Tag: Carter legacy

Carter’s Continuing Presence

Elliott Carter passed away on November 5th, 2012 at the age of 103. It took me several years to adjust to a musical world without Carter’s living presence. This was in part because there still was so much recent music to catch up with: Caténaires, Sound Fields, Two Controversies and a Conversation, String Trio, Tintinnabulation, and the Double Trio, constitute a highly abbreviated playlist of the musical riches of Carter’s last decade. By the 21st century, I had become so accustomed to being surprised and delighted by the freshness and daring of new Carter works from a composer well in his 90s, and then amazingly, into his 100s, that it took some time to accept that this seemingly inexhaustible musical adventure had finally come to an end. Five years after Carter has left us as a human presence, it is time to assess his continuing musical presence in the still-young 21st century.

Elliott Carter in the 20th Century

Before assessing the significance of Carter’s music in the 21st century, I will first summarize the achievements from his most innovative and influential 20th century period, from the late 1940s through the late 1970s.

Carter’s notable musical innovations center on the following techniques: metric modulation, a set-class approach to harmony, extra-musical (especially literary) conceptions of musical structure, stylistic individuation of musical parts, and simultaneous presentation of stylistically distinct musical movements. Two crucial educational experiences informed this work: Carter’s personal association with Charles Ives in the mid-1920s and a rigorous course of training with Nadia Boulanger in the early 1930s. The friendship with Ives put Carter directly in touch with an early 20th century modernist project that embraced experimentation, multiplicity, and a hybridization of “high art” and vernacular musical styles that Carter ultimately found problematic. Studies with Boulanger developed Carter’s mastery of the two fundamental organizational principles of European tonal music: harmony and counterpoint.

Before exploring what these techniques got for Carter, let’s move back before the Cello Sonata and the String Quartet No. 1, which together represent a deliberate move away from a musical style that Carter later described as deliberately simplified in order to be more appealing to general American audiences. Carter’s most crowd-pleasing effort along these lines is the Holiday Overture (1944), which fuses an American nationalist style with strong contemporary European influences, most obviously from Paul Hindemith, but with occasional Stravinskyan flourishes as well. (The influence of both Hindemith and Igor Stravinsky is felt rather more strongly in the Suite from Pocahontas of 1939.) While the language of the Holiday Overture is largely pan-diatonic, and considerably more consonant than Hindemith’s music, there are occasional flirtations with polytonality and cross rhythms that hint at the modernist direction that Carter ultimately decided to pursue.

Elliott Carter, wearing a suit, in profile (1942).

Elliott Carter in 1942.

The Holiday Overture nicely articulates a key inflection point for Carter near the middle of the 20th century, poised between populism vs. modernism, and between American nationalism vs. the European avant-garde. The compositional sequence of the Piano Sonata (1945-46), to the Cello Sonata (1948), to the String Quartet No. 1 (1951) chronicles Carter’s movement toward both a permanent embrace of Modernism in respect of the first schism, and a dynamic balance between American and European elements in respect of the second schism. As a result, many American listeners would consider Carter’s mature musical style to lean European, especially when compared with such composers as Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, Leonard Bernstein, Virgil Thompson, William Schuman, Charles Ives, or even John Cage, while European composer Pierre Boulez said that he liked Carter’s music because it sounds so “American.” In the 21st century, the question of music nationalism may seem rather trivial (or perhaps takes on new meanings), but nationalism was a question of great concern to many early to mid-20th century composers, such as Béla Bartók, Igor Stravinsky, and Carlos Chavez, as well as many of the American composers just mentioned.

Returning to musical innovations, the technique most firmly associated with Carter is metric modulation. While Carter did not invent the technique, he employed it with much greater depth and scope than any prior composer. Metric modulation involves a redefinition of the tempo, based on metrical relationships. A simple example is shown below.

An example of a metrical modulation from triplets in 4/4 time to 8th notes in 7/8.

For the listener, there is no change in the speed of the repeated notes. However, the change of tempo allows for groupings (such as the 7/8 bar shown) that are difficult or impossible to notate at the prior tempo. This allows for fluid destabilization of a tactus, and as mentioned in the previous section. The avoidance of a constant, regular tactus is a defining feature of Carter’s post-1940s music.

Carter’s focus on set-based harmonies matures in the String Quartet No. 1, with a harmonic language that hinges on the two all-interval tetrachords, shown below. (An all-interval tetrachord provides every interval class from 0 to 6. By contrast, a whole-tone tetrachord can only provide interval classes 0, 2, 4 and 6.)

The two all interval tetrachords: 0156 (e.g. C-C#-E-F#) and 0137 (e.g. C-Db-Eb-G)

Carter’s interest in set-based harmony led him to write his Harmony Book, enumerating every possible chord in the 12-tone system. The focus on pitch sets (chords in Carter’s terminology) would have been informed by Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone method, and especially the partitioning techniques of Anton Webern. Equally plausible precedents include the fascination with new chordal sonorities exhibited by such composers as Alexander Scriabin and Franz Liszt. Carter’s work with pitch sets in the early 1950s puts him ahead of major publications on the subject, such as Howard Hanson’s Harmonic Materials of Modern Music (1960), Milton Babbitt’s  “Set Structure as a Compositional Determinant” (1961), and Alan Forte’s The Structure of Atonal Music (1973). Carter’s adoption of pitch sets as determinative of his harmonic language permanently foreclosed the quasi-tonal harmonic language of the Holiday Overture. Additionally, it gave him a powerful tool for individual and group differentiation within larger ensembles.

