Saturday Art: American Composer Elliott Carter Passes at Age 103


Centenarian American composer Elliott Carter passed away last Monday.  He was 103 years old.

He lived a year longer than Henry Purcell (died at age 36), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (lived to be 35) and Franz Schubert (a bright, bright flame, who passed away at 31) strung end-on-end.  Like my dad seven years ago, Carter passed away on Guy Fawkes Day.

In a tribute to Carter upon the composer’s 100th birthday, New Yorker fine music critic, Alex Ross, wrote:

The last emperor of China had just assumed his throne. William Howard Taft, the President-elect of the United States, was meeting with Theodore Roosevelt at the White House. A deranged veteran of the Philippine war terrorized Edgewater, New Jersey, holding up a hotel. The diva Nellie Melba disembarked from the Lusitania, resplendent in a broad-brimmed hat. Gustav Mahler was about to conduct the last of three concerts at Carnegie Hall, having unleashed his Second Symphony a few nights earlier. And Elliott Cook Carter, Jr., was born in New York City. It was December 11, 1908. 

A hundred years later to the day, Mr. Carter walked onstage at Carnegie, a little hunched but moving under his own power, to receive the adulation of a capacity audience. If he had done nothing more than show up, he would have drawn a standing ovation. In fact, the composer was taking a bow for a new work: a short concerto for piano and orchestra entitled “Interventions,” which Daniel Barenboim and the Boston Symphony played under the direction of James Levine. If this new piece had been merely adequate, the crowd would have been happy, but it turned out to be a lucid, vivid, potent score—one of the most immediately likable works in Carter’s huge and sometimes forbidding output. This is something almost unprecedented in the history of art: an artist reaching the age of a hundred with his creativity intact.

I tried hard over the years to like Elliott Carter’s music, which I always appreciated in an intellectual sense.  The gnarliness of his tonalities is relentless.  He didn’t write twelve-tone music, but to describe his approach to atonality, musicologists had to develop an analytical language which is now also that used to describe or analyze twelve-tone music – musical set theory:

Musical set theory provides concepts for categorizing musical objects and describing their relationships. Many of the notions were first elaborated by Howard Hanson (1960) in connection with tonal music, and then mostly developed in connection with atonal music by theorists such as Allen Forte (1973), drawing on the work in twelve-tone theory of Milton Babbitt. The concepts of set theory are very general and can be applied to tonal and atonal styles in any equally-tempered tuning system, and to some extent more generally than that. One branch of musical set theory deals with collections (sets and permutations) of pitches and pitch classes (pitch-class set theory), which may be ordered or unordered, and which can be related by musical operations such as transposition, inversion, and complementation. The methods of musical set theory are sometimes applied to the analysis of rhythm as well.

Many professional music commentators and historians had regarded Carter as the most important living American composer for some time, perhaps since the death of Aaron Copland at 90, back in 1990.  Yet, when I asked my university music students last week how many of them had performed any of Carter’s music, or even knew who he was, only one out of 33 advanced music majors even knew who the man was.  None had directly experienced Carter’s musical art, which is highly sophisticated and difficult to perform.

WNYC Radio’s John Schaefer, the host of their music program, New Sounds, since 1982, published an appreciation of Carter Tuesday at the radio station’s Soundcheck blog:

Elliott Carter wrote music that for most listeners is impenetrable. I don’t mean this either as a putdown or as some kind of sniffy “Oh you wouldn’t understand” defense of his work. It’s a simple fact, one that Carter was fine with. His music was challenging, intellectual, and uncompromising. Yet he was a very funny guy.

Carter wasn’t at this year’s League Of Composers concert, but he was at the NY Philharmonic’s Contact series, conductor Alan Gilbert’s new music events, so I got to talk to him then. By this point he was wheelchair bound, but still sharp as a tack. So there, in the august Metropolitan Museum of Art, surrounded by the distinguished musicians of the New York Philharmonic, I decided it was time for one of my crazy questions.

