Happy Birthday, Elliott Carter

The composer Elliott Carter will be eighty on December 11, but these dates might mislead one about his place in history. Pierre Boulez, twenty years younger than Carter, has remarked, “He does not belong in the generation into which he was born; he really belongs to my generation.” It is not just that Carter looks like a man two decades younger than his age, or even that he has produced some of his most important works in the past few years. It is rather that he came into prominence along with men a generation younger than he is, that he is most easily considered critically with the group of composers, above all European, whose work begins in the early 1950s, like Boulez, Stockhausen, and Berio.

Born in New York in 1908, Carter spent his childhood in comfortable circumstances. He finished his education at Harvard, majoring in literature, and then went to Paris like so many other American composers to study with Nadia Boulanger. Perhaps equally important for his future development was a trip to Vienna at the age of seventeen, when he acquired the scores of the new Viennese school, including the earliest serial works of Schoenberg. Even more significant was meeting Charles Ives a year before, whom he admired and continued to see often, and who encouraged his ambitions at composition.

Carter never succumbed totally to the influence of Ives, and he was never even briefly to try serial composition. Eventually he also cast aside the influence of Stravinsky and the neoclassical school transmitted in Paris by Boulanger. With it, he cast aside the exploitation of folk material that one finds in Aaron Copland and other American followers of the Paris school. Folk material had appeared only halfheartedly in Carter’s early works, which are interesting above all for their characteristic and complex rhythmic energy.

The years from 1935 to 1950 were difficult ones for Carter. Wide recognition came only in 1951, when he was forty-three, with the First String Quartet. Before this, however, his individuality had been revealed in the Piano Sonata of 1946 and the Sonata for Cello and Piano of 1948. In these pieces Carter dramatized the instruments: in the cello sonata each instrument is given different harmonies, rhythms, tempi, and textures inspired by its sonorities. Carter constructed what he was later to call “an auditory scenario for the players to act out with their instruments.”

The major works that followed each took about three years to compose: Variations for Orchestra (1955); Second String Quartet (1959); Double Concerto for piano, harpsichord, and two small orchestras (1961); Piano Concerto (1965); Concerto for Orchestra (1969); Third String Quartet (1971). All these developed the concept that different instrumental groups and different sonorities should produce different senses of time: in Carter’s work, these contrasting temporal perspectives are not simply opposed but are combined in ways that rarely allow one of them to become dominant. It has been said that just as Schoenberg destroyed the sense of a unique harmonic …

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