Carter’s use of extra-musical literary sources of inspiration motivates his concept of a musical score as a “play,” with stylistically individuated characters. Quotations from inspirational poetry preface such important orchestral scores as the Concerto for Orchestra (1969) and A Symphony of Three Orchestras (1976), clearly articulating that Carter’s works are not mere technical experiments, but harbor ambitious expressive intent as well. The stylistic individuation of musical parts is most strongly introduced in the opening of the Cello Sonata, where the pianist mechanically pecks out a clock-like rhythm while the cello follows a lyric and expressive melody that floats in a different tempo from the piano. The ending of the fourth movement demonstrates that the character roles can be reversed, even though the two parts seem optimized for the inherent character of the cello (a singing instrument) and the piano (a percussion instrument). At the same time, this introduction of the idea of stylistic individuation makes a clear link to earlier classical music, going back at least as far as Mozart, whose music demonstrates a clear differentiation between melody and accompaniment lines.

Leonard Bernstein and Elliott Carter looking over a score.

Carter with Leonard Bernstein in 1971 in Philharmonic Hall during a rehearsal for a New York Philharmonic performance of the Concerto for Orchestra (photographer unknown; courtesy Elliott Carter Centenary)

Carter’s stylistic differentiation of individual parts breaks free from its classical precedents in the String Quartet No. 2 (1959), where each part is assigned its own rhythmic profile and repertory of intervals. The construction of not just differentiated lines or even differentiated types of music, but individuating each musician as a “character” in a musical play is Carter’s mature conception of instrumental differentiation that will present itself repeatedly throughout his music from the 1960s forward. The obvious predecessor in this regard is the comical character “Rollo” in Charles Ives’s String Quartet No. 2. But a key difference from Ives’s approach is Carter’s wariness of slapstick humor in music; Carter feels that it’s too facile and too easy to bring off.

Finally, the simultaneous presentation of stylistically differentiated movements extends the idea of stylistically differentiated individual parts. This strategy is first clearly and comprehensively articulated in the Concerto for Orchestra (1969). Carter then radically rethinks the spatial and formal architecture of the string quartet with his String Quartet No. 3 (1971), where different musics interpenetrate and move through each other at different speeds, styles, and densities. Carter recommends spatial separation of the two duos in performance of this quartet to further articulate the different musical streams. The superposition of different kinds of music (slow and fast) had already been heard in the String Quartet No. 1, but No. 3 applies this as a principle for structuring the entire piece. A precedent for this superposition of different musics is found in the music of Charles Ives, in such works as Central Park in the Dark and the Symphony No. 4.

What truly distinguishes Carter’s music is the intensity, passion, expressiveness, and sheer power of his musical creations.

Having surveyed Carter’s technical innovations, I must emphasize that his reputation derives not just from these innovations. After all, 20th century art was inundated with technical experiments of every kind. What truly distinguishes Carter’s music is the intensity, passion, expressiveness, and sheer power of his musical creations, which are all girdled by a commitment to compositional rigor and extreme exploration of technical possibilities. As Carter himself observed, creating one’s own language is a special prerogative of the 20th century composer. But that composer must then communicate clearly using the language that s/he created. Carter’s mature set of technical concerns clearly identifies him as a 20th century modernist. But he did not jump on every modernist bandwagon. Key 20th century musical research areas that Carter completely avoided include electronic music, aleatoric music, and microtonal music. And despite a constant concern for multiplicity, Carter studiously avoided the pastiche approach of post-modernism. Carter even more studiously avoided the fixed tempi and mechanical repetitions of minimalism. It may have taken 50 years for Carter to discover and integrate his core compositional concerns, but from that point forward, for the next 53 years, Carter could not be budged from his compositional edifice. He continued to write Elliott Carter’s music twelve years into the 21st century, a period in which the dominant compositional trends seem to be at odds with Carter’s compositional ethos.

Elliott Carter in the 21st Century

Elliott Carter sitting in the audience.

Elliott Carter at a rehearsal for Two Controversies and a Conversation during the NY Philharmonic’s Contact Series in June 2012. (Photo by Ed Yim.)

Yet Carter’s music is alive and well five years after his death in November 2012. Just in 2017, Carter’s two major publishers, Boosey & Hawkes and Associated Music, reported 52 performances of Carter’s music, 10 of them orchestral performances, including multiple performances of Carter’s 1998 opera What Next? This record of performances would be an impressive showing for a living composer. For a deceased composer, it is a serious vote of confidence in the continued relevance of the music. Many more performances are scheduled for 2018. Looking at reported performances of orchestral music from 2012-2018, there is further evidence of a sustained presence for Carter’s music, with a combined report of 127 performances of works for full orchestra. (Those performance do not include works such as Sound Fields and the Clarinet Concerto, which are for smaller forces.)

These statistics on Carter’s posthumous orchestral presence are great news of course. At the same time, I have some reservations, based on my own assessment and categorization of Carter’s orchestral music. Following our earlier discussion of Carter’s technical progress as a composer, I categorize the orchestral music up through the Minotaur Suite (1947) as Carter’s populist period. The Variations for Orchestra (1955) is a transitional work, not a populist work, but also not yet possessed of the orchestral maturity on display in the Piano Concerto completed one decade after. The period from 1964 to 1976 contains, in my view, the pinnacle of Carter’s writing for full orchestra, comprising the Piano Concerto, The Concerto for Orchestra, and A Symphony of Three Orchestras. The period from 1986 forward, starting with the Oboe Concerto, is what I consider Carter’s post-pinnacle orchestral period. While “post-pinnacle” might sound pejorative, for a composer of Carter’s rank, a descent from his pinnacle still leaves the work in a state of excellence. And to be clear, this view is restricted to the orchestral music. The main distinction I want to make here is that the three works of Carter’s orchestral pinnacle all represent “crisis” pieces, struggling to extend Carter’s language, and then express himself musically with the greatest force possible. Both the Concerto for Orchestra and A Symphony of Three Orchestras were composed within the sweet spot of Carter’s initial and most rigorous development of his primary rhythmic, formal, and harmonic innovations, especially in the superposition of multiple movements articulated by harmony, speed, and musical character. The Piano Concerto is an even more special piece, perhaps unique among Carter’s work, where he seems almost not himself, given the darkness, violence, and political despair articulated in the piece. Each of these pinnacle works would require its own essay to begin to unpack the technical and expressive force of the works; for now, I simply assert their primacy, and allow the reader to either agree with my assessment or not.

