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Collection Elliott Carter Collection

The way it all goes along: a tribute to Elliott Carter

Elliott seated in conversation
Elliot Carter from The musical languages of Elliott Carter by Charles Rosen. (Washington, DC: Music Division, Research Services, Library of Congress, 1984). Performing Arts Reading Room, Library of Congress.

On December 11th, 2008, Elliott Carter turned 100. In 1971 Aaron Copland said of his friend,

Most composers hit their stride fairly early. Elliott Carter was an exceptional case. He had reached the age of forty before he began producing music that aroused special attention. Since then, during the past twenty years, he has gradually produced a body of work so original in conception and so imaginative in execution that we can proudly point to it as among the finest examples of musical creation that we in America have -- or that any other country has.

Now, in 2008, it has been sixty years since Carter "began producing music that aroused special attention" -- sixty years creating music that continues to astonish and challenge performers and audiences worldwide.

I suddenly realized that, at least in my own education, people had always been consciously concerned only with this or that peculiar local rhythmic combination or sound-texture or novel harmony and had forgotten that the really interesting thing about music is the time of it -- the way it all goes along. (Elliott Carter, 1971)

In "The Fearful Sphere of Pascal," Jorge Luis Borges wrote, "It may be that universal history is the history of the different intonations given a handful of metaphors."

How often do we set sail into uncharted seas, only to arrive at an island already inhabited. We fear that Borges was right -- invention is no more than composing glass-bead variations on a "handful" of eternal themes. There are new variations, but no new themes.

But Borges himself could not accept this fate. In his 1967 Norton Lectures at Harvard, he added, " ... it may also be given to us to invent metaphors that do not belong, or that do not yet belong, to accepted patterns." It may be that Borges had come to realize consciously (outside his art, if that is possible) that the twentieth century had possibly invented a new metaphor -- one that has become so ingrained in our present and future that we forget just how strange and difficult it must have seemed at first, just a short century ago.

In the twentieth century, time itself became the subject of a multitude of intonations working through a world of increasing complexity. Beginning with his Piano Sonata of 1946, Elliott Carter was possibly the first modern composer to explore the new meanings of time in musical space.

Aaron Copland once called Carter "one of America's most distinguished creative artists in any field." This is often quoted without much thought as to what Copland may have meant by this. What is likely behind this statement -- what Copland knew through his friendship with Carter and what we may read today from Carter's own essays -- is that Elliott Carter is one of the most broadly inquisitive and intellectually cosmopolitan composers to come out of America.

Carter's musical thought and invention have engaged at deep levels with important contemporary ideas in areas outside of music: in film -- with those of Serge Eisenstein and Jean Renoir; in philosophy -- Alfred North Whitehead, Henri Bergson, Martin Heidegger, and Edmund Husserl; in physics -- Albert Einstein; in literature -- James Joyce, Marcel Proust, and Thomas Mann; in dance -- George Balanchine; in the visual arts -- Pavel Tchelitchew, Joseph Stella, and John Marin; in poetry -- Elizabeth Bishop, John Ashbery, Robert Lowell, and William Carlos Williams. All of these, we know, deeply influenced this composer's development and found their way into the fabric of his music -- often in very specific ways. To follow the arc of Elliott Carter's intellectual life is to take a journey through the 20th century, not only through its music, but through its defining events and ideas, most of which come back, time and again, to time.

The collection of Elliott Carter's unpublished sketches and holograph scores in the Library of Congress traces the composer's journey of discovery and his creation of new ways to hear time -- "the way it all goes along" -- during this most defining part of his career: 1932-1971. The following notes trace some of these critical developments which can be found in his sketches through the Third String Quartet.

Works: 1944-1971

Even Carter's earliest music, written in a fairly conservative, "populist" style, was considered difficult and complex at the time. The 1944 Holiday Overture, composed to celebrate the liberation of Paris, was called, again by his long-time friend Aaron Copland, "another complicated Carter composition."

Carter's Piano Sonata of 1946, considered virtually unplayable at the time, began to push these complexities into a new musical realm altogether. It is often cited as the beginning of his break, not only with his own previous work but with the other music of his time.

In the Sonata for Cello and Piano of 1948, Carter first fully worked out one of his most important innovations, "metrical modulation" (or, as Carter prefers to call it, "tempo modulation"). Pianist and musicologist Charles Rosen has described the point of this new technique as the creation of "the clear sense of the simultaneous existence of two tempos -- two rhythmic worlds in fact."

