Get Carter! Part I

Jan 06, 2013

Back in the late seventies, when I was just beginning to find my voice as a composer, I’d punish myself now and then by reading the “Musical Events” column in The New Yorker magazine. In those days The New Yorker editors considered classical music important enough to warrant a column every week of the year. And there was no breathless coverage of pop music to compete with it, such cultural phenomena as pop still being considered too lowbrow for the magazine’s urbane tone.

Musical Events was the domain of a soft-spoken Englishman, Andrew Porter, whose prose was elegant and lyrical and who used his bully pulpit to hold high the banner of Modernism, often devoting lengthy pieces to encomiums of Milton Babbitt, Charles Wuorinen, Harrison Birtwistle, Peter Maxwell Davies, Pierre Boulez and, most of all, Elliott Carter. Porter was fortunately catholic enough in his interests to eventually acknowledge “Satyagraha,” “Music for 18 Musicians” and even “Nixon in China,” but it was the Modernists, and particularly Carter, who got his juices flowing and made his pen purple. I could never completely understand how the same critic could wax ecstatic over “Tosca” one week and then describe an out-of-body experience with “Syringa” or the Double Concerto the next, but perhaps that capacity was a measure of his strengths as a critic.

Porter’s allegiance—obeisance would be a more accurate term—to Carter was hard for me to swallow at the time, probably because I sensed that Carter’s influence among younger, less confident composers was proving to be an obstacle to their freedom of thought and originality. Other writers, both academics and journalists, had jumped on the bandwagon, and not a few of them would use Carter as a stick with which to beat us younger punks. One critic in San Francisco would describe his admiration of Carter and Roger Sessions, and the local atonalist Andrew Imbrie with terms that soon became all-too familiar: it was “bracing,” “challenging,” “provocative” and, most of all, it was “uncompromising.”

The American composers who came of age during the Great Depression were more or less united during the prewar period, but during the fifties they tended to branch off into one of two main tributaries. They either became neo-classicists or else, like Babbitt, they fell under the influence of Schoenberg and Webern. Most took up university professorships, as making a living writing classical music was nearly impossible. A few, like Samuel Barber, Ned Rorem and Leonard Bernstein, remained faithful to their populist and latter-day romantic styles. But even the great Aaron Copland, who had always harbored a dissonant Mr. Hyde behind his folksy Dr. Jekyll, began composing some seriously gnarly twelve-tone music during the late fifties and early sixties.

Anyone familiar with Elliott Carter’s life story knows that he benefitted from a privileged upbringing, was exceptionally well-educated, developed discriminating tastes in music and literature at an early age, and studied in Paris with the fabled Nadia Boulanger. When Carter died in November at the age of 103, we were reminded that this composer, still writing music in the year 2012, had accompanied Charles Ives to concerts in the New York of the 1930’s when the Rite of Spring was still a shocker.

Carter was an active supporter of his fellow American composers throughout the thirties, and you can read his eloquent and amazingly perceptive reviews of their music in his collected prose works. As a budding composer he took a half-hearted dip in the waters of thirties populism with ballets like “Pocahontas,” and “Holiday Overture.” But unlike Copland, he lacked the proverbial common touch. The simple charms of an “Appalachian Spring” or a “Billy the Kid” were simply not within his capacity. Carter’s toolbox was filled with more complicated instruments of the trade, and it’s not surprising that his real voice emerged slowly and deliberately. He was forty by the time his first truly unique and original composition, the Cello Sonata, was composed.

Those who love Carter’s music do so for its vitality, its invention and its overall seriousness. The vitality has always struck me as an American trait, something he inherited from Ives and that he shared with his colleagues Copland, Harris and Nancarrow. His staggering powers of invention, a gift that never failed him, came to the fore in the early fifties in the First String Quartet and the Variations for Orchestra, works that remain my personal favorites. In them the formal plans are bold and dramatic, and the personality that he accords individual instruments is vivid and full of piquant character. No wonder musicians love to play his music!

Comments (10)

January 7, 2013

"Those who love Carter’s music do so for its vitality, its invention and its overall seriousness"

Excuse me but isn’t there more to the appeal of music than its being striking and original? What about the experience of being overwhelmed by its beauty or by its truthfulness in the representation of emotion?

Peter Kelemen
January 7, 2013

Elliott Carter was one of those incredibly overhyped composers whose inspiration comes (if at all) only in the tiniest spurts. I also think he got by on a good deal of pretension.

History will not be kind to the music of Elliott Carter for the most part.

January 7, 2013

With all due respect, Karen, but what marks success of a composer? It has to be striking, able to engage more than the brain that made it. If it isn't striking, why should we care?

And what else is there? Originality is the other major factor. Everything builds on what has come before, but a unique voice, to distinguish among the din of the not as skilled, cuts through our memory. It separates the "fine" from "memorable", the "commonplace" from the "legendary".

"What about the experience of being overwhelmed by its beauty or by its truthfulness in the representation of emotion?"