Of 127 reported orchestral performances, 21 were of Carter’s populist music, 7 of the transitional Variations for Orchestra, 2 of “pinnacle” music, and 97 of “post-pinnacle” music.

According to the above categorization, of the 127 reported orchestral performances, there were 21 performances of Carter’s populist music, 7 performances of the transitional Variations for Orchestra, 2 performances of pinnacle music (one each of the Concerto for Orchestra and A Symphony of Three Orchestras), and 97 performances of post-pinnacle music. Given that the post-pinnacle period comprises 26 years, and given that Carter’s productivity markedly increased in that period, and finally given that there is usually more interest in a composer’s more recent music, it is not surprising that the majority of performances are in the post-pinnacle period. And again, I must stress that there is wonderful orchestral music in what I am calling the post-pinnacle period. Instances (2012) has great wit, some fine and original gestures, some obsessive intensity toward the end, and a very lovely coda, with the piano speaking in single tones against the ensemble, in what might be an echo of the Woody Woodpecker-like piano notes of the Piano Concerto. But Instances is not as soul-crushing as the Piano Concerto, or as ambitiously world-building as the Concerto for Orchestra or A Symphony of Three Orchestras. Instances is a fine and elegant vehicle—a bicycle. The pinnacle orchestral works are Sherman tanks.

Those readers who share my assessment of the pinnacle orchestral works will also share my disappointment that they represent a mere two out of 127 Carter orchestral performances discussed here. In addition to the number of performances, there is an interesting story in the location of the performances. A total of 31 of the orchestral performances took place in the USA. Ten of these performances were from the populist period, four were of the transitional Variations for Orchestra, one was of the pinnacle work Concerto for Orchestra, the remaining 16 performances were of post-pinnacle works. Five of those were of Instances, all clustered in 2013, the year after the composition of the work.

The music of one of America’s most celebrated composers received well over twice as many performances in Europe as in the USA.

By contrast, 76 orchestral performances took place in Europe (including the UK), with the remaining performances taking place in South America, Australia, and Canada. Nine of the European performances were of Carter’s populist orchestral music. One pinnacle work, A Symphony of Three Orchestras, was performed, two performances of Variations for Orchestra were given, and the remaining 64 performances were of post-pinnacle works. Thus, in the six-year period starting from 2012, Carter’s final year, the music of one of America’s most celebrated composers received well over twice as many performances in Europe as in the USA. Music from Carter’s populist period comprises approximately 32 percent of the USA performances, and approximately nine percent of the European performances. These statistics speak to the well-known conservatism and risk-aversion of American orchestral programming, compared to that of Europe. Given the spirit of boldness and innovation in American musical cultural production that has given us John Cage, Steve Reich, The Sonic Arts Union, computer music, disco, and of course Elliott Carter, the general timidity of the American orchestra is a regrettable lacuna. At the same time, we should single out the 2013 Concerto for Orchestra performance given by the American Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, under the direction of Leon Botstein. The American Symphony Orchestra and Botstein cannot be praised highly enough for bringing challenging, seldom performed music to the public, but their project remains the exception that proves the rule in American orchestral programming.

Helen Carter, NYC Mayor Ed Koch, Elliott Carter (at podium) and Henry Geldzahler, NYC's commissioner of cultural affairs at City Hall in 1978.

Although there have been considerably more performances of Elliott Carter’s music in Europe than in the United States, Carter is one of the few composers to be officially honored by our government. In addition to being feted at the White House by Ronald Reagan as one of the first 12 recipients of National Medal of Arts in 1985, Carter was also honored in 1978 at New York City’s City Hall by then Mayor Edward I. Koch (left of Carter who is at the podium) and Henry Geldzahler, NYC’s then commissioner of cultural affairs (far right). Carter’s wife Helen (1927-1998) is standing to the left of Koch.

Carter’s Legacy

Having demonstrated the viability of Carter’s orchestral music, which is by far the most difficult instrumental medium in which a composer can achieve lasting success, there is a much more vital performance environment for Carter’s chamber and solo music, which is performed at a considerably higher rate than the orchestral music. Within this repertory, certain focal points may be predicted. For example, the five string quartets seem to be on track for canonical status, having been championed by both top generalist string quartets like the Juilliard Quartet and Pacifica Quartet, and by new music specialist quartets such as the Arditti Quartet and the JACK Quartet. Within that corpus, I would further highlight the first and third quartets as the two “crisis” pieces—the standouts in the collection that take an experimental technique to its outer limit. String Quartet No. 1 delves deeply into the problem of metric modulation as a basis for large-scale formal organization and String Quartet No. 3 attacks the problem of simultaneous unfolding of different movements, taking its textures closer to the edge of chaos than any of his music with the possible exception of the finale to the Double Concerto. Carter’s solo piano piece Caténaires has established itself as a showpiece for competitions, as beautifully demonstrated in this performance by Sean Chen. (Multiple performances of this work are easily found on YouTube.) Many other fine “musical selfies” of Carter’s solo pieces adorn YouTube, such as this dramatic reading of Figment III, performed by James Oesi.

Carter’s legacy may be found in the work of his students.

