Although life expectancy is increasing, the
opportunities to write about composers who
remain creative into their nineties are rare.
Moreover, Elliott Carter is a phenomenon who
was composing before Harrison Birtwistle and
Peter Maxwell Davies were born, and who has
been the United States' foremost composer
for more than half a century.
In his review of the book, 'Polyphony and
Complexity'1 edited by Klaus-Steffen
Mahnkopf, Frank cox and Wolfram Schurig, Peter
Niklas Wilson cited Carter as one of the father-figures
of 'new complexity', (1). Yet this is only
one aspect of Carter's true significance,
for he is one of the last representatives
of a cultural tradition that has been lost
amid the hysteria of modern American society.
Elliott Carter was born on 11 December, 1908
into a business family; and it was through
the business community that he met and received
an informal music education from Charles Ives.
Ives tried to convince Carter's parents of
their son's musical talent. Nevertheless,
Carter was despatched to Europe in the hope
that he would finally adopt a business career.
However, he encountered impressionism and
expressionism, neo-classicism and serialism,
which would ultimately contribute to his mature
style. He also studied with Nadia Boulanger,
who inculcated a rigorous compositional discipline
that proved equally important.
Carter returned to the United States to pursue
an artistic career which combined teaching
literature with musical composition. His early
works, including a quantity of choral music,
were in the popular vein of Aaron Copland
and others, in accordance with the New Deal
philosophy of making the arts as widely accessible
as possible. The First Symphony and A Holiday
Overture - both written in the early 1940s
- are good examples; but by this time, Carter
was beginning to realise that his creative
vision required a more complex style.
The Piano Sonata of 1946 was the first fruit
of Carter's move towards a 'modernist' sensibility.
It employed a more extended tonality than
hitherto, and was more complex, rhythmically.
The Sonata for cello and piano, written two
years later, developed these ideas still further,
particularly the concept of metrical modulation:
Carter's innovation involving the use of variable
metres and tempi. At least part of the inspiration
stemmed from Carter's experience of singing
Italian Renaissance madrigals in Nadia Boulanger's
composition class. Even more decisive was
the first String Quartet of 1951.
Carter's First String Quartet was the product
of a long period of self-imposed isolation,
which he felt was necessary to avoid any form
of distraction. It defined his mature style,
and despite its difficulty, was quickly recognised
as one of his most ambitious and successful
scores. The most far-reaching aspect of the
Quartet involved treating the individual instruments
as 'dramatis personae', capable of interacting
with each other even in an essentially 'abstract'
discourse. In subsequent quartets, Carter
developed this idea in a variety of ways,
not simply by dividing the ensemble into duos,
but by giving each player his or her individual
tempi. Each individual was thus given a large
measure of independence, and a similar principle
was applied to other works, notably the concerti.
Besides the later Quartets, procedures used
in the first were extended to other compositions,
in this instance, the Variations for Orchestra
of 1955. By this time, carter was also drawing
on the extensive repertoire of trichords,
tetrachords and larger formations he was steadily
compiling as pre-compositional material. These
were related both to the serial technique
of Arnold Schoenberg, and to the 'set' theory
pioneered by Milton Babbitt and others in
the immediate postwar era.
The Second Quartet, 1959, was more concise
than its predecessor, and more uncompromising
in character. It was still experimental, but
by this stage, Carter was aware of the direction
his music was following.
Carter created three of his most powerful
orchestral works during the 1960s, beginning
with the Double Concerto, for harpsichord,
piano and chamber orchestra of 1961. The work
was commercially recorded in the 1960s, but
seems never to have been transferred to compact
disc, at least as far as Britain is concerned.
As a result, the work has been neglected over
the past two decades. It is undoubtedly one
of Carter's most challenging scores, yet it
is also one of his most consistent. There
is a hint of neoclassicism insofar as the
two soloists are reminiscent of 18th-century
double keyboard concertos, but it is thoroughly
modern in its use of serialism, and in the
way the soloists engage in a complex dialogue,
each supported by a distinctive instrumental
There are also suggestions of a concerto grosso
in the Piano Concerto of 1965. The piano is
accompanied by a small 'concertino' group,
whose function is to mediate between the soloist
and the rest of the orchestra. The neoclassical
influence was short-lived, however, though
textual clarity has remained one of his main
By the time he completed the Concerto for
Orchestra in the late 1960s, other factors
were stimulating Carter's creative imagination.
