Carter's five string quartets form a collection of works, each a masterpiece in its own right, that demonstrate a consistent compositional aesthetic and a seriousness of purpose, one that profoundly contributed to musical experience in the second half of the 20th century. With his String Quartet No. 5 (composed January - July 1995) Carter has entered "the beginning of (his) late late style. Here he strips his music down to its essentials," in the words of biographer David Schiff. The starkness of many of the passages created by single instruments playing unaccompanied, punctuated by durations of silence give credence to that statement. But as with virtually all of Carter's music, the density of polyphonic passages that penetrate these lean passages of single voices and silence (or is it the other way around?), projects multifarious emotional states characterized by the stratified rhythmic and intervallic materials given to each one of the instruments. Carter's intentions are clearly articulated in the preface to the performance score:
"One of the fascinations of attending rehearsals of chamber music, when excellent players try out fragments of what they later will play in the ensemble, then play it, and then stop abruptly to discuss how to improve it, is that this pattern is so similar to our inner experience of forming, ordering, focusing, and bringing to fruition and then dismissing our feelings and ideas. These patterns of human behavior form the basis of the Fifth String Quartet. Its introduction presents the players, one by one, trying out fragments of later passages from one of the six short, contrasting ensemble movements, at the same time maintaining a dialogue with each other. Between each of the movements the players discuss in different ways what has been played and what will be played. In this score the matter of human cooperation with its many aspects of feeling and thought was a very important consideration."
The Fifth String Quartet consists of 12 numbered sections: an Introduction and five Interludes, and six movements in the sequence Giocoso, Lento espressivo, Presto scorrevole, Allegro energico, Adagio sereno, and Capriccioso. Placed between each of these movements is one of the Interludes. The interludes are largely distinguished from the movements proper as being those sections permeated by silences and single voices, nearly completely lacking in counterpoint. However, there is overlapping of movements and interludes throughout; fragments of one type of music are announced as a kind of anticipation of passages later to come "bringing to fruition…our feelings and ideas," rendering a highly integrated structure.
- Steve Lacoste is the Archivist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.