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American Composers: Elliott Carter
He Put Motion Into His Movements

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 9, 1998


    Elliott Carter Composer Elliott Carter. (By Jacques M. Chinet/Corbis)
Even the greatest music of the classical era was limited to a world of crystal chandeliers, Elliott Carter once said. "Our time is so much more awesome, frightening and, certainly, energetic. Therefore, its greatest music must be and is more powerful than the classical masterpieces."

False modesty was never one of Carter's defining characteristics, and there can be little doubt that he was referring to his own work in the passage above. Many musicians and concertgoers would agree with such an estimation – particularly in Europe, where Carter has long been revered as America's most important composer. Other listeners would disagree, however, and some of them vehemently. These people tend to find Carter's work brash, knotty, almost fetishistic in its complications, and even downright ugly. "Carter writes the kind of music Joe Public means when he says he doesn't like modern music," according to one friend, somebody who is ordinarily well disposed to the new and unusual.

Carter's Recommended Work
For those interested in exploring Elliott Carter's work, here is a starting point.
  • String Quartets Nos. 1-4. The essence of Carter's aesthetic is to be found in these four intricate and challenging works, considered by some to rank with the very best of Shostakovich among 20th-century quartets. The Juilliard String Quartet (Sony Classical, two CDs)

  • The Complete Music for Solo Piano. Here we find the chiming, youthful Piano Sonata (1946), the darkly ruminative "Night Fantasies" (1980) and a miniature titled "90 for Piano" (1994). The disc is rounded off by a conversation between pianist Charles Rosen and the composer. (Bridge Records)

  • "A Symphony of Three Orchestras." Perhaps Carter's most evocative work for large ensemble, inspired by the poetry of Hart Crane. Filling out the disc are pieces by the French American composer Edgard Varese. Pierre Boulez conducts the New York Philharmonic (Sony Classical) – by Tim Page
  • Carter himself has acknowledged that his music can sound like "confusion" at first. "But if you hear it more often, it really isn't as confused as you might think," he said. Certainly not. In fact, all of Carter's important works – four string quartets, a number of orchestral pieces, two gigantic compositions for solo piano and many other works for any number of forces – were fashioned through an exhaustive creative process, growing out of hundreds of pages of discarded drafts, all dated and preserved for subsequent consultation. "I can't conceive of writing similar pieces in series, like Haydn quartets," he once said. "I have to approach each piece as something I've never done before. Each Haydn piece has the same form. Each one of mine has a different form."

    The composer and musicologist David Schiff once observed that Carter makes music out of "simultaneous oppositions." "A piano accelerates to a flickering tremolo as a harpsichord slows to silence," Schiff wrote. "Second violin and viola, half of a quartet, sound cold, mechanical pulses, while first violin and cello, the remaining duo, play with intense expressive passion. Two, three or four orchestras superimpose clashing, unrelated sounds. A bass lyrically declaims classical Greek against a mezzo-soprano's American patter." In short, Carter writes music that is packed with events, and much of it requires enormous concentration. We don't come to Carter for "easy listening"; we come for a mercurial charge.

    Carter once said that several factors contributed to the genesis of his aesthetic. An obvious influence was the modernism of such composers as Edgard Varesse, Igor Stravinsky and Charles Ives. Another was the jazz of the 1930s and 1940s – in particular, the playing of Fats Waller – in which the soloist and the rhythm section often play in two different meters, giving a sense of wheels within wheels. The cinematic montages of the Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, with their flashbacks, crosscutting and scenes of constant motion, were also an important influence.

    A final factor was the work of the choreographer George Balanchine. "There is a continually evolving motion; everything is interlocked," Carter said of Balanchine. "You feel that the man is alive to the time that's passing. I hope a lot of my pieces are like that – a panorama going by with the focus on one detail after another."

    Elliott Cook Carter was born on Dec. 11, 1908, in New York, the privileged son of a lace importer. Before he could read, the boy was able to identify and sing all of the music in the family record collection. At an early age, Carter decided that he liked only modern music, and he used the family's yearly trips to Europe to purchase scores that were unavailable in New York. His favorite composers were two Russians, Alexander Scriabin and Igor Stravinsky, and he later said it was a first hearing of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" that made him want to be a composer.