He had not written any vocal music since the
1940s, yet he retained a deep interest in
literature, and has been described as 'one
of our great readers of poetry, especially
American poets' (2). In essence, he
wanted his music to aspire to the fluidity
of speech, and this was one of the objectives
informing the Concerto for Orchestra, and
the Symphony of Three Orchestras, completed
a few years later.
In both cases, the poetry was crucial, enabling
Carter to incorporate a programmatic element
into the 'abstract discourse. It did not alter
the character of Carter's music, but besides
enhancing the dramatic aspect, St. John Perse's
'Vents' and Hart Crane's 'The Bridge', respectively,
helped to delineate the overall structure
of the two works. Above all, the assimilation
of poetic texts into the music introduced
the possibility of a lyrical dimension, which
Carter developed in the three song-cycles
completed between 1975 and 1981.
Unlike most composers, Carter's venture into
vocal music did not involve a modification
of his style. His preoccupation with individual
instruments or instrumental groups functioning
independently of each other meant that a vocal
line could be integrated with comparative
ease. At the same time, the texts could determine
the character of the music, thereby obviating
the need to give each instrument, or instrumental
group its particular identity.
In A Mirror on which to Dwell, for soprano
and ensemble, the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop
elicited an essentially lyrical approach;
but Carter's treatment of John Ashbery's poetry
in Syringa was reminiscent of his non-vocal
scores. Ashbery's poem about Orpheus, sung
by the mezzo-soprano, encouraged Carter to
add a fragmentary text in ancient Greek, sung
by the baritone, who embodies Orpheus. The
two singers are frequently presented simultaneously,
enunciating their texts independently of one
another, thereby creating a dichotomy between
ancient and modern, as well as between composer
and poet. A solo guitar also mediates between
the singers and the ensemble.
In Sleep, in Thunder, for tenor and 14 instruments,
was the culmination of his trilogy of song-cycles.
It was composed as a memorial to the poet,
Robert Lowell. As such, it preceded the project
Carter has developed over the past two decades,
comprising a full evening of memorials, homages
to fellow composers and tributes to instrumentalists.
In Sleep, in Thunder reflected 'the private
life of the public person, (3). As in A Mirror
on which to Dwell, Carter selected six poems
to form a sequence, in which he would 'try
to write music of continuous but coherent
In comparison with Syringa, both the Elizabeth
Bishop and Robert Lowell song-cycles were
more conventional, but they broadened Carter's
style, proving that the compositional procedures
he had evolved could encompass the nuances
of a wide range of texts. The long-term effect
was to enable Carter to compose with greater
freedom: hence the steadily increasing rate
of production since the early 1980s.
Carter's output during the past 25 years has
been such that it would require a very substantial
article to adequately cover the resulting
works. Trus1 Triple Duo, of 1982, was the
culmination of another triptych, comprising
the Duo for violin and piano, and the double
duo of the third String Quartet. During this
period, Carter also wrote Night Fantasies,
for piano - 1980 - in which he explored his
creative relationship with the piano music
of Robert Schumann. Night Fantasies was informed
by a distinct vein of lyricism, and this was
further developed in Penthode, for five instrumental
groups, completed in 1985, which was mellower
than his earlier orchestral compositions.
Thereafter, Carter extended the practice of
creating series of works. The Oboe Concerto
inaugurated a sequence that has so far yielded
concertos for violin, clarinet, and cello.
The orchestral writing in the latter has been
criticised as somewhat inadequate, but the
work is sustained by the cello's contributions,
especially in its lyrical vein.
He has also completed a concertante piece
for piano and ensemble entitled Dialogues.
The title belies the work's stature, as well
as the composer's 94 years when he wrote it.
Beginning with a cor anglais solo, it rapidly
evolves into a piece of rigorous serialism1
with a faint echo of neoclassicism. There
are lyrical elements, especially in the writing
for strings, but the sound-world is somewhat
reminiscent of Stravinsky's Aldous Huxley
Variations, emphasising the extent to which
Carter's musical language is indebted to stravinsky.