Elliott Carter's final break with the popular conservative styles of the age came when, in 1950, he decided to move to a place in the lower Sonora Desert near Tucson, Arizona for nearly a year. As one of his students, David Schiff, wrote: "By going to the desert, Carter left his routine patterns of living in order to discover a new kind of time." Carter himself recalls:

I decided for once to write a work very interesting to myself, and so say to hell with the public and with the performers too. I wanted to write a work that carried out completely the various ideas I had at that time about the form of music, about texture and harmony -- about everything.

The result of this desert sojourn was the 1951 String Quartet No.1 which was premiered by the Walden Quartet in New York in 1953. Again, metrical modulation was a central formal organizing principle for the music -- but now it was taken much further than it had been in the Sonata for Cello and Piano. Aaron Copland described the rhythmic relationship among the performers in this quartet as "four racehorses, one of which passed the others and you could not tell which was going to get ahead."

On a commission from the Louisville Orchestra, in 1953-55 Carter wrote his first large-scale work for full orchestra utilizing the rhythmic techniques he had developed in his previous chamber works. This was the Variations for Orchestra, which another long-time friend, composer Milton Babbitt, called one of the most important works of the 20th century.

Carter was developing a proficiency with his newly discovered rhythmic (and harmonic) language, and of necessity he worked slowly at first. It wasn't until 1959 that his next work was finished -- the Pulitzer Prize-winning String Quartet No. 2 -- which instructed the four string players on the stage to be seated as far apart as possible, maximizing visually as well as aurally the separation of the "actors" in this musical drama.

The Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano with Two Chamber Orchestras (1961), continued to develop his rhythmic technique. This tour-de-force earned the unequivocal praise of Igor Stravinsky. In a lengthy statement about the Double Concerto, Stravinsky ends by saying,

I cannot comment upon or add to the composer's own analysis, but analysis as little explains a masterpiece or calls it into being as an ontological proof explains or causes the existence of God. There, the word is out. A masterpiece, by an American composer.

The Piano Concerto was completed in 1965, four years after the Double Concerto. Carter was now becoming quite comfortable with his new rhythmic language, and he was beginning to concentrate more on expanding his harmonic vocabulary. By 1965 Carter had written out an early version of what he was later to expand into his Harmony Book, a listing of all possible chords (in the twelve-note chromatic scale) arranged in what had developed as his personal way of combining and manipulating sonorities. But the technical aspects to one side, the musical "script" for the Piano Concerto continued his fascination with portraying musically the complexities of the human social drama. In an article in Time, he described the metaphorical plan of this work:

The piano is born, then the orchestra teaches it what to say. The piano learns. Then it learns the orchestra is wrong. They fight and the piano wins -- not triumphantly, but with a few, weak, sad notes -- sort of Charlie Chaplin humorous.

In 1969 Carter completed the Concerto for Orchestra, a commission from the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. It was premiered under Leonard Bernstein in 1970. In a letter to Bernstein, Carter listed all the possible 5-note chords from his harmony list and wrote enthusiastically that he was using all of them in this work. As a poetic parallel to this work, Carter cites the poem Vents by St. John Perse which, as Carter noted, "had a new meaning during the very years when this work was being written, in 1967 and '68, when there was, understandably, so much student unrest everywhere, even in Rome where I was working at the time."

The final work represented in the Library's collection of Carter holographs won the composer his second Pulitzer Prize. This was his String Quartet No. 3 which he completed in 1971. It was written for the Juilliard String Quartet which gave its premiere in 1973.

It is tempting to conclude with a brief review of the history of the reception Carter's music has received through all these years. Music critics and general audiences, especially in America, have not always been kind in their judgments of Carter's music, using words like "dense," "prickly," "unlistenable."

On the other hand, Carter has enjoyed enthusiastic support (for the most part, but not always) from his own peer group of professional composers and performers. Lately, this group includes luminaries such as James Levine, Daniel Barenboim, Yo-Yo Ma, Peter Serkin, Pierre Boulez, Milton Babbitt, and a fast-growing list of others.

But instead of wrapping up the time metaphor and Carter's wonderful intonations along with the perceived and real difficulties his music presents to performer and audience into a neat, finished package (as if we understood it all now), let's choose to keep the music alive. Here is a final word from Aaron Copland.

According to David Schiff, following a performance of the Carter String Quartet No. 3, "Copland walked out on stage and told the audience, "If that's music, then I don't know what music is any more.'"

This article was written by Stephen Soderberg, a music specialist at the Library of Congress.