Today marks Elliott Carter’s 110th birthday, an anniversary that he came remarkably close to celebrating in person. The most long-lived of any major composer, Carter was also the one American most consistently deemed to exemplify the “monumental” aspirations of post-WW2 musical modernism associated with the likes of Boulez, Nono, Lutosławski, and Carter’s contemporary Messiaen.
In its craft—its dissonant harmonies, its constant probing of new musical horizons, and in the disconnect between the praise it received from professional musicians and the ambivalence it often faced from concert audiences—Carter’s music indeed seemed to epitomize contemporary music in the late 20th century. To be sure, its detractors included some informed voices such as critic John Rockwell and musicologist Richard Taruskin, and even a sympathetic writer like Wilfrid Mellers called it “difficult music for ideal listeners,” acknowledging its perhaps unwarranted reputation for dryness. Contributing to this perception is the kind of analysis that Carter’s highly abstract music tends to attract—either very subjective or very technical, in both cases offering little in the way of a guide to how one might actually listen to it. I’ll attempt to at least lower this last hurdle.
Carter began his career in the 1930s amid a political environment that encouraged composers to write accessible, neoclassical music. His earliest works were in the Americana style invented by Virgil Thomson and perfected by Aaron Copland (Holiday Overture from 1944 is a good example). But Carter never had more than modest success with these rather straightforward and nondescript pieces. So after the War, with political imperatives removed, domestic life secure (he married sculptor Helen Frost-Jones in 1939), family money providing financial independence, and with his stagnating career causing personal dissatisfaction, Carter began to experiment with a different, individualistic style of such complexity that he often doubted whether his new compositions would ever be performed, much less listened to approvingly.
The starting points for Carter’s new style were the chromaticism of Schoenberg and the irregular rhythms of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (whose New York premiere in 1924 had first inspired Carter to become a composer). The atonal counterpoint that had been developed in America by Ives, Ruggles, Crawford, and Copland (in his pre-populist years) demonstrated how these new techniques could be cultivated without relying on European models, suggesting a forward path that was free of neoclassical predictability and serialist dogma.
Carter’s big breakthrough was the formidable String Quartet No. 1 (1951), a massive exploration of rhythmic layering and transformation. At 40 minutes, it retains the grand multi-movement form and broad gestures of Romantic quartets. And being still made up (mostly) of melodies and chords, albeit astringent ones, it has become one of Carter’s most popular works and a manageable entry point for those that find his later music tough going.
That the Quartet reflects a new language and confidence is evident from its opening cello cadenza, which seems intent on dragging the Elgar Cello Concerto into the midst of the 20th century:
The tempo here is ♩=72 in 4/4 time. In bar 12, the second violin enters with steady pizzicato chords—like a metronome—spaced a dotted eighth note apart. The cello responds with a stream of quintuplets which, through some changes in time signature, turn into straight sixteenth notes. Then comes a notated ritardando where the sixteenth notes lengthen into dotted sixteenth notes and then dotted eighth notes:
At bar 22, this latter, slower pace is resignatured as quarter notes in 4/4 time. The second violin reenters, and although its “metronome” is ticking at the same rate as before, the cello’s time signature maneuvers have caused the underlying tempo to increase from ♩=72 to ♩=120, so the pizzicato chords are now separated by five sixteenth notes instead of three. This technique of using a common pulse to shift from one tempo to another is called metric modulation by analogy with harmonic modulation where the music moves from one key to another via a common chord:
Soon the other two instruments enter, each with its own distinct rhythmic profile. The viola plays steady quarter-note triplets, while the first violin is in freer rhythm playing a soaring melody with mostly long notes (it’s this melody that approximates the role of a “first theme” in classical sonata form). Left alone, the three lower instruments’ note cycles would converge every 2½ bars, but at measure 27 the second violin starts to hiccup, while the cello drops out to quote Ives’ First Violin Sonata.
It’s an appropriate homage since Carter’s polymetric scheme here is almost an exact lift from the ending of Ives’ Second String Quartet, wherein the cello, viola and second violin each have the same rhythmic values as in Carter’s passage (aligning every 2½ bars in 4/4 time), with the first violin quoting Westminster Chimes in a freer rhythm.
These two techniques—metric modulation and rhythmic layering—became Carter’s signature traits for the rest of his career.
Besides Ives, two key influences on Carter’s Quartet are Ruth Crawford’s own String Quartet (1931) with its often highly independent lines, and Conlon Nancarrow’s polymetric player piano studies (familiar to Carter through their scores, which at that time was the only way to encounter them without travelling to Nancarrow’s Mexico City studio). Carter was one of the first to grasp the importance of Nancarrow’s work, decades before it become more widely known through recordings.
Much more can be, and has been, said about Carter’s First String Quartet, but not more concisely than the composer himself in his listener’s notes, which are characteristically cogent, articulate, and uninhibited in their use of literary analogies (in college Carter actually majored in literature before switching to music).