The Asko Concerto and sparkling Boston Concerto
may also be included, as they share the same
characteristics and are virtuoso display pieces
for chamber orchestra and full orchestra,
respectively. The former emphasised the humorous
aspect of Carter's personality; the latter
proved to be one of the finest contemporary
works at the 2003 Promenade Concerts.
Carter has been particularly prolific in the
sphere of chamber music. Besides the numerous
instrumental solos, duos and trios, he has
written his fourth and fifth String Quartets
since the late 1980s, with the prospect of
a sixth Quartet in the near future. He has
also produced an Oboe Quartet, Quintets for
piano and wind instruments and piano and strings,
plus Liumen, written for the nieuw ensemble,
reflecting its unusual instrumentation, with
an emphasis on plucked strings. They have
recently recorded the work in the context
of some of Carter's smaaller items, thereby
creating a reduced version of his full evening
In Sleep, in Thunder was followed by a further
hiatus in vocal composition. It lasted until
1994, when carter set a sequence of poems
by John Hollander in Of Challenge and of Love,
for soprano and piano. More recently, he has
completed Tempo Every Tempi, for soprano and
small ensemble, to Italian texts, and Of Re-Waking,
for mezzo-soprano and orchestra, setting three
poems of William Carlos Williams. The unique
feature of this last work is that it is Carter's
only song-cycle with full orchestra.
However, the principal vocal work of the 1990s
was What Next? His only opera in one act,
at least partly inspired by Jacques Tati's
film, Traffic, and lasting about 40 minutes.
The libretto, created by the music-critic,
Paul Griffiths, was clearly written from a
detailed understanding of Carter's oeuvre.
In essence, Griffiths devised a series of
language games, based on a car crash which
did not cause serious injury, but disorientated
the six protagonists involved. He created
solos, duos, trios, etc., thereby enabling
Carter to write for the characters somewhat
in the manner of individual instruments in
his chamber works, or instrumental groups
in his orchestral scores.
In What Next?, the tendency to present each
character's standpoint independently of the
others linked the opera to earlier scores
involving multiple perspectives. On the other
hand, in Symphonia: Sum Fluxae Pretium Spei
- 1993 to 1998 - Carter adopted a different
approach to the composition of his most ambitious
orchestral work. He had previously completed
three brief orchestral pieces which were subsequently
performed collectively as Three Occasions.
Symphonia was the result of three independent
commissions, which were fulfilled separately.
Yet Carter always entertained the possibility
of an integral work, so that while each piece
retained its original title, it could be incorporated
into the larger concept with little, if any,
Symphonia was underpinned by the Latin poem,
Bulla, by the 17th-century English metaphysician,
Richard Crashaw, but few musical links were
established between the three movements3 Partita1
adagio tenebroso1 and allegro Scorrevole.
The main unifying factor was the consistency
of Carter's style, and his continuing adherence
to a modernist aesthetic. The notion of 'making
it new' has always been fundamental to his
creative philosophy, and not merely a superficial
element as in so much post-modern composition.
As an increasing number of recordings have
demonstrated, it has informed, and contributed
to the success of, not only his larger works,
but also his instrumental miniatures.
The manner in which Carter has recently exploited
both the architectural and poetic aspects
of his creative personality illustrates his
continuing ability to re-invigorate his style.
This was almost certainly a compositional
discipline acquired from Charles Ives, but
equally, it was probably intrinsic to the
wider cultural context in which Carter grew
up. It is unlikely to be found among today's
post-modern or populist composers1 particularly
in the United States, for American society
has largely discarded the cultural values
and the respect for the European tradition
espoused by Ives and his contemporaries.
Hence, as one of the last representatives
of his generation, Carter's status is unique.
With the prospect of a Sixth String Quartet,
and the knowledge that Carter's Quartets invariably
initiate a new phase, it is to be hoped this
one will prove no less productive.
1. Peter Niklas Wilson: Book Review; Musik
Texte No. 99, Winter,
2003-bjjd, pages 105 to 106.
2. John Warnaby: Elliott Carter; Music and
Musicians, January, 1988, pages 39 and 40.
credit Nicholas Tucker by permission of the