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!
Copyright © 2010 by John Adams
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