Like Schoenberg, Carter sought to organize his new musical language in a more systematic way. And by the time of his String Quartet No. 2 (1959), he had developed a novel technique to differentiate the instruments in an ensemble texture while allowing his counterpoint and rhythms to flow organically without any literal repetition of material.
The opening of the piece demonstrates this “new way.” As in the First Quartet, each instrument has a distinct rhythmic profile, including a reprise of the second violin’s “pizzicato metronome.” But gone are the broad, expressive melodies, replaced by a more fragmentary texture. This music is pure movement, rhythm, and contour, built from contrasts between stasis and activity, or convergence and divergence. It’s a middle ground between traditional melody-and-chord music and the sonorism of Ligeti and Penderecki, where individual parts are completely submerged into a composite texture.
To further establish their individual character, each instrument is assigned its own repertory of intervals. All parts are allowed to use major and minor seconds, and octaves are avoided. But as shown in the score excerpt, the first violin’s material is otherwise dominated by minor thirds, the second violin major thirds, the viola tritones, and the cello perfect fourths. It’s like a play where one character speaks only nouns, another only verbs, and so forth.
Carter found that this approach allowed him to write complex contrapuntal music without the arbitrary requirements of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique or the notoriously foursquare rhythms of much mid-century serial music. It also helped formalize the distinct character of his lines and chords, which tend to give parity to all the intervals inside an octave (in the above example, any interval can be extracted from the basic repertory allotted to the four instruments, using transposition and inversion as required). This interval parity is a big reason why Carter’s atonal music sounds different than that of Berg (who often emphasizes stacks of consonant intervals) or Varèse and Ustvolskaya (who set up collisions between stacks of similar dissonant intervals).
In an extended allegro toward the end of the Quartet, the instruments start to merge their identities, leading to a polyrhythmic climax with rapid simultaneous notes sounding at a ratio of 3:4:5:7. After this, the proceedings disintegrate, the second violin returning to its characteristic steady pizzicatos, which get the last word.
Although the technique of assigned intervals is Carter’s innovation, the broader notion of personifying each instrument as an idealized character goes back to, again, Ives’ Second String Quartet, which Ives imagined as four friends who “converse, discuss, argue [over politics], fight, shake hands, shut up—then [in the final movement] walk up the mountain side to view the firmament.”
Carter went on to compose three more string quartets (1971, 1986, and 1995) spaced out as further landmarks to his compositional career. Together with the first two, they comprise the most important body of work in this medium since Bartók. The String Quartet No. 5, coming as it did from an 86-year-old, seemed valedictory upon its unveiling. But Carter then proceeded to write his only opera, What Next?, at age 90, and continued with an astonishing stream of productivity throughout his 90s and into his 100s.
Some of Carter’s most frequently-performed works come from this period: miniatures like Shard, so named because it is “broken off” from the guitar part of a longer piece, Caténaires, a moto perpetuo that channels Chopin by way of Crawford, and Tintinnabulation, where Carter, aged 99, writes for the first time for percussion ensemble. But while other composers that remained productive into their old age (e.g., Stravinsky) wrote music that was more compressed and severe than before (perhaps driven by declines in stamina, hearing, eyesight, or even pencil-grasping capabilities), Carter’s last compositions actually got lighter and more florid, but no less ambitious.
We know this in part thanks to a marvelous album from Ondine, Carter: Late Works, which was released last year and features pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Incredibly, one of the first impressions it makes is how youthful the music sounds. Dialogues II, a brief piece for piano and orchestra, seems the work of a composer aged 31, not 101. As a demonstration of geriatric dash and verve, it’s rivalled only by Verdi’s Falstaff, or perhaps by Eubie Blake.
The single-movement piano concerto Interventions dates from 2007. The multiple simultaneous tempos deployed over its final 1½ minutes (strings, winds and piano all distinct) demonstrate Carter’s retained fluency, and the work also shows how much his orchestration had improved over the years—compare its colorful clarity to the 1969 Concerto for Orchestra, which is beset by balance issues and congested, heterostatic textures.
Instances for chamber orchestra was premiered in Seattle in February 2013 (just three months after Carter’s death) by its co-commissioner Seattle Symphony under its dedicatee Ludovic Morlot. Both Morlot’s Seattle recording and the Ondine recording with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the late Oliver Knussen reveal why Carter’s music benefits from modern multi-tracked digital recordings that eliminate extraneous noises, and separate and clarify the complex polyphony.
Soundings, written in 2005 for Daniel Barenboim to conduct from the piano, is another beneficiary of modern recording technology. It begins with a piano cadenza followed by several concertino sections culminating in a brittle passage for high strings and piccolos, a string chorale reminiscent of Ives’ Central Park in the Dark, and a long tuba solo (a rarity in Carter). The ensuing orchestral tutti is interrupted by a final piano cadenza centered on the notes B♭ and D (which spell out Barenboim’s initials in German). Two Controversies and a Conversation (2011) is yet another late work for piano and orchestra. Its prominent marimba tremolos almost make it sound, dare I say, postminimalist.
