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Happy Birthday, Elliott Carter!

This is the device called “metrical modulation” so often associated with Carter’s music. The Centennial Portrait describes an example, earlier in the finale, of this method of superimposing one pulse over another, but the most important justification for its use in this movement is the reappearance of the opening tempo. Unless we account for the dramatic and affective reason for its existence, metric modulation can seem like a gimmick.

Both of the editor-authors of the book are fine and perceptive musicologists, but they do not always recognize, or at least treat, the psychological importance for the listener of the musical techniques of which they give an accurate account. For example, in the article on the piano work Night Fantasies, they describe at length a complex, slow polyrhythm between the pianist’s left and right hands. They seem to think the rhythm very difficult (it isn’t), and they miss the only real, although slight, technical difficulty in this passage because they neglect the most important auditory aspect—that one hand is playing right on top of the other. For the listener’s ear, in consequence, since both of the lines are in the same register with the same instrumental sound, one line gets tangled up with the other, just as the fingers of one hand get in the way of the other hand, and every pianist has to decide individually how far to clarify the two lines by touch, and how much and where to allow the momentary confusion of one line with the other that is part of the effect.

In Carter’s writing for piano (in the cello sonata, the piano concerto, 90+, and Dialogues for piano and orchestra), there are several examples of this play of confusion in one register. In painting, an oscillation between definition and sfumato is a source of visual delight, and music can provide a similar pleasure, so it is essential to Carter’s work to permit a unifying blur to enter at moments into all his examples of highly contrasted opposition of musical character.

Three years later, the String Quartet No. 1 of 1951 was Carter’s most ambitious work to date. This was, he has admitted, his first work written to please only himself, with little thought of anyone else’s approval. It made his international reputation, winning prizes, and was soon in the repertory of several ensembles, becoming for a while, in spite of its formidable difficulty, his most popular and most often performed piece. After pointing out the influence of recent American composers like Ives, Conlon Nancarrow, and Ruth Crawford Seeger, the Centennial Portrait gives a succinct account of this composition, including a brief quotation from Carter:

The quartet sent a clear signal that Carter’s shift away from neo-classicism, which had begun some time before, was finally complete. In this work, he successfully merged the European traditions that had shaped his music until then with the “dissonant, ‘advanced’ music [of the American ultramoderns], the kind that I’d first liked and that had first attracted me to music.”

Of course, what had originally attracted Carter to music was Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, but it is a treat to see the familiar Romantic paradox in action, to find that when Carter wrote to please himself alone, he finally achieved his first durable popularity.

The second string quartet exploited even more sensationally than the cello sonata the individuality of the different instruments. Carter wanted the four players to sit farther apart than is usual with chamber players. “They generally manage to move an inch or two away,” he has said sadly, and reported that the composer Walter Piston remarked that if he had composed the piece, he would have put each player in a different room and shut the doors.

From then on, a series of works exploited the idea that simultaneously conflicting perceptions of the passage of time were essential to the modern urban experience, the most famous of which are the Double Concerto for harpsichord and piano and two small orchestras and the Symphony of Three Orchestras. The Double Concerto has two orchestras of six players each and four percussion players positioned separately at the back of the stage from far left to right, and playing forty-four percussion instruments. The work uses space as well as time in a novel way; in the slow central movement, the wind instruments play a quiet chorale in strict time while the pizzicato strings, piano, harpsichord, and percussionists, all playing staccato and very softly, perform a gradually accelerating pattern, each musician playing a single note before the next player comes in. This accelerating pattern of single notes describes patterns in space moving from left to right and front to back in a series of circles.

Everyone who loves Carter’s music has a favorite moment. Mine is perhaps the trumpet solo toward the opening of the Symphony of Three Orchestras, a virtuoso lyrical page inspired by Hart Crane’s image of the seagull descending on the Brooklyn Bridge. The most recent works have become leaner and sparer, without losing their radical expression, although they require as much concentration to appreciate as the earlier pieces. It must be admitted that the great works of the middle period can often appear to be overloaded with detail difficult for listeners to perceive unless the performance is able to clarify the texture. Even in the new works, loud forceful chords in orchestra or piano should not be punched out with all the notes exactly alike, but with varied dynamics, either to bring out an interesting line or to make the sonority of each chord effective. Richard Strauss once complained to Arturo Toscanini, “My music has bad notes and good notes, and when I conduct it one hears only the good notes, but when you conduct it, I hear all the notes.”

As horridly difficult as Strauss’s music once seemed (“vulgar and unintelligible” was the most famous London critic’s reaction to the premiere of Elektra), much of the new repertory today in an unfamiliar style is even more so. This, however, requires more rehearsal time than orchestras can provide economically, and more intelligence or goodwill than pianists and other soloists are always able to produce, but without these requirements, the music cannot fully make sense and will remain opaque.

This is not a new problem, but a perennial one. In the years right after Beethoven’s death, the orchestra of the Paris Conservatoire tried to play his Ninth Symphony; the first reading was so awful that they rehearsed it for a full year, and Berlioz reported that the effect was superb even with an unsympathetic conductor. So many musicians passionately insisted on performing Beethoven that after some decades, his work had entered into the general musical consciousness and become easier to perform. Schoenberg once said, “My music is not modern; it’s just badly played.” I heard Pierre Boulez direct his small chamber ensemble in a work of Harrison Birtwhistle, and when I said I had never heard a work of his sound so wonderfully effective, Boulez explained: “We had thirty-five rehearsals.” At the Paris Opera, when Boulez conducted the first production of Alban Berg’s Lulu with the third act that had been withheld for so long, I went to both the second and the last of thirteen performances. At the last performance, the orchestra seemed to be playing almost by heart, and when I remarked to Boulez that I had never heard an unfamiliar modern opera executed with such confidence, he said, “We had forty-five recording sessions.”

It is no wonder that the public finds difficult contemporary music so irritating. However, since Beethoven, it is the difficult music that has eventually survived most easily; the originally unintelligible Wagner, Strauss, Debussy, