuations (from cold to warm or hot), eluding to energetic or temperamental instability. Even though it constitutes a primary theme, Harvey takes away its voice: the theme is marked con soridno in pianissimo dynamics in the cello’s highest register, pitted against the First Violin’s strong, loud, and dynamic “masculine” melody. On the surface, the gender roles are explicit. However, I question gender as a strictly binary mode of masculine and feminine characteristics; if the masculine theme is subjected to Harvey’s technique of “chain melody” in which the theme is merged with the material and content of other themes, including its feminine counterpart, then this thematic amalgamation embodies both genders simultaneously, fused as one. My study will be informed by primary sources housed at the Paul Sacher Stiftung.

Example 1: Jonathan Harvey, String Quartet No. 2, Performance Notes

Example 2: Jonathan Harvey, String Quartet No. 2, Masculine personality theme, Violin I, m. 37

Example 3: Jonathan Harvey, String Quartet No. 2, Feminine personality theme, Cello, mm. 144-146

Example 4: Jonathan Harvey, String Quartet No. 2, mm. 1-4

Example 5: Jonathan Harvey, String Quartet No. 2, Twelve structural chords (Seo 2013)


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Emory University, USA

Is Assistant Professor of Music Theory at Emory University. Her research focuses on 20th/21st-century music and post-tonal theory, with an interdisciplinary approach that draws on philosophy, literary criticism, critical theory and performance studies. Having spent over two years at the Paul Sacher Stiftung conducting a critical study of the original sources, her analysis of Elliott Carter’s music incorporates sketch study in tracking the composer’s evolution and process. Her work on Carter has been published in The Musical Quarterly, Contemporary Music Review, Tempo, Twentieth-Century Music, Sonus, and Mitteilungen der Paul Sacher. Her monograph, Compositional Process in Elliott Carter’s String Quartets: A Study in Sketches, is currently in press. She is also exploring the works of Jonathan Harvey, experimental music in Yugoslavia, and popular music, especially in relation to the theories of rhythm and meter, and metaphor and narrative in music.