Another aspect of Carter’s legacy may be found in the work of his students. I will next consider the music of one of Carter’s most prominent students, Jeffrey Mumford, since Mumford openly and gratefully acknowledges Carter’s influence. Jeffrey Mumford first became enamored of Elliott Carter’s music during his college years, and studied privately with Carter during 1980-83. Mumford’s music shares the following general concerns with Carter’s music: multiplicity, stratification and conversations between instruments or groups of instruments, and temporal variety. One readily hears in Mumford’s instrumental writing a long-line approach to melodic invention that is distinctly “Carterian.” One also hears a fondness for simultaneous unfolding of materials at disparate tempi, along with a general avoidance of motoric rhythms (though with a bit more openness to regular rhythms than Carter). Mumford’s music exemplifies how some important elements of Carter’s compositional practice can be adopted, while others are left on the table and other non-Carterian elements enter the compositional project. Mumford intriguingly acknowledges both jazz ballads and the rich harmonies of disco as important influences. In Mumford’s cello concerto of fields unfolding . .  echoing depths of resonant light from 2015, written for Carter in memoriam, all of these elements are on display. The long, flowing, directional cello lines interspersed with double-stops and harmonics for emphasis are very Carterian. But the lush, shimmering diatonic string backings are something that Carter would have never written.

Joel Chadabe, Alvin Curran, Tod Machover, Jeffrey Mumford, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich

Five of the more well-known composers who studied with Elliott Carter (pictured from left to right): Joel Chadabe, Alvin Curran, Tod Machover, Jeffrey Mumford, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich

Despite shared musical concerns, and some similarities in musical language between Carter and Mumford, there is a dramatic element in Carter’s ethos that often leads to sudden outbursts of explosive violence in his music, which is decidedly not a part of Mumford’s musical personality. Mumford instead invests more heavily in lyricism, beauty, and lushness, resulting in a more personal, private sensibility than that of Carter’s music. I consider this private sensibility to be a quality of particular importance for 21st century classical music, and for that reason, in addition to its general excellence, I highly commend Mumford’s music to the attention of the reader.

Mumford’s lush, shimmering diatonic string backings are something that Carter would have never written.

The legacy of a composition teacher is not just in knowledge and technique imparted, but also in more intangible conveyances. Jeffrey Mumford shared the following statement regarding Elliott Carter, “His class and elegance are a gift to us all, and the legacy of the depth and intelligence of his music will live on far into the future, as successive generations discover it. Words cannot express the gift he has given me in my focus and journey as an artist. Words also cannot express how much I miss him.”

Moving Forward the 21st Century

Elliott Carter standing in front of a bookcase (1982).

Elliott Carter in 1982 in front of one of the many bookcases in his New York apartment

While Carter’s reputation is unassailable, we now live in a musical world in which Carter’s music is of the recent past, not the present, somewhat analogous to the position of Johannes Brahms’s music in the early 20th century. Fundamental aspects of new music culture are changing, where recognition as a “great composer” may take on new meanings. A few factors to consider:

1. The increasing prominence of composer/performers

The music of composer/performers tends to emphasize materiality with little room for the abstractions of modernist composers like Carter.

The composer/performer model has been a norm throughout much of classical music history. In the 20th century, a tendency toward specialization led to the non-performer/composer, and alternative hybrid models emerged, such as composer/teachers and composer/theorists, who do not perform music, or at least do not devote much focus to performance. Carter, Roger Sessions, Milton Babbitt, and Brian Ferneyhough are prominent exemplars of the non-performer/composer. A shift in emphasis towards performer/composers in the early 21st century has emerged, featuring musicians whose roots are as performers who then gravitated towards composition. As composers, their music seems, for lack of a better word, performative in emphasis, since they are composing for instruments on which they regularly perform. Theo Bleckmann, Todd Reynolds, Jane Rigler, Pamela Z, and Michael Lowenstern are notable exemplars. Notable 20th century precursors to this model include Robert Dick, Diamanda Galas and Joan LaBarbara. On being awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize, Caroline Shaw famously remarked, “I don’t really call myself a composer.” Instead, Shaw is a multi-talented instrumentalist and vocalist who also composes music. And her music is written for performers with a directness that is in contradistinction to the modernist approach to instrumental writing. Shaw’s compositional practice is a far cry from that of Arnold Schoenberg who, when told by a prominent violinist regarding his new Violin Concerto that he would have to wait for a violinist born with six fingers, Schoenberg replied, “I can wait.” The music of composer/performers tends to emphasize the materiality of performance and sound in a directly experienced and expressed manner, with little room for the notation-based abstractions of modernist composers like Carter.

2. Radical proximity

It would seem that our culture of Internet-based music will stimulate a very different kind of musical intelligence that that of Carter.

On the internet, any music that can be uploaded as a recording is just a click away. There is a profound overload of available music, coupled with a pervasive awareness of this overload. In such a diverse, densely populated musical world, the revolutionary impact of music from the early 20th century, such as Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps or Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire seems impossible today. Classical pieces that come to prominence today seem to do so for a very short period, before disappearing from the public ear. These works do not have the subversive impact of the radical early 20th century pieces discussed above, or even radical mid-century interventions like John Cage’s 4’33”. Given that the disruptive and interventionist aspect of those early modernist works was so essential to stimulating the young Elliott Carter’s imagination, it would seem that our culture of Internet-based music will stimulate a very different kind of musical intelligence that that of Carter. Instead of those massive early 20th century cultural impacts, we now have interstitial reverberations, quiet and difficult to trace, with long tails.

3. Erosion of the high art/low art distinction

A distinction between high art music and vernacular music was a prerequisite for Carter’s music to develop as it did.

Carter’s concern for high culture doesn’t seem very possible in the early 21st century. Instead, this is an era of hybridity. Jeffery Mumford’s shared influences of Carter’s music and disco is emblematic of 21st century classical music. The composer who also has a band (even if that band is a new music ensemble) is more the rule than the exception today. This is a cultural world that is aligned with composers such as Nick Didkovsky, Missy Mazzoli, Eve Beglarian, Annie Gosfield, and Elliott Sharp. The enforcement of a distinction between high art music and vernacular music, which was essentially a prerequisite for Carter’s music to develop as it did, no longer holds much credibility. Although Carter’s ideas can continue to propagate in the internet space of hybridity, the space for single-strain incubation of high-art projects is severely diminished, compared to that of the 20th century.

