In praise of Elliott Carter

January 5, 2012

The composer Elliott Carter was born in New York City on 11th December 1908, one day after Olivier Messiaen’s birth in Avignon, France. By way of introduction, here’s Bridget Kibbey playing part of his 1992 harp solo Bariolage.

Carter gave this piece a motto from Rilke (Sonnets to Orpheus, 2, 10):

But existence is still enchanting for us; in hundreds

Of places still pristine. A play of pure forces

Untouched except by one who kneels in wonder.Elliott Carter

Like many artists of his time, Carter is burdened with a sometimes excessive discussion of his technique and historical significance, which can perhaps be offputting to listeners. I find it hard to resist joining in with this chatter, but suffice it to say he has a preoccupation with the perception of time – a splintering of regular time to match the complexity of twentieth century life; a taste for long expressive melodic lines, and a powerful sense of drama driven by giving idiosyncratic characters to different instruments or groups.

I first encountered Carter’s music at one of my first ever proms back in 1985. It was the première of a substantial chamber piece called Penthode, conducted by Pierre Boulez. I didn’t know much classical music at all at the time and I can’t honestly remember what I made of it. But I do recall a critic sniping about the 1985 season as a whole, saying something like “too much sadly neglected British music plus a helping of Elliott Carter is sure to get the audiences fleeing in their droves”. My teenage identity gave me no interest in the former but demanded I should make a determined effort to befriend Elliott’s spiky complexity.

And I have to admit it’s taken me a long time to really befriend him! I always found his music interesting and enjoyable, but it’s taken me many years to find a real emotional engagement. Unlike, for example, Boulez, with his glittering frenzy, or Birtwistle, with his powerfully evocative dark rites.

I’ve returned to Carter numerous times over the years, encouraged by one work in particular I’ve always loved, Night Fantasies. This long piano piece from 1980 is of fearsome technical complexity (I definitely do not recommend reading up on what’s going on in there compositionally), but to me it invites a very direct emotional response, as befits the title.

My breakthrough came quite recently when I put on a CD of Symphonia (1996). To my great surprise I soon found myself spontaneously rising from my seat and starting to dance around the room to it. I’ve no idea how that happened, but it certainly did, and it signalled a different kind of listening, or perhaps not-listening: certainly not trying to listen.

That experience has transformed how I feel about all of Elliott’s music. I’m still unsure how to put into words my poetic response in the way I easily can for, say, Boulez. I’ve realised there’s a huge difference between musical style and musical personality – a topic that deserves it’s own blogpost – and I’m still wondering who really is similar to Carter in personality, as opposed to style. Names that come to mind are Schoenberg and Berg, who seem to overlap with his robust emotional world. But my response is now much more physical, and through that emotional, and I’m left with a fantasy of finding a DJ willing to play his records for me late into the night.

I’m also left wondering if Carter demands close attentive concentration, or if in fact the opposite is true – and in general if technically complex modern music can sometimes benefit from a more relaxed approach by the listener? I believe there’s room for both. I certainly spent far too long trying to understand Carter’s technique and personality, whereas in the end my response was at least partly physical. You either respond to the energy, drama and playfulness or you don’t – and quite possibly with your feet.

I don’t think it’s ridiculous to suggest that the creative output of a significant artist beyond the age of 100 is of enormous intrinsic interest. Elliott’s recent works (and they are legion) have a new delicacy and simplicity, remain playful, and have less expressive extremes but still a wide range of mood. Charles Rosen means no insult in commenting that Carter is “a rare instance in which losing a little edge in old age is not a bad thing”.

In 2010 he composed a song cycle called A Sunbeam’s Architecture, the title referring to the following lines by E. E. Cummings:

such was a poet and shall be and is

who’ll solve the depths of horror to defend

a sunbeam’s architecture with his life:

and carve immortal jungles of despair

to hold a mountain’s heartbeat in his hand

Finally, here are some interesting short video interviews on the Boosey & Hawkes website. Near the end Carter comments that unlike many modernist composers who raised a fist to the past, “I’ve always loved so many kinds of music … Bach and Beethoven … Guillaume de Machaut … and my music is somehow a thankyou note to all of that.”

