Elliott Carter (1908–2012): Two Appreciations

Elliott Carter (1908-2012): Two Appreciations
Igor Stravinsky with Elliott Carter
Elliott Carter (1908-2012): Two Appreciations
Elliott Carter with Edmund Bacon in 1966

The American composer Elliott Carter’s connection with the American Academy in Rome was a long and mutually beneficial one. He was a Rome Prize Fellow (1953), a Resident (1968), a Trustee (1968–84) and Trustee Emeritus, and a recipient of the Academy’s Medal of Honor (1990). Carter’s recent death at the age of 103 seemed a perfect opportunity for us to ask our two current Rome Prize winners in musical composition for their thoughts about his life and musical legacy.

Controversies and Conversations: An Appreciation of Elliott Carter

by Anthony Cheung, Luciano Berio Rome Prize Fellow in Musical Composition

Elliott Carter was our link to the last ninety years of music history. Born one day after Olivier Messiaen, on December 11, 1908, months before Mahler commenced work on his Ninth Symphony and Schoenberg abandoned tonality, and four years before the births of John Cage and Conlon Nancarrow (whose centennials were recently fêted), Carter exuded timelessness in both his person and his art, writing works that remained communicative, relevant, and urgent long after their epochs had been historicized and canonized.

The stories of Carter's musical upbringing astound us with their almost mythical proportions. Taken on their own, they are enough to keep his biographers fully occupied without even touching upon his actual work. Consider this prehistory: in 1924, at 15, he attends the New York premiere of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring at Carnegie Hall and decides that composition is his calling, despite half of the audience walking out. Charles Ives mentors him, taking him to concerts and writing him a recommendation to Harvard, where Carter enrolls as an English major. While there, he discovers the major modernist American poets of the day, sparking a lifelong interest in text-setting, while he attends numerous concerts by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under its indefatigable music director and new music champion, Serge Koussevitzky. He hangs out with Edgard Varèse in a speakeasy during Prohibition, attends the American premiere of Alban Berg's Wozzeck while seated next to George Gershwin (though is too timid to introduce himself), smuggles a contraband copy of Joyce's Ulysses past customs, etc., etc., all before the age of 25. What is missing from this extraordinary parade of anecdotal delight is his own artistic voice, which blooms in several incarnations and with increasing distance from his teachers (notably Nadia Boulanger in Paris and Walter Piston at Harvard, both committed to a neoclassical aesthetic).

Though Carter had been composing for two decades before writing his first string quartet, it was not until that pivotal moment in 1950, a real reinvention of the self in the seclusion of the Arizona desert, that he found his mature voice. It would take another fifteen or so years before he really hit his stride, solidifying the ideas that had germinated in the first two quartets and Double Concerto into a fully formed identity.

It was something of a running joke in the contemporary music world that “late period Carter” had to be constantly redefined by critics and scholars with the passing of each decade after the 1970s. The tragic irony of “late period” Mozart or Schubert is that the sublime maturation of such careers occurred at the moment of lives cut short, mortality simultaneously encroaching upon and feeding into creativity. Such moribund thoughts are completely absent from the Carter legacy. The long arc of his career shows a single, decisive break in the late 1940s, followed by six continuous decades of evolution. Carter’s output resists periodization, though one can point to a renewed interest in vocal music as perhaps the strongest signpost towards that ever-elusive “late style.”

In 1975, after several decades of not writing for voice, Carter rediscovered a love for text-setting that would occupy a great deal of his creative energy until his death. As perhaps the most sensitive composer to set contemporary American poetry, he began with his Elizabeth Bishop settings, A Mirror on Which to Dwell, then wrote cycles based on poems by Robert Lowell, John Hollander, Marianne Moore, and most recently, e.e. cummings. The attention to lyricism and melody also seeped into his instrumental writing, smoothing out some of his earlier angularity and thinning out textures.

