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S & H Article

Elliott Carter at 95 by John Warnaby.

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 group.

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 preoccupations.

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 change' (4).

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 project.

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, alteration.

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.

John Warnaby


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.

3. ibid.

4. ibid.  

photo credit Nicholas Tucker by permission of the publisher Schirmer



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