We have in our midst an American composer, Elliott Carter, who has reinvented the string quartet, perfected the microdrama for a single voice and a handful of instrumentalists, introduced a new sense of civility into the performance of very difficult pieces for large orchestra, and speculated about the nature of time and memory as persistently as anyone since Marcel Proust and Edmund Husserl.
Like his fellow composer the late Roger Sessions, Carter’s aim in composing has always been “to help build a really new and better inner world.” As long ago as 1944 he wrote in Modern Music that “there must be good thinking and good talking about music to preserve its noble rank as a fine art for all of us.” As for “good talking,” Carter has never fallen short. Already in 1953 he had said in an address at the University of Illinois, “This is the time to work our hardest and our best if we want musical culture to survive.”
In this matter, no one of his generation in the United States has worked harder than he, or been more widely acclaimed in Europe. Musicians in many countries love to play his music, and many audiences want to hear it. And although he turns ninety on December 11 the years have so far lain lightly upon him. In conversation he is, as always, brisk, limpid, intellectually dead-center and ready to chase after whatever hare may have been started by others. His bearing in discussion is that of a senior cherub whose sense of wonder is still very much intact.
Among covert autobiographers—people, that is to say, who contrive to write their memoirs while eschewing the word “I”—Carter has had a place of his own ever since 1937, when he began to write music criticism for Modern Music in New York. (He was twenty-eight years old at the time.) Given that the junior critic customarily is assigned the concerts that no other critic has asked for, these notices might have been journeyman work. But Modern Music, as edited by Minna Lederman, was not an ordinary magazine. It aimed to do for music what had been done for literature by Scofield Thayer’s The Dial and by Eugene and Betsy Jolas’s transition.
Nor was Elliott Carter a beginner. By 1937 at twenty-eight he was entirely able to deal with the New York musical scene, season by season, without a word misused or a word wasted. He was clear, concise, and not afraid of a fight. In an article published in March 1938 he distinguished between two kinds of listener. The first was “the one who gives himself up to an evening of reminiscence or revery after having checked out his conscious critical self at the door with his hat.” The other was the listener “who seeks a living message to him from another living man that will help him to understand the people about him.”
Carter saw it as the duty of the critic to alert his readers to the first appearance of music that had brought “a living message” of that kind. He did not altogether like Eugene Ormandy’s approach to Stravinsky’s Jeu de Cartes in March 1938, but he had no doubt that people should hear it again (and better done). “Jeu de Cartes,” he wrote, “is a piece of finely drawn drôlerie, clever, with sharp wit and mysterious charm, the like of which has never been heard before.”
His fellow critics did not seem to him to be doing their job in that respect. “When Aaron Copland has two premieres in one short month,” he wrote in 1939,
it is an event of considerable musical importance. Again the critics revealed their lack of information and interest. In reviewing Koussevitsky’s excellent performance of El Salón México, these probers gave no evidence of ever having heard works by Copland before and hence failed completely to discuss the important changes in style made evident in this piece.
Nor had the “probers” of the day made anything of An Outdoor Overture, which Copland had written for a New York high school orchestra. Yet, Carter wrote, “its opening is as lofty and beautiful as any passage that has been written by a contemporary…. Copland…is one of the most important, original, and inspiring figures in contemporary music either here or in Europe.”
As has often been told, Elliott Carter had lived in and for music since 1924, when as a schoolboy he had been introduced to Charles Ives by his music teacher at the Horace Mann School in New York. He was made welcome at Mr. and Mrs. Ives’s house near Gramercy Park, and he sat with them in their box at Carnegie Hall when (among much else) Scriabin’s Poème de l’extase, Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps, and Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé were performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
About this informal education, Carter wrote in 1939, there were “lively talks” “in the calm atmosphere of [Ives’s] living-room, a Henry James, old New York interior.” Sounds never imagined by Henry James rang out when Ives sat
down at the piano to play from memory bits of a piece just heard—Daphnis et Chloé or Le Sacre—taking off the Ravel major seventh chords and obvious rhythms, or the primitive repeated dissonances of Stravinsky, and calling them “too easy.” “Anybody can do that,” he would exclaim, playing “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” the right hand in one key and the left in another.