Concluding Thoughts

Carter seems to have sensed some of these 21st century cultural issues surprisingly early. In a 1990 interview with Jonathan W. Bernard, discussing his state of mind in the late 1960s during the composition of Concerto for Orchestra, Carter stated, “The whole question of the time we are living in, and whether it’s the end of a period, is something that has hung over us all, I think, for a long time, and this is a very meaningful thing to me in that piece…You see, I lived through that particular period of modernism that has now somehow become either classic or God knows what, but it still is very vivid to me. The whole question of what high culture is is something that remains profoundly disturbing and perplexing.”

Carter’s magnificent creative thought patterns are no longer ours.

The beautiful thing about music is that there’s always room for new voices. We don’t have a limited amount of storage space to house statues of our musical gods, where after it fills up we need to toss out some gods to make room for new ones. Carter has earned his place in the pantheon, and will surely remain there for the foreseeable future. At the same time, we have definitively moved beyond his period of modernism, and are now in a very different cultural place. We living composers can admire and learn from Carter’s work, but the task before us now is to develop a musical culture that would seem increasingly weird, alien, disturbing, and perplexing to Carter. His magnificent creative thought patterns are no longer ours.

Elliott Carter with Igor Stravinsky at the Galerie International on Madison Avenue, NYC May 1, 1962

Elliott Carter with Igor Stravinsky at the Galerie International on Madison Avenue, NYC May 1, 1962

Throughout November 2017, NewMusicBox is marking the fifth anniversary of Elliott Carter‘s death with a series of posts exploring his life and legacy. This content is made possible with the generous support of the Amphion Foundation‘s Carter Special Projects Fund.

The Late Elliott Carter

There’s an old quip that if you’re a composer, the first five years after you die are the worst. Whether or not that’s true, a composer’s posthumous reputation does sometimes veer off surprisingly from its earlier course. In some cases, a giant is laid low; in others, interest skyrockets. Paul Hindemith was routinely spoken of in the company of Schoenberg and Stravinsky during his lifetime but has not fared well of late, while a quarter century after his death John Cage is more influential than ever. Yet the hierarchies of departed composers are fluid. In the 1920s, Harvard students joked that the exit signs at the Boston Symphony meant “this way in case of Brahms.” J. S. Bach, Schubert, Sibelius, and Mahler all have had their ups and downs, and as often as not one generation’s lion is another’s goat (and vice versa).

If you’re a composer, the first five years after you die are the worst.

Now that the fifth anniversary of Elliott Carter’s passing is upon us (he died on Nov 5, 2012), there’s been no push to rename the exit signs at Symphony Hall, but neither has there been universal canonization. The case of Elliott Carter stands apart from the usual pattern of posthumous appraisals, not least because Carter lived to within a few weeks of his 104th birthday, and kept composing almost to the end. He may be the only composer in the history of Western music to have done so. Rather than leaving us just a handful of unusual works that slot neatly into the dotage thought inevitable before the Romantics or the transcendence Adorno heard in late Beethoven, Carter wrote dozens of pieces in a wide variety of genres. If Aaron Copland’s experience of composing (or rather not composing) in old age was like the turning off of a faucet, Elliott Carter’s was like whitewater rafting. He rode an extraordinary wave of productivity in his last decades, far exceeding that of his youth and middle age. If we measure in minutes of music, the midpoint of his catalog comes out to be after his 80th birthday, and the compositions for which he is best known (the first three string quartets, the Double Concerto, Piano Concerto, and Concerto for Orchestra, even the vocal works of the 1970s) are closer to his early forays into Neoclassicism than to the “mature” work of his 90s and 100s. Carter’s unprecedented combination of longevity and productivity, together with the unflagging quality and variety of the music he produced, upends the standard narrative of a composer’s career—juvenilia; mature work; final decline or apotheosis—and leaves us with a bounty of “late music” that stretches over more than three decades.

Some of this music will be familiar to NewMusicBox readers. Most of Carter’s compositions of the 1980s, including Night Fantasies (1980) for piano, Triple Duo (1983) for the now-standard “Pierrot-plus-percussion” ensemble, and smaller pieces like the 4 Lauds (1984-1999) for solo violin and Esprit Rude/Esprit Doux (1984), for flute and clarinet, have become familiar presences on recordings and in the concert hall. Carter’s two “capstone” projects of the 1990s—the 40-minute orchestral triptych Symphonia—Sum Fluxae Pretium Spei (1993-96), and his one-act comic opera with Paul Griffiths What Next? (1997-98)—have had numerous performances, and excellent recordings of both are available. And a range of later works, from the perpetuum mobile Caténaires (2006) for piano, to the wind quintet Nine by Five (2009), have established themselves quickly and securely in the repertoire. But five years on, a good deal of the music of Carter’s last half-decade is still not widely known. “Fine print” editions of several scores are still in preparation, and almost a dozen late compositions await commercial recordings and widespread performance.