    Clifton Furness, with whom Carter studied music at the Horace Mann School in the Bronx from 1920 to 1926, recognized his student's talents, and took him to avant-garde concerts in Greenwich Village. At one of these, Carter met the composer Charles Ives, who took a near-paternal interest in the boy and urged him to pursue a musical career. Carter studied at Harvard, where his teachers included Walter Piston, Edward Burlingame Hill and Gustav Holst (best known for his score "The Planets"), who was then a visiting professor of composition, and then went to study with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, as had Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson and Piston. When he returned to New York in 1936, he became a regular contributor to the journal Modern Music and proved himself an adept critic. His first works (he disavowed his earlier compositions) include a ballet, "Pocahontas" (1939), a symphony (1942) and a sonata for piano (1945).

    The American Modernists
    Carter was only one among many American composers who adopted a highly chromatic and often strenuously dissonant manner of composition in the years after World War II. Another was Milton Babbitt (born 1916), who created highly formal, deeply calculated musical structures in a manner that stressed the rigorous organization of pitch, rhythm and texture. His music is even more complicated than much of what was written by Carter, yet it has a surface sheen and curiously airborne quality that makes it surprisingly easy to listen to. Babbitt was also a distinguished teacher and a founder of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, where some of the first works for computer, tape and synthesizer were created.

    America lost one of its most daring voices when Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-1953) stopped composing at the age of 35. She wrote only a handful of works – including a much admired string quartet (1931) that stretched the boundaries of modernity – before settling into a life in Washington, D.C., where she transcribed and wrote piano accompaniments for thousands of folk songs (her stepson Pete Seeger has carried on in that tradition).

    Miriam Gideon (1906-1996), on the other hand, remained active throughout her long life. Her music might be described as both freely atonal and highly lyrical; she did not seem so concerned with challenging the universe (Carter) or organizing it (a la Babbitt). Instead, she let each work determine its own natural form. Many of her works are for solo voice and instrumental ensemble, and may combine several languages at the same time. Gideon was a role model for many women composers, such as Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (born 1939), who the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for music. George Rochberg (born 1918) is a special case. He was known as one of the more immediately appealing of American composers working in this genre, but he then turned against modernism after his only son died at an early age. As he later wrote, "With the loss of my son I was overwhelmed by the realization that death could only be overcome by life itself, and to me this meant through art, by practicing my art as a living thing, free of the posturing cant and foolishness abroad these days which want to seal art off from life." And so he stepped outside what he called "the modernist postage stamp we had been left to work on" and began writing in an aching, freely romantic manner that called to mind the music of Gustav Mahler.

    Ralph Shapey (born 1921) has always followed his own tempestuous muse. Absolutely unconventional in his expression, he writes dissonant music of uncommon daring and intensity on a grand scale. As the Grove Dictionary of American Music and Musicians put it, Shapey's music "leads to rugged yet carefully controlled textures that can seem a musical equivalent of abstract expressionist painting." His Concerto for Cello, Piano and Strings won the Kennedy Center's Friedheim Award in 1990. He has also written hour-long pieces for solo piano, a vast work for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and a good number of solo and chamber works. Shapey is not to be fit into any fashion but I predict he will be remembered as one of the last – and greatest – of the romantic radicals. Perhaps only Beethoven stormed the heavens with such ferocity.

    Some other composers who have written powerful and aggressively modernist scores are Donald Martino (born 1931), Mario Davidovsky (born 1934), Richard Wernick (born 1934), Charles Wuorinen (born 1938) and Shulamit Ran (born 1949). – by Tim Page

    In 1950, a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation and a grant from the National Institute of Arts and Letters enabled Carter to escape the pressures of New York. And so he moved to the lower Sonoran Desert, some miles south of Tucson, with his wife, Helen Frost Jones, and his young son. He returned to New York a little more than a year later with a single composition, a 40-minute string quartet that was so immense, volatile and technically and musically difficult that Carter feared it could never be played.

