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Happy Birthday, Elliott Carter!

Turning one hundred years old on December 11, 2008, Elliott Carter must have found the experience exhilarating and rejuvenating. When I went to see him on the afternoon of his birthday, he was hard at work on a song cycle for soprano and clarinet on poems by Louis Zukofsky. He looked younger than six months before—in fact, younger than six years before. That night, the Boston Symphony directed by James Levine played a new work of his, Interventions for piano and orchestra, with Daniel Barenboim as soloist. A few days later, a party of a dozen of his friends heard four of the new songs splendidly performed by Lucy Shelton and Charles Neidich; they are among his most lyrical and wittiest inspirations.

The Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel, Switzerland, has produced a large, handsome book, titled Elliott Carter:A Centennial Portrait in Letters and Documents, with many photographs of Carter, his friends and family, and with many photographs of manuscript pages as well. This is natural as the Sacher Foundation is the world’s greatest repository of twentieth-century music manuscripts, possessing most of Igor Stravinsky, Béla Bartók, Anton Webern, Pierre Boulez, Elliott Carter, and many others. The foundation aids scholars and students throughout the world in their studies of the music of the twentieth century, and the collection is housed in a temperature- and humidity-controlled environment in an old house on the cliffs overlooking the Rhine. The book, written and edited by the director of the foundation, Felix Meyer, and by Professor Anne C. Shreffler of Harvard University, gives a detailed visual image of Carter’s career, interspersed with discussions of many of the works. The photographs and the letters make up a wonderfully personal account of a lifetime.

One might say that Carter’s musical life began in 1924 when, fifteen years old, he heard the American premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring by the Boston Symphony and decided that he wanted to be a composer. In 1925 his father, a lace merchant (who knew twenty languages or dialects, and could speak the tongue of wherever lace was produced), took him on a trip to Vienna. The boy bought a copy of Arnold Schoenberg’s Suite for Piano, op. 25. This was the first publication of a twelve-tone piece, and Carter was introduced to the controversial dodecaphonic style that was to dominate so much of European and then American music for the rest of the century.

Carter’s purchase was almost fortuitous, and paradoxical as well, since most Viennese music lovers of that time and for several decades to come remained curiously unaware of Schoenberg’s recent music. Nevertheless, it is interesting that Carter, fascinated by the new work, was one of the few major avant-garde composers of the century never even to try his hand once at writing a twelve-tone piece, as he found the technique too constraining.

He decided to go to Harvard largely so that he could hear the Boston Symphony, more adventurous in contemporary work than other American orchestras, and went every week to its concerts. He naturally found the Harvard music department stodgy. The conservative British composer Gustav Holst, who taught there, remarked, on hearing Carter play the piano, that if he didn’t play so many wrong notes, perhaps he wouldn’t write so many in his compositions.

One of his high school teachers in New York had introduced him to Charles Ives, who became his mentor and played part of his Concord Sonata for him, so that he was already in touch with the most radical elements of American serious music. He later, somewhat to the shock of Ives’s greatest admirers, expressed his disappointment at Ives’s refusal to commit himself fully to a professional activity in music, abandoning composition for so long, and leaving so much unfinished or only half finished.

Carter’s commitment to the profession was total, disappointing his father, who expected him to join the lace business. Like so many American composers, he went to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger, who was the international pedagogical representative of Stravinsky’s style. (“Why should I teach, when there is Nadia?” Stravinsky is supposed to have said.) Carter helped in organizing concerts of new music, and worked with the Balanchine troupe that was to become the New York City Ballet.

For a time, to make a living, Carter took a job at St. John’s College, teaching Greek and mathematics among other subjects, but he never ceased composing or trying to find ways for American music to get a hearing. His early style was not only influenced by Stravinsky and Aaron Copland and even Paul Hindemith (in the 1930s this was hard to avoid), but his compositions already had an idiosyncratic rhythmic energy, with surprising assymetrical twists and a wonderful verve, perhaps partially derived from the great jazz performers of the 1930s. His works before 1945 are accomplished and easily enjoyable, and the ballet The Minotaur and the Holiday Overture have become particularly well known.

A Centennial Portrait has some fine pictures of Carter’s wife, Helen Frost-Jones, an extraordinary woman who retained her beauty until the latest old age (she died in 2003), and who was loved, admired, and feared by all of Carter’s friends and acquaintances. She was a sculptress, very much part of the advanced New York art scene (she used to play chess with Marcel Duchamp), cultivated, and witty. Nevertheless, she abandoned her sculpture when she married Carter in 1939,* and authoritatively and sternly made sure he had the leisure and the peace to compose, as in the 1940s and 1950s he worked very slowly on large projects.