Carter in 2005

Carter in 2005
Photo: Malcolm Crowthers

Help has recently arrived in the form of a new release from Ondine with premiere recordings of five pieces Carter composed between 2005 and 2012. (Full disclosure: I wrote the liner notes.) The performers include Carter stalwarts such as Oliver Knussen (one of the best Carter conductors out there), pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, and percussionist Colin Currie, but also more recent converts. To listen to Aimard play Carter’s last composition Epigrams with violinist Isabelle Faust (recent Gramophone “Recording of the Year” winner for her set of Mozart Violin Concertos) and cellist Jean Guihen Queyras (whose Bach suites win high praise) is to hear new music rendered as vividly as the masterpieces of the 18th or 19th centuries. No less persuasive are the accounts of five concertante works from the “aughts” and beyond: Dialogues (2003); Soundings (2005); Interventions (2007); Dialogues II (2010); and Two Controversies and a Conversation (2011). Soloist plus ensemble was an ideal medium for Carter. Its musical reflection of the individual in society aligns perfectly with his idea of counterpoint as human interaction. The newer works join an illustrious group of solo concertos for oboe, violin, clarinet, cello, piano, horn, flute, and bass clarinet. But they also introduce new relationships and modes of interaction between soloist and ensemble—from the piano’s Greek chorus-like framing of the orchestra in Soundings, to the studied indifference that the piano and orchestra pretend to have for each other in Interventions.

Such quasi-literary conceits will be familiar to long-time Carter listeners. They are the product both of Carter’s background in the liberal arts—which always counterbalanced his French conservatory training—and his engagement with contemporary poetry, which had roots going back to the 1940s but really took flight 30 years later. Carter’s 1975 cycle of six poems of Elizabeth Bishop, A Mirror on Which to Dwell, has become one of his most widely known pieces (thanks in no small part to the advocacy of Pierre Boulez), and Tempo e tempi (1998-99), on Italian poetry by Montale, Ungaretti, and Quasimodo is another favorite. In Carter’s last years he made song composition a special priority. From 2006 to 2011 he composed at least one major vocal work every year, applying the techniques he had developed in the 1970s to a kind of survey of the great modernist poetry he most admired in his youth. He set Stevens, Baudelaire, Pound, Zukofsky, Moore, Cummings, Eliot, and finally Stevens again, creating vivid yet deeply nuanced settings that animate and enrich the vastly different styles and voices at work in the poems. More than any other genre, Carter’s late vocal music is underrepresented on recordings and concerts. Although all of his late compositions have now been premiered, the rights of first recording for several late song cycles have not yet been exercised, although plans are underway. We won’t have to wait too long for these marvelous cycles to become widely available, and when they do they will no doubt find performers ready to take on their interpretive challenges and share their delights.

American composers rarely come to prominence via their orchestral music.

It is no accident that American composers rarely come to prominence via their orchestral music, and Elliott Carter was no exception. When reminded in 1994 that most of the music he composed between 1948 and 1992 is for small forces, Carter responded not by explaining his fascination with chamber music but by describing the limitations on rehearsal time imposed by American orchestras. It was only in his later years, when conductors like Boulez and Knussen, as well as Daniel Barenboim, Michael Gielen, James Levine, and David Robertson began to program his works regularly that Carter felt he had enough support to devote sustained attention to writing for orchestra. Although he is perennially labeled “uncompromising,” Carter’s hard-won experience with his Piano Concerto (1965) and Concerto for Orchestra (1969) led him to tailor his late orchestral music astutely to the needs of contemporary American orchestras. Gone are the unconventional seating plans, complexities of rhythmic notation, and thickly layered counterpoints of his orchestral music of the 1960s and ‘70s—techniques aimed at overthrowing what he once called “the orchestral brontosaurus.” Instead, Carter wrote to the orchestra’s strengths, in mischievous reimaginings of the orchestral tone poem, as he inherited it from Liszt, Berlioz, and Richard Strauss. The largest work on the new Ondine recording is Interventions—in an electrifying performance by Aimard and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, with Knussen conducting—and it is a sensual pleasure as well as a thrilling ride. Carter never wavered in his belief in the power of music to enlighten the complexities of human experience, but his music makes thought a joy. That his late works show off the virtuosity of contemporary orchestras to such good effect, and make such a vivid impression on audiences, should encourage their appearance on concert programs and recordings well into the future.

Carter in 2002

Carter in 2002

Likewise, the future of Carter’s chamber music seems assured. Pieces like the Cello Sonata, which once were beyond the reach of all but the most virtuosic performers, are now standard rep, appearing routinely on programs by professionals and students alike. Longtime Carter champions the Juilliard String Quartet chose Carter’s String Quartet No. 1 to take on their first tour with a new generation of members, and a wide range of quartets, including the Arditti, Brentano, Chiara, JACK, Mivos, and Pacifica quartets all have embraced Carter as well. Soloists and small groups looking for shorter works also have plenty to choose from. Surveying his 60-year career, Carter in his last years wrote dozens of “thank you” pieces, many uncommissioned, for the musicians and patrons who were his friends and colleagues. Many are short and quirky, making the category of the instrumental miniature—which Carter mostly avoided earlier in his career—something of a late specialty. In addition to two brief Fragments (both for string quartet), there are a host of short solos, duos, and trios, among them six solo Figments (two for cello; one each for double bass, viola, marimba, and oboe), and five Retracings (one each for bassoon, horn, trumpet, tuba, trombone)—each of which extracts an ensemble part from a larger piece as an instrumental solo. The modest dimensions of these pieces contain a wealth of invention and a streak of whimsical humor; like their longer siblings, they reward virtuosity and celebrate individuality.

The future of Carter’s chamber music seems assured.

Looking over all this music, it would seem both premature and false to come to any conclusions about which of Carter’s pieces will continue to resonate with the next generation of musicians and music lovers, and which ones will be cast by the wayside. What sets Carter’s music apart is its consistent focus on human experience—what it’s like to breathe in and out, be in love, lose a friend, succumb to vanity, feign indifference, become enraged or bewildered or overwhelmed, hesitate to come forward, or face death—and more often than not to contend with several of these experiences at once. Like every composer before him, Elliott Carter’s popularity has waxed and waned, and one doesn’t need to be clairvoyant to predict that it will continue to do so going forward. But I expect there will always be listeners who will recognize and respond to the fundamental humanity of Carter’s music, and ensure its future as they take it to heart.

Throughout November 2017, NewMusicBox is marking the fifth anniversary of Elliott Carter‘s death with a series of posts exploring his life and legacy. This content is made possible with the generous support of the Amphion Foundation‘s Carter Special Projects Fund.

Remembering Elliott Carter (1908-2012)

Helen & Elliott Carter 1977

Helen and Elliott Carter in 1977. Photo courtesy of Joel Chadabe.

I think it was in the summer of 1958 that I attended the Aspen School of Music in Aspen, Colorado, high up in the Rocky Mountains. Darius Milhaud was the major composer-in-residence. Lukas Foss and Elliott Carter were composers-in-residence for a week or two during the festival. I may be leaving some things out and forgetting some of the people and some of the details, but I do remember two things with great clarity. One of them is my explorations of the mountains around Aspen on horseback, going off in a different direction several times a week with a fellow student–her name was Meg–on adventurous, exhilarating long rides, sometimes all day, feeling an extraordinary sense of freedom as we moved through a landscape alone on top of the world.

The other one is a workshop in percussion offered to the composers at the school by George Gaber, an exceptional percussionist then active in the New York music scene. At 8:00 in the morning, Gaber was there in the music performance tent, surrounded by an enormous number and variety of instruments from timpani to finger cymbals. A few composition students were there. So was Elliott Carter. To my pleasure and surprise, Carter dominated the conversation as Gaber went through the instruments, playing each one and demonstrating different techniques for playing them. Carter had brought a notebook with him. He asked a lot of questions and took copious notes. It occurred to me later that he had begun to think about the Double Concerto, finished in 1961, but at that time we—“we” being the students who were there–knew of Carter through his String Quartet No. 1. That a composer we respected as a leader in the avant-garde would come to a workshop with young students, ask questions that told us what he didn’t know, and take notes, was very impressive. But thinking back, my guess is that at that time in his career, he had achieved a level of self-confidence and comfort with what he was doing musically that allowed him to display without embarrassment what he didn’t know. Early on, he had actively sought public recognition for his Americana style, for example his early orchestral piece Pocahontas, but as he told me and, in fact, said in many interviews, he had reached a point where he realized that he hadn’t gotten anywhere and he decided to go off to the desert and work out his own ideas. His first realization of the new ideas was his String Quartet No. 1 which was widely recognized as a masterpiece, albeit a little-understood masterpiece. As a student, I followed him around a little bit at Aspen, and I vaguely recall that I asked him if I could study with him.

Well, I got my chance. In September 1959, I began the three-year master’s degree program at the Yale School of Music. Carter was there to teach in 1961 and 1962. His class was a seminar that met for a couple of hours every week. The four or five of us taking the seminar presented what we were working on. I remember writing a piano piece that had an unusual little figuration in it. I remember it because Carter said something to the effect of: “Hmmm, well, that seems to work very well, but I don’t see why it does.” His teaching was largely by critique and discussion of our work. His ongoing messages to us were to do things in the most interesting way and (I paraphrase this advice, given to young composers starting their careers) to follow our own ideas and not be swayed by the lure of an artificial public success. I do not recall that he ever discussed his own work with us, but he did play examples of works by other composers, especially works that he thought we didn’t but should know. He played and we discussed parts of Boulez’s Le Marteau sans Maître, for example, as well as “Improvisation sur Mallarmé” from Pli Selon Pli, and a piece by Gilbert Amy, a student of Boulez. He discussed the orchestration of these pieces. He presented many discussions of orchestration and orchestral sound in general, for which Carter pointed to examples in Mahler’s music where colors shift as instruments mix, and come and go, in the course of a single thread of melody. He was also interested in Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and spent time trying to analyze it, but Stravinsky, who was a friend of Carter’s, apparently assured him that there was no underlying schemata. It’s interesting that Carter searched for an underlying schemata in The Rite of Spring, not something that would have occurred to me to do, for example, but the mainstream of music in the early 1960s was based on underlying structural procedures, as in Boulez’s and Babbitt’s serialism and Cage’s chance operations, and Carter was interested. His own compositions were organized by an underlying procedure based on chords and intervals. In fact, for a theory class at Yale, I did an analysis of Carter’s String Quartet No. 2, a piece that I have grown to know better as years go by and that I consider the first definitive expression of his musical ideas.

I graduated with an M.M. degree in 1962, the same year that President Kennedy was awarded an honorary doctorate, at which occasion he said, “Now I have the best of both worlds, a Harvard education and a Yale degree.” In the fall of 1962, Carter went to Rome as the composer-in-residence at the American Academy. After a few adventures, as George Mully’s stage assistant in the chamber opera workshop at the Yale Summer School of Music and Art and as an employee for Poseidon Steamship Company (principal Mediterranean agent for the Turkish Maritime Lines) in Haifa, I ended up in Rome to study with Carter.

It was an absolutely wonderful experience from the beginning. I had made an appointment to meet him in Rome that October, and prior to my arrival he had found a place for me to stay, in a pensione in which harpsichordist Mariolina De Robertis lived. Partly through Mariolina, I met many composers in Rome, among them Franco Evangelisti, Aldo Clementi, Walter Branchi, many others. I also met John Eaton, who had strong ongoing ties with the American Academy, and Larry Austin, who was there for the year.