Recommended recordings:

Symphonia / Clarinet Concerto

Night Fantasies / Ravel

Figments and Fragments

String Quartets



11 Responses to “In praise of Elliott Carter”

  1. JK Says:

    Carter the Unstoppable Serialism Machine…

  2. John Goodman, NYC Says:

    thanks mf. Huge Carter fan here. I’ve been listening to his music since ’68, when I became fascinated by an LP of his Variations for Orchestra and the Double Concerto. At the height of the AIDS crisis–during which I felt beset upon & became a sometime activist–I abandoned his work for a time, feeling that it was too rebarbative. That seems odd to me now, for I am ceaselessly fascinated by it; can’t get enough. For me, he is one of the greats, constantly rewarding renewed listening, and the work he is producing in his old age is among his finest. (But will someone please champion his great Piano Concerto of ’67? M. Aimard, are you listening?). I have often felt that, at least initially, folks should allow themselves to respond more viscerally to his music–that many have let their prejudices obscure the richness of what was being presented to them. I suppose his work will always be for a sophisticated public. Nothing wrong with that–and as Charles Rosen has said, so many gifted musicians love to play it that its future is secure. His scores give me a PLEASURE matched only by that provided by Monteverdi, J.S. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Stravinsky, & a handful of others. So: very sincere thanks to you, Elliott (if I may), you have immeasurably enriched my life.

    • mangofantasy Says:

      Thanks, really appreciate your comments. You’re certainly right about rewarding repeated listening. Agree it would be wonderful to have Aimard championing the concerto – I loved his Carter / Ravel CD. That concerto is a gripping dramatic monster that makes me wonder what Schoenberg would have written had he lived longer. The recent works are certainly easier to approach and I think some of those big tough pieces from the fifties and sixties need new performers and new recordings

      I’ve only just started discovering his earlier work, and there are plenty of delights there too, such as the eight etudes for wind that I briefly mentioned in my post last week. I was incredulous to find that he wrote music of such simplicity back in the forties.

      • John Goodman, NYC Says:

        I haven’t made a systematic comparison, but I tend to think the best recording of Carter’s first piano concerto is still the initial one by Jacob Lateiner & the BSO under Leinsdorf. It is on the slow side, but that means you can hear every gorgeous detail of the score; some of the tutti’s sound a bit coarse, but that often suits the argument, and the performances in the wind concertino–so key here–are simply ravishing in the way they make the intended tetchiness lyrical. Lateiner is magisterial: he understands the poetic revery at the heart of much of the piano writing. (Oppens, for example, just doesn’t get this, as Carter himself indicates in an almost embarrassing moment in that documentary about him, when he rehearses the opening bars of the piano part with her.) Alas, this recording’s only present incarnation is the original LP; someone should re-release it.
        I just listened again to the cello concerto & was startled to realize how many of its gestures & ideas are reworkings of things in the ’67 concerto. But you get this often in Carter (the most prominent example being the stuck note moment–again, first introduced in the ’67 concerto [sometimes morphed into a stuck chord moment, as toward then end of Night Fantasies]); it used to bug me, but now I think it is integral to his interest, & fascinating to the ear. For he always puts these ideas to new uses, makes them mean differently, inflects them in novel ways.

  3. John Goodman, NYC Says:

    One more thing. If you’re exploring the earlier work, don’t miss the finest of his early choral pieces, his two settings of Emily Dickenson: Heart Not So Heavy as Mine (1938?)’ & ‘Musicians Wrestle Everywhere’ (1945). Gorgeous.
    Also, David Shiff’s book on Carter’s music is among the finest such books I know. Highly recommended.

  4. John Goodman, NYC Says:

    I’d like to know what you make of it.

    • mangofantasy Says:

      Well I’m just about half way through the book now. Slow progress, because I’m being pretty completist about it and making a point of filling in all the gaps in my knowledge. Fantastic to be introduced to so many great pieces – some I particularly love that I wasn’t previously aware of are the duo for violin & piano, quintet for piano & winds, Inner Song, & the two wittily Boulezian Esprits Doux / Rude. I’ve been so immersed in Carter lately that it feels rather like reading a great novel where the characters sit with you from day to day. Makes so much more sense now, and really I would write a quite different blogpost if I was doing it today! The earlier pieces are interesting, but often seem laboured, until he found that ‘Leggerezza Pensosa’ around the time of the 2nd quartet. Really appreciate your recommendation – thanks!

  5. JK Says:

    Elliott Carter: music of storms and stillness Guardian Friday 7 June 2013

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