“I am not the only person who thinks that your works since you turned 90 are the best works of your career,” I said. This, by the way, was true; I’d said it backstage to clarinetist Virgil Blackwell, Carter’s assistant and the dedicatee of a recent Carter piece, and Blackwell had immediately agreed. “What have you been doing different since then?” Without missing a beat, he answered, “Well, I spent 90 years learning how to be Elliott Carter. I guess I’ve just gotten good at it.”

Almost ten years ago, Bard College professor, music historian and composer, Kyle Gann, wrote about how hard it had been for him to come to genuinely like Carter’s music:

In my early teens, I discovered Ives’s “Concord” Sonata and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Both were incomprehensible but fascinating, and I kept listening over and over and over until I totally fell in love. Next came Carter’s Double Concerto and Second String Quartet, and I assumed the same thing would happen. All through college and grad school I avidly followed every new Carter premiere, bought his scores and recordings, listened dozens of times, analyzed what I could. Then, one day in the early 1980s, I was listening to the Double Concerto with the score again for what was at least my 50th time. And the thought popped into my head: “I’ve studied this piece and studied it for over ten years, and I don’t give a damn if I ever hear it again.” I closed the score, and never listened to the piece closely again until I wrote my American music book in 1995. In a way, what drove me away from the music was its unmemorability. There’s a tremendous pleasure in becoming familiar with something as mammoth, dense, and complex as the “Concord” Sonata, and learning to love every skewed little harmonic implication. But while I had the general overall plan of the Double Concerto in my head, and could anticipate the climaxes and piano and harpsichord cadenzas, the vast majority of the pitch complexes just never imprinted themselves on my memory. (You can assume I have lousy ears if you want, but when I entered grad school the professor who administered the ear-training entrance exam told me I did better on it than he could have. It included some Stravinsky 12-tone vocal music that I transcribed correctly, including the solo vocalist’s quarter-tone mistakes.) Though by then fond of Ives, Stravinsky, Cage, Stockhausen, and even Babbitt’s wonderful Philomel, I had failed to develop the slightest affection for the Carter Double Concerto after dozens, maybe hundreds of listenings.

And it wasn’t just listening. In the ’70s every young composer analyzed Carter’s Second String Quartet, and I was no exception. I started with loads of enthusiasm, but increasingly found the ideas unmusical: especially that the tritones were all in the viola, the perfect fifths all in the second violin (or whatever – I disremember the details), which isn’t something one can hear in a polyphonic texture. It’s a stupid idea, really. And as fanatical as I am about tempo contrasts, Carter’s seemed mechanical and musically unmotivated. I came to think that Carter had invested a lot of time in overly literal aspects of music that didn’t appeal to the ear. As I’m always reminding my students, art isn’t about reality, it’s about appearances.

And yet, I never turned against all of Carter’s music. I’ve always been fond of his Quartet for Flute, Oboe, Cello, and Harpsichord (which I plan to analyze for class in my next Advanced Analysis Seminar at Bard), and also like his First String Quartet, Piano Sonata, and Cello Sonata. These transitional works he wrote between 1948 and 1952 seem poised exquisitely between his neoclassic period and complex atonalism, and for a few years there I thought he perfectly cross-hatched the near-tonality of his Boulanger years with the intervallic precision of serialist technique. But then he visited Darmstadt and started one-upping the Europeans, apparently, and from the orchestral Variations of 1955 on I find his music lacking in personality. So it’s true I don’t like most of Carter’s music because it isn’t memorable, but simplicity is not the only key to memorability. The F,O,C,&H Quartet is not necessarily simpler than the Carter Piano Concerto, but its pitch choices seem much more meaningful, not nearly so bland and randomly scattered.

I haven’t spent nearly as much time trying to get inside Carter’s art.  But let’s give you a try, in the highly likely event that you have never heard a note of his.

Here is a nifty performance from his Enchanted Preludes, for flute and violoncello.  You can follow the music as it speeds along:

Here’s an interview of Elliott Carter, conducted by  Frank J., Oteri from the American Music Center.  It clearly shows Carter’s rich sense of humor:

Here is a performance of Elliott Carter’s Dialogues for Piano and Orchestra, written in 2003, when Carter was in his mid-90s, and performed at the Tanglewood Festival four years ago:

Exit mobile version