The album concludes with Epigrams, twelve pithy bagatelles for piano trio that date from Carter’s final year. As a composition teacher, he was known to advise students to write the loudest part of a piece first (“then you’ll know where you’re going”), and appropriately enough, the first of these Epigrams was composed after all the others, making it Carter’s absolute last completed work. Also fittingly, though the common definition of epigram is simply “a short satirical statement,” the word has its origins in the snarky epitaphs often inscribed on ancient Greek tombstones, something that the venerable composer—and bearer of a B.A. in Literature—would have undoubtedly known.
Carter doesn’t particularly fit the American Maverick stereotype. He had a conventional music education, studying at Harvard with Walter Piston, then in Paris with Nadia Boulanger (whose other American pupils ranged from Copland to Philip Glass). He ended up as the superstar of the so-called Uptown composers (though he lived in Greenwich Village), and at various times held teaching positions at Columbia, Yale, and Juilliard. He wrote fully notated music for conventional acoustic instruments with no forays into microtonal, electronic, improvised, or aleatoric music. His mature compositions have nothing in them of Partch’s homemade instruments, Sun Ra’s pseudomythology, Ives’ quotations of “people’s music,” or Cage’s I Ching coins.
But if Carter wasn’t an American maverick, he was still an American original. Like Ives and Nancarrow, he developed a unique and highly influential musical language without relying on an existing system. And by focusing his innovations in the sphere of rhythm, he upheld that parameter’s tendency to be the 20th century’s most reliable indicator of musical Americanness.
Though Carter studied some West African music traditions, he exhibited little direct interest in the American vernacular musics that evolved from them. Nevertheless, it’s not a stretch to hear this lively passage in Carter’s transitional Piano Sonata (1945–6) and imagine a Bud Powell ballad shorn of its accompanying steady beat. It’s this way of thinking about microrhythm in terms of displacement—internalizing the African-American inventions that informed the flexible swing beat and rubato of jazz, the syncopations of ragtime and related dance musics, even the dropped beats of Ives’ small-town bands—that distinguishes much American composed music from its European counterparts (even those influenced by the rhythmic complexity of Eastern European folk music).
The stereotype of Carter’s music is that it matched his personality: technically fluent but emotionally guarded. And by most accounts, Carter was consistently lucid and forthcoming on musical (and literary) matters, but notoriously reticent on most other topics. One would-be biographer abandoned a book project when Carter, during interviews about his personal life, displayed all the misdirection of an old magician protecting his secrets. Even his authorized biographer, David Schiff, conceded that “Carter usually gave the impression of existing only from the neck up.”
Those that met Carter as an older man—an established composer confident and articulate in his public engagements, usually with Helen (long his de facto manager) nearby—are often surprised to learn that he had been a chain-smoking stutterer well into his 40s. Neither Piston nor Boulanger seemed to regard this son of an affluent lace importer as any kind of star student, and as noted previously his early music was less popular with the public and less admired by colleagues than that of friends like Aaron Copland. Throughout this time, Carter left little indication of strong political, religious or ethical convictions. One is tempted to contemplate the apparent years of self-doubt, the coupling of trust fund privilege with career and personal insecurities, as a backdrop to his decision to forgo writing intentionally communicative music in favor of music that held personal meaning but little apparent audience appeal.
Then came the surprising results of this inward turn—the gradual but sharp rise in prestige, performances, recordings, and commissions from the 1950s onward. After years of trying to fit in personally and professionally, Carter ultimately attained approbation and self-fulfillment through his most challenging and honest works. It’s in this light that his commitment to absolute artistic integrity—to writing “difficult music for ideal listeners”—ought to be judged.
Paul Griffiths, who wrote the libretto to What Next?, compares Carter’s historical position to Bach’s, the culmination and apogee of an era that cherished craft and complexity. Taruskin, more cynically, positions Carter atop a prestige machine driven by academics, patrons and professional musicians, a model of artistic autonomy whose death throes are already upon us. Both metaphors imply the supplanting of the old paradigm by a younger and more popular simplicity (that of Haydn and Mozart in Bach’s case, that of postminimalism and various hybrids of art and commercial music in Carter’s).
But the judgment of “technically fluent but emotionally guarded” music was also levelled at Bach shortly after his death, only to be overruled by the improved familiarity and understanding of passing time and repeated hearings. And whether Carter turns out to be the end of a particular line of compositional high-mindedness or a waypoint in a still-thriving artistic tradition will not change his music’s essential truthfulness, or its ability to communicate deeply with those listeners patient enough to master it.