On one occasion, I was present when there was a telephone call from the Ford Foundation, inquiring about a commission which Carter was already almost a year late in delivering. I heard Helen say, “Yes, Mr. D’Arms, Mr. Carter is thinking about your commission a great deal—too much in my opinion. Goodbye,” and she hung up quickly. “That should hold them for another year,” she said to me. Both Helen and Elliott were generous to musicians when they could be, and many performers and composers were helped by them over the years. I remember that Elliott once had to rent a dress suit to attend a dinner at the White House, because he had given his tails to a member of the Parrenin Quartet.

It was in 1945, when Carter was thirty-six years old, that he moved in a new direction, stimulated by the idea of exploiting the characteristic sound of an instrument, the concert piano. He derived the basic motivic material of his Sonata for Piano from the idiosyncratic sonority of the instrument and its harmonic overtones, the way the strings vibrate sympathetically with each other. The Centennial Portrait ‘s observation that this work includes a “large-scale Beethovenian fugue…like Samuel Barber’s Piano Sonata,” written around the same time, is misleading. Neither fugue is Beethovenian, Barber’s being an imitation of the fugue in Brahms’s Handel variations, and Carter’s is also a Romantic concert fugue like others from Liszt to Hindemith, but without a stylistic dependence on a single model. The sonata is inventive throughout in developing the strange sonorities that only a piano can produce, for example changing the pedal rapidly after hitting one note hard, so that most of the sonority is damped and then suddenly recaptured with the sound of an echo.

Three years later, Carter produced an even more important work, the Sonata for Violoncello and Piano, in which new conceptions of music were developed that later became the foundation of his international reputation. The significance of this work seems to escape the Centennial Portrait, as the article on it discusses only a minor passage of changing rhythms in the fourth and last movement, and completely neglects the first movement, which was written last, and which is the most radical of all (Carter himself has said that he is sometimes disturbed by how much more progressive the first movement is than the rest of the work). The whole sonata is remarkably effective in concert, but only a consideration of the opening will explain why many musicians find it the finest work for cello written since Debussy’s sonata for that instrument.

A letter of Carter’s written many years later, in 1959, will give us the key to the originality of this work. The letter is to Peter Yates, the founder of a concert series in Los Angeles, and is mostly about Carter’s String Quartet No. 1, but clearly alludes to the cello sonata:

Certainly my music has sought mainly two things—to deal with vertical and horizontal dimensions in a more varied way than is usually done—I try to find continuities that gain meaning, change, and operate in time on a level of interest that is parallel to our present experience of living. Thus there are textures and shifts of character that feature very contrasting musical behaviors, simultaneously or one after the other, but linked together by phrasing. The other aspect is an attempt to use the performing situation, the instrument, its player, and the combination of instruments as a means of individualization. To find the special music, so to speak, that needs the ‘cello and the piano—which don’t go together very well. To bring out their differences and make a virtue of that, even a means of expression.

The cello sonata opens with the piano in strict time, ticking away in moderate tempo with a quiet percussive staccato. The cello, however, exists in a different space-time, with a long, lyrical, and eloquent line, irregular and seemingly improvised, very few of its notes coinciding with the beats of the piano. The opening may be the first example of the long, expressive, singing arabesque line that was virtually absent in modernist style (Carter’s direction of espressivo for this kind of writing has shocked some of his modernist admirers, who find it absurdly old-fashioned). In the cello sonata and later works this singing line will often employ and unite the entire compass of the instrument from the lowest to the highest pitches.

No previous work for cello and piano had ever differentiated the two instruments so distinctly, and exploited the individual sonority of each. Even in the finest works of the small repertory for cello and piano before this—those of Beethoven (who wrote the first great cello and piano sonatas), Brahms, Debussy, and Rachmaninov—it will sometimes sound as if the piano is given a musical effect that should really belong to the cello and vice versa, making an effect of necessary compromise.

At the end of Carter’s sonata there is, in fact, an interchange of material, but without compromise. On the last page of the finale something like the first movement returns, but now it is the cello that is quietly ticking away metronomically with the only percussive sound a cello can make, a pizzicato, and the piano tries modestly to imitate the cello’s initial lyricism with very long, quiet notes in the deepest bass register in an irregular rhythm that seems to pay no attention to the cello’s strict tempo. This beautiful passage that returns to the earlier movement is prepared by one in which the slower tempo of the first movement in the piano is superimposed over the uninterrupted faster movement of the finale in the cello, mixing the two tempos. A continuous movement of fast notes is played by the cello accenting every fourth note, while the piano plays on every fifth note of the cello part, making not only a counter-rhythm but a counter-tempo, 20 percent slower, with the effect of a jazzy syncopation.

  1. *

    I asked her once why she gave up sculpture, and she replied firmly, “Because my sculpture was so awful,” which closed the discussion, as I had never seen any of it then. Some of her portrait busts are actually very fine. Her bust of Carter is on display at the New York Public Library.

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