He partially attributed his renewed interest in the power of voice to his time at the American Academy in Rome, when he heard strong performances by the Rome radio orchestra and chorus of groundbreaking works like Luigi Nono’s Il Canto Sospeso. Indeed, his multiple residencies at  AAR were very important to him, highly anticipated visits during which he composed some of his most ambitious pieces. The first was the Variations for Orchestra (195355), his first mature orchestral work, written during his Rome Prize residency. That first encounter with Rome proved to be important for his career, as a performance of his first string quartet in 1954 attracted the attention of Italian composers like Luigi Dallapiccola and Goffredo Petrassi, who went on to promote his work in Europe. A second visit to the Academy in 196263 resulted in much of the music for his Piano Concerto, and he wrote the bulk of his personal favorite work, the Concerto for Orchestrapremiered by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic in 1970in his studio at the Academy.

Carter was one of the few composers who accelerated his productivity late in life; his longevity proved crucial to his creative output. In the last two decades, music simply poured out of him with a new urgency and intuitiveness that surprised everyone. He had earlier developed a highly personalized and systematic approach to harmony and rhythm, often resulting in a deluge of precompositional sketches (there exist, for example, 1,001 pages of them for his 1979 piano piece Night Fantasies, another work written at AAR). In his last years, he seemed to be throwing caution to the wind.

In the concert life of New York, it was always a great pleasure to see the seemingly omnipresent and always cheerful Carter at performances of his works. I attended several of his birthday celebration concerts, most recently his 103rd at the 92nd Street Y last December, which featured five new works that had been written in the previous year. He was a fixture at the Tanglewood Music Center, giving annual classes to the composition fellows; I remember with great fondness the two times I got to hear him speak there, in 2005 and 2009. When my ensemble Talea performed a portrait concert for Pierre Boulez in 2010, there was Carter in the audience at Miller Theatre, turning up to see his old friend (they had known each other since the 1950s). And as recently as June 2012, I heard the premiere of Two Controversies and a Conversation, a double concerto of sorts written for the New York Philharmonic. Carter, though by then wheelchair-bound, was present for a lively interview and to acknowledge yet another ovation.

One recurring criticism of Carter’s music is that it is texturally impenetrable, seemingly chaotic and complex for its own sake. Nothing could be further from the truth. One of the underlying themes in his music is the importance of simultaneous strands of expression, giving voice to multiple personalities, as complex as the voices that make up the societies we live in. Carter was especially obsessed with Mozart’s Don Giovanni, in particular the multifaceted Act I Finale with its three separate chamber orchestras, surely factoring into Carter’s own A Symphony of Three Orchestras.

Charles Ives once remarked, on hearing a performance of his Three Places in New England, “just like a town meeting, every man for himself!” Carter’s music carries that spirit as well, but his town-hall democracy is pristine and utopian, its citizens speaking and clashing eloquently, often simultaneously, and never randomly. While entropy sometimes threatens to take hold, it is always in the form of “controversies” and “conversations,” to borrow from the title of one of his final works.

His particular take on democracy must be contextualized with the brutality of the century and world he lived through. He hated repetition (and in a rather unfortunate twist of logic, minimalism, as he confessed on numerous occasions), because it reminded him of World War IIera propaganda, the age of advertising, and militaristic uniformity, singular ideas and voices being pounded into one's head ad nauseum as part of a world that demanded conformity. Carter created an image of an ideal society that thrived on cooperation in spite of disagreement, of progress and evolution based on mutual relationships (in his music, metric modulation and rhythmic transformation). Political and societal allegory is deeply embedded in his art, and confronting his work in this fashion is the most meaningful way of getting to its core. Detractors might question the relevance of representation in such highly abstracted language, but the means are cerebral because they cannot be otherwise.