This was the same Charles Ives who would play a fugue from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier after breakfast before going to the offices of the very successful New York insurance firm of Ives & Myrick, in which he was the senior partner. When Carter applied in 1926 to enter Harvard as a freshman, Ives allowed him to give his name as a reference. “Carter strikes me as rather an exceptional boy,” he wrote to the Dean. “He has an instinctive interest in literature and especially music that is somewhat unusual…. I am sure his reliability, industry, and sense of honour are what they should be—also his sense of humour which you do not ask me about.”
After majoring in English at Harvard, Carter turned—much against his father’s will—to music. As a graduate student from 1930 to 1932, he studied harmony and counterpoint with Walter Piston and composition with Gustav Holst, now remembered primarily by a sprinkling of Anglophiles as the composer of The Planets.
In the matter of personal tuition, Carter’s good luck continued. “In the United States, at that time,” he was to say in 1975, “contemporary music was generally brushed aside by most musicians as the work of lunatics…. Most of my teachers, except for Walter Piston, seemed to hold this opinion.” Piston had lately returned from Paris, where he had studied with Nadia Boulanger, at that time the most intelligent music teacher in Europe. When Carter went to Paris in 1932 to study at the Ecole Normale de Musique, Piston urged him to ask Boulanger to accept him as a private student. Not only did she give him formal lessons, but she arranged for him to rent a room in a farmhouse near Fontainebleau that was within walking distance of her own country house. Informal summer visits and long forest walks resulted. (Doubtless it helped that Carter had spoken French even before he could write in English.)
As a teacher, Boulanger never failed to surprise and enlighten. Carter always remembered that, toward the end of his stay in Paris, “she used [Schubert] waltzes in final exams in the history of music, invariably mystifying her students while at the same time illustrating the extraordinary range of types within one style of those beautiful pieces.” And, much as she disdained Richard Strauss’s Salome, which Carter had not yet heard, she brought to his attention, he would later write, “that extraordinary slowly mounting chromatic scale in the strings, against which many different motives later to appear in the opera are projected, giving that strange, unearthly, and ominous sense of terror that pervades the work and is established quietly yet intensely at the very beginning of it.”
Nadia Boulanger was as attentive to Renaissance and pre-Renaissance music as she was to the cantatas of J.S. Bach and to Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. (From this, there resulted her still-cherished pioneer recordings of Monteverdi madrigals.) She loved language, too, and there was a time when she memorized Shakespeare’s sonnets in the original, night after night, and on the next morning called upon Elliott Carter to correct her pronunciation.
Paul Valéry once said to Saint-John Perse that Nadia Boulanger was “music personified.” What mattered to Elliott Carter, as to her other students, was that that personification extended as much to new music as to the vast range of earlier music with which she was minutely familiar. By the time Carter returned to the United States in 1935, she had given him the kind of continuing education that never palls, and results in a lifelong and constructive curiosity. “This kind of curiosity,” Carter was to say later, “is something that we don’t expect to see much anymore.”
Carter himself had that kind of curiosity in the years from 1945 to 1955, when he was tussling with the problems of time and memory in music. In 1969 he recalled how he had then rethought
the rhythmic means of what had begun to seem a very limited routine in most contemporary and older Western music. I had taken up again an interest in Indian talas, the Arabic durub, the “tempi” of Balinese gamelans (especially the accelerating Gangsar and Rangkep), and studied the newer recordings of African music, that of the Watusi in particular. At the same time, the music of the early quattrocento, of Scriabin, Ives, and the techniques described in Cowell’s New Musical Resources also furnished me with many ideas. The result was a way of evolving rhythms and rhythmic continuities, sometimes called “metric modulation.”
Metric modulation, under whatever name, was to be a constant in Carter’s compositional practice. He himself is a master of plain verbal statement, and in 1969 he simplified the ideas outlined above by saying that he was in direct opposition to what was then being written: “First you do this for a while, then you do that.”
I wanted to mix up “this” and “that,” make them interact in other ways than by linear succession. Too, I questioned the inner shape of “this” and “that”—of musical ideas—as well as their degrees of linking or nonlinking.
His conclusion was that musical discourse at that time “needed as thorough a rethinking as harmony had had at the beginning of the century.”
What he saw of birds, animals, insects, and plants in climates remote from our own experience also played a part in this. While working on his first string quartet in the Lower Sonoran Desert near Tucson, Arizona, in 1950 and 1951, he found a certain “specialness” in the way in which the “comic road runners, giant suguaros, flowering ocatillos” adapted to the special, dry world in which they lived.