That's what is meant by "striking", but if your definition of striking music is limited to only "beautiful" music, perhaps your beauty aesthetic requires better definition. "Truthfulness in the representation of emotion" would fall under the definition of "striking" to me, because I am always struck by truthful emotion.

January 7, 2013


My point is that I think it's a big mistake to pretend that much of the post 1950 overly complex music is just a new phase in a continuum of Western art music: let's be clear: it WAS a COMPLETELY NEW DEPARTURE. Ok folks? So blaming the audience or telling them that "they're not open to A) listening in new ways or B) listening for different things" is very very irritating and mistaken.

Oh, and patronizing.

Vincent Ellin
January 7, 2013

I love Carter's music, as hard as it is to listen to. I also like Schoenberg, and John Adams. He was a gentleman, as I met him in Tanglewood at the fellowship program. He was always supportive of composers of all stripes.

Glenn Lym
January 7, 2013

Upon seeing that John conducted both the rewrite of Absolute Jest and the Carter Variations at New World Symphony recently, I wondered if he was undergoing a re-evaluation of Carter. I am John's age, and as a teenager, there was no other music that spoke to my sense of anxiety, drama and rhythm than Carter's Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano. I would discover the Grateful Dead later. And Harmonielehre after that.

In the last decade I would go back and forth between Carter and Adams as the polls of current American classical music. To me, Carter's sonic language has to be gotten used to, as his own personal language and not heard in terms of European modernism. Understanding that, then a whole world opens up. Duo for Violin and Piano is to me is one of the most amazing pieces on the state of modern communications.

January 9, 2013

Having been in Conservatory in the mid to late 70's when due to the influences of the likes of Mr Carter , Schoenberg etc when even attempting to compose a melody .. god forbid a tonal harmony was cause for anathema and ex- communication ( from the ' church ' of budding composers and higher ed ) I found the likes of Elliot Carter and his rabid professorial adherents to be a major obstacle .

Simply stated ; due to Mr Carter's supporters more than a few of us were forced by the ' business ' to take our talents elsewhere ( mostly to either Jazz Progressive Rock or Film and TV composition ) in order to both remain true to ' our ' ideals ' as well as make a living wage from our avocation/vocation

Which is why especially in the US there is such a dirth of ' classical ' composers who came out of the mid 70's to the early 90's .

So to be honest I hold no love or appreciation for Mr Carter even though what we dealt with was more the result of his Cult following rather than the man himself

Ernie Mansfield
January 14, 2013

This is shocking news for me, to hear that Aaron Copeland actually dabbled in 12-tone music. When Mr. Copeland analyzed my 12-tone piece while visiting our Composition Class at Interlochen Arts Academy, he told me he "didn't care for 12-tone music". At the tender age of 17, I was so mortified I just couldn't ask him to sign my score!

Lloyd Arriola
January 17, 2013

My very first classical music concert included Mr Adams's TROMBA LONTANA, SHORT RIDE IN A FAST MACHINE, and THE CHAIRMAN DANCES. Everything else on that program--Schumann Piano Concerto and the R Strauss-Leinsdorf ROSENKAVALIER Suite was fine, but not as exciting for a 14-year old (young!) pianist-composer going to his first concert. I thank Mr Adams for that music--which led me to explore Elliott Carter's scores. My point is--without knowing of the struggle between compositional schools (Tonal vs. Atonal vs. Minimalist vs. Maximalist), I simply explored. And twenty-seven years after that San Francisco Symphony concert, I can perform and advocate for the need for BOTH composers to be in the ears of the young music students I teach. So, thanks John Adams for being so INDIVIDUALLY YOU that I was able to love Sessions and Carter and Babbitt--as well as Reich, Glass, Wuorinen, Eric Whitacre, and Zwilich and Augusta Read Thomas.
Now, Mr. Adams--will you please write a big-slam bang virtuoso piano work for us pianist-pianomaniacs to play and also admire? We have had nothing but AMERICAN BERSERK and PHRYGIAN GATES and CHINA GATES. We really do!

Glenn Lym
January 20, 2013

Some of critique of Carter from John'and the folks above, sounds curiously like Carter's own critique of Ives. In interviews and the Scheffer DVD on Carter, he talks of his frustration with Ives's immature writing techniques. He seems to miss the major outlines of Ives work by focusing on details, yet in many ways Cartr is Ives's descendent, impart in his use skew players and ensembles that his create a dynamic overall impact out of apparent disjunction.

This point is touched on by Ursula Oppens in her 2000 Mavericks pre concert lecture in which she took exception to the exclusion of Carter by the Festival, and gave a short talk on why she saw him the quintessential living American composer. She then played several of his short piano pieces.

Another avid Carter fan and patron has been Grateful Dead bass player and colleague of Steve Reich - Phil Lesh - who turned me onto Harmonielehre when he mentioned that it would probably be the great late century American symphony.

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