In Carter’s Double Concerto, two fundamentally different ensembles coexist together, one playing rhythmic divisions of 4 against 7, another 5 against 3, with unique sets of intervals for each group as well. With a distinctive rhythmic, harmonic, and timbral profile for each ensemble, the juxtaposition of the two creates tension, interplay, confusion, and yet also cohesion. Maybe the buzz of last week’s Presidential election hasn't yet fully subsided, but my mind has been transfixed by the symbolism here. The ultimate bipartisanship in the face of seemingly irreconcilable roles is what makes the Double Concerto work, its clashes amplified by the “controversies” and its profile made whole by its “conversations.” This is a rhetoric in which polyphony stands for freedom within highly civilized bounds. And so it makes sense to leave the final word to Ives, Carter's earliest mentor, whose description of his own second string quartet can serve as a fitting epitaph for his younger colleague's output:

"S[tring] Q[uartet] for 4 men—who converse, discuss, argue (in re: ‘Politick’), fight, shake hands, shut up - then walk up the mountain side to view the firmament!"

Elliott Carter: The Legacy of a Life of Change

by Jesse Jones, Elliott Carter Rome Prize Fellow in Musical Composition

I often think about how long Elliott Carter lived: the beginning of his life witnessed both World Wars, the advent of the Model T Ford, the development of the airplane, and the burgeoning of radio, recording, and television technologies and industries. In the latter part of his life this same man could have owned an iPhone, Skyped with friends, and/or browsed the internet for deals on amazon.com. Carter was a US citizen under nineteen different presidents; his first was Theodore Roosevelt! When Carter was born there was still a vast acreage of untouched forest above New York City, people had to take trips to Europe by boat—the Titanic was still under construction—and pivotal works of music, such as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, had yet to be written. 1908 to 2012 is an immense swath of time, wherein social and ideological change and technical invention progressed very rapidly. Those are Carter’s dates, 19082012, and in this respect alone he lived a remarkable life.

But there is more to Carter’s life than its longevity. I believe that living through decades of such swift technical and social evolution left an indelible impression on his musical output. With one foot planted firmly in traditional practice—he was trained by Nadia Boulanger—and an ear for musical invention, Elliott Carter developed a personal, thoroughly modern musical voice, an approach to composition that was just as innovative as the century’s industrial and technological advances. Not everyone appreciated the sonic results of his methods, of course, but Carter always stuck to his guns, eventually witnessing the very wide acceptance of his works and theoretical techniques by performers, composers, theorists, pedagogues, and even audiences.

My personal relationship to the music of Elliott Carter has been a progression from bewilderment, through alternating stages of dismissal and avowal, to an eventual deep respect. I especially love Carter’s vocal music, for in it his abiding love and deep understanding of poetry—something dear to my heart—is most evident. Decades prior to 1975. Luckily, while a fellow at the American Academy in Rome, he heard several masterful performances of difficult vocal pieces, which encouraged him to pick up text-setting anew. A Mirror on Which to Dwell (1975), a setting of Elizabeth Bishop poems, was the first fruit of this return to the voice. When I was a student, this piece was integral to my understanding of and love for text-setting, and changed the way I look at harmonic density and counterpoint. I am the composer I am today due in large part to the techniques I learned while studying this piece.

Carter’s music also taught me about the flexibility and simultaneity of time and disparate tempi, elements it manipulates in an extremely sophisticated manner. It’s one thing to conceive of a piece where varying tempi play out concurrently, but to find a notation that accommodates such a concept, and which fits perfectly into a vertical harmonic scheme, is nothing short of genius. Such depth of thought, care in detail, commitment to concept, and confidence in craft, is what inspires me most about Elliott Carter.

I now find myself a Fellow at the American Academy in Rome, composing in the same building Carter used half a century ago. It is a generous fellowship named for him that allows me to be here. I have felt the weight of his musical and intellectual legacy very strongly since arriving in Rome, and now that he has passed on, I feel it tugging even more strongly. I regret never having communicated with him somehow; my two months here at AAR have inspired me so much, and I know this coming year will hone and shape the composer and person I am to become. I am grateful for Carter’s long life and immense body of work, and for his musical advancements and innovations. It is too late to thank Mr. Carter in person, but I sincerely hope the music I write while a Rome fellow will live up to the tremendous gift that has been given me in his name.

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