    Instead, it was met with immediate and enormous acclaim throughout America and Europe and won Carter a reputation as one of our most epic and daring composers. "It had a lot of peculiar performances because it offered a lot of new problems," Carter said in 1978. "But people will spend years learning a Beethoven quartet – why should they expect that they can play a modern piece right the first time?"

    The String Quartet No. 2 (1959) (hear a soundclip) proved another watershed. "I find the human world of the quartet fascinating," he had once told an interviewer. "You have four people who have cast their lot together in life. There's the problem of how they can stand each other for so long. There's the fascinating thing of how a communal ensemble group can become almost a solo virtuoso instrument."

    And so Carter envisioned the instruments as four individuals with markedly distinct behavioral patterns. The music he provided for the first violin was, he said, "fantastic, ornate and mercurial"; for the second violin, "laconic and orderly"; for the viola, simply "expressive"; and for the cello, "somewhat impetuous." It was quite the opposite of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's famous description of chamber music as a "discourse between reasonable individuals." The individuality was there, but this was no chaste discourse. On the contrary, it was storm, strain, disruption and eventual reconciliation. But, despite its complications for players and listeners, it was far from academic and was imbued throughout with a craggy, distinctly American ferocity and grandeur. Carter himself called the String Quartet No. 2 an "auditory scenario for the players to act out with their instruments."

    Carter won his first Pulitzer Prize in 1960 for this quartet (he would win yet another with his String Quartet No. 3 (hear a soundclip) in 1973). In addition to his compositions, Carter wrote widely and with erudition on a variety of musical subjects. Many of these articles were collected in "The Writings of Elliott Carter: An American Composer Looks at Modern Music." A lengthy interview with Allen Edwards was published in 1972 as "Flawed Words and Stubborn Sounds" (detractors referred to the book as "Flawed Sounds and Stubborn Words"). In 1983, the composer David Schiff published a scholarly and enthusiastic full-length study called "The Music of Elliott Carter," which is likely to remain the standard text for those interested in Carter's work.

    The National Symphony Orchestra will play an important Carter piece in October, when Leonard Slatkin leads the Variations for Orchestra (1956). As with so much of Carter's later music, this work is based on clashes of musical opposites. The "theme" in these variations is augmented by two equally significant but dramatically different motifs. One occasionally has the sensation that all of the variations are being played at once; the mind focuses on the slow diminution of one passage and the sudden importance of another, as if a world were changing before one's ears.

    One of Carter's finest later works is "A Symphony of Three Orchestras" (1976), which was inspired by the poetry of Hart Crane. The title is ever so slightly misleading – in fact, the 15-minute symphony is scored for one large orchestra divided in three. It makes its strongest impression in concert, where one may listen to each ensemble playing its own allotted music, then combining with the other ensembles to create a cumulative whole.

    When Carter won the Edward MacDowell Medal in 1983 for a lifetime of achievement, he called his compositions "strange beings," which had both "possessed and surprised" him. If anything, he said, "my compositions deserve this medal, not me."

    In the past 20 years, however, the tide has largely turned for this sort of high modernism in America. It was never really taken to heart by the general listener, and such currents as neo-romanticism, minimalism and postmodernism – as well as a wide variety of popular and world musics – have attracted increasing attention. Many young composers now place a strong emphasis on lush, lingering timbres and easy lyricism, qualities that are in short supply in much of Carter's music. Although the composer's 90th birthday (this December) will be celebrated in musical capitals throughout the world, Carter has never become a genuinely popular composer, nor does it seem likely that he ever will. After all, we rarely hear music by such pioneering modernists as Roger Sessions (1896-1985) or Wallingford Riegger (1885-1961) anymore.

    This is a shame, for some terrific music came out of this school of composition, with its single-mindedness, roisterous energy and unblinking courage. These musicians explored the world of music and did their best to make it new. Moreover, the mere fact that Carter is now in the midst of writing his first opera, at the age of 89, is remarkable in itself.

    As Carter himself put it: "I just can't bring myself to do something that someone else has done before. Each piece is a kind of crisis in my life. It has to be something new, with an idea that is challenging."

    Listeners who respond to Carter's challenges may agree with the New Grove Dictionary of American Music, which states flatly: "At its best, Carter's music sustains an energy of invention that is unrivaled in contemporary composition."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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