Carter was staying in a lovely small building used by guest composers at the American Academy, located outside of the Academy building and far from downtown Rome on the Gianicolo Hill. The living room was large with a grand piano on one side and a view of a lovely garden on the other. For my part, I was living a freelance musician’s life, copying and editing music, playing piano, managing somehow, and I was writing music. That winter of 1962 was the coldest ever. Not to be taken literally, the oldest man in town didn’t remember the last time that the water in the Fontana Barbarini had frozen. I was for the most part sitting at my desk, fingers frozen, wearing sweater and overcoat, composing. When I finished something, or when I felt I needed it, I called Carter, went to see him, and we spent an afternoon together, several hours, talking. We talked about my music, which I recall as helpful, insightful, and encouraging. But as I was becoming surer of what I wanted to do and as I was becoming clearer about how to do it technically, our conversations evolved into discussions of music in general. I thought it was wonderful. I loved the process of our conversations, the depth and breadth of Carter’s interests in literature and languages, and, in short, as I think back on those days, those conversations were so exceptional and I gained so much from them that I am left somewhat speechless in trying to characterize them. It was not like information that I could write down and walk away with. It was like growth. Carter must have enjoyed it as well or he wouldn’t have been so relaxed and talkative for so many hours at so many meetings. I was a young guy. He was thirty years older and he was sharing his thoughts. I also had some thoughts to share about music, opera, and literature. And now, especially as I reflect on those days, I think we were forming a friendship. I think it was sometime during that period that I began to call him Elliott.

Carters Home in Waccabuc 1977

The Carters at their home in Waccabuc, NY. Photo courtesy Joel Chadabe.

In 1964, the Ford Foundation started its residence program in Berlin and Elliott told me that he was going. I said, “How can I apply?” He said, “You’ve already applied. You’re going.” In fact, I made an early round trip. It was probably in October or November 1963 that Elliott asked and I drove his car to Berlin from Rome, then returned to Rome, then went to Berlin in January. Alvin Curran and Frederic Rzewski were also there, and Elliott and his wife, Helen, were very much a part of our lives in Berlin. I remember a performance of the Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano, with Mariolina De Robertis playing harpsichord, Frederic Rzewski playing piano, and Bruno Maderna conducting. It was a bit of a nerve-racking experience for Elliott because Maderna missed the first rehearsal, showed up late to the second one, and when he did arrive he looked at the scores on the podium, turned to Frederic who was seated at the piano and asked, “Frederico, che facciamo?” Then, looking at the score, he said, more or less to himself, “Oh, I see, O.K., percussion up there (and he changed the percussion’s position onstage), let’s go,” and he started to conduct through the piece, learning it as he went, to the coda. “Hmmm,” he said, “one group is in 2, the other is in 3, I’ll have to conduct one group with my left hand and the other group with my right hand. But then, how will I turn pages? Ah, I’ll memorize the score.” At about that time, there was a problem with the harpsichord, so a technician from the harpsichord company was called in and he fixed it. Between Maderna’s irritating calm-and-in-control attitude and the harpsichord problem, Elliott seemed to be a little unnerved. I sat next to him during the performance, and when it was finished, as we were getting up to go back to greet the musicians, he asked, “How was it?” I told him that it was great. It was.

Elliott with Benjamin Chadabe 1977

Elliott Carter with Benjamin Chadabe, 1977. Photo courtesy Joel Chadabe.

Back in the United States a year or so later, I joined the faculty at the State University of New York at Albany. I was traveling quite a bit, but of course I was in touch with Elliott and saw him fairly often. As those years passed, and as I become more involved in electronics, we talked more often about his music than mine. During those years, Elliott and Helen had a house on Lake Waccabuc in Westchester County, just north of New York City, and my wife and I, and eventually with my son, visited during the summers while they were there. We often went swimming in the lake. Elliott had a cabin on the grounds, which of course I visited to see his current work, which we talked about. I remember that on one of those occasions he was working on Concerto for Orchestra. He had thumbtacked all of the pages of the score around the room so that he could work on the beginning, then the end, then in the middle, and so on, always seeing the whole as he made the parts.

A structure is the relationship of the parts to the whole, and we usually think of structure as the backbone of a piece. The role of structure in many of Elliott’s works, however, is more in the presentation of the piece than its driving ideas. What drives the Concerto for Orchestra, for example, is the evolving interaction in the relationship between “personalities,” different characters or forces that are musically identified through orchestration as much as through the notes the instruments play. In composing the Concerto, and also in other works, Elliott thought of the forces in poetic as well as musical terms, as narratives, and narratives are by no means the sole domain of music. The forces in the Concerto for Orchestra, for example, are based on Vents, a poem by Saint-John Perse. It’s the forces of Perse’s winds that give us the spirit of the Concerto and the narrative of interaction between elements that becomes the long line of the composition. Elliott played through that interaction in his thoughts, then, when he found the best realization of the idea, he froze the thought in notation and presented it in a coherent structure.

Elliott’s music in general is a superb amalgam of the contemporary concept of music based on underlying process and the classical concept of structure and balance. It’s a superb generalization of narrative in literature and sound. Elliott has been a wonderful example of the composer as a knowledgeable, educated person with a broad-based understanding of things in addition to music.

I’ve seen Elliott many times in the past few years. He was composing and, fascinated with the language as well as the content, reading Proust. About a year ago, he declared “Enough Proust, no more Proust,” to my wife and I. When we saw him at a later visit, he said, “I’m back on Proust.” And during this time, although clearly growing weaker physically and tiring easily, he was composing many of the lighthearted and lovely short pieces that were perfectly performed at his 103rd birthday concert at the 92nd Street Y.

We attended the ceremony, on September 21, 2012, at the French Embassy Cultural Services building in New York, at which Elliott was appointed Commander in the Legion of Honor. It was a touching moment. And what a happy way to say goodbye.

Carters & Chadabes 1995

The Carters and the Chadabes in 1995, photo courtesy Joel Chadabe.

[Ed. Note: In March 2000, NewMusicBox published an extensive conversation between Elliott Carter and Frank J. Oteri and in 2008, Phil Lesh of The Grateful Dead (a longtime Carter fan) talked with Carter for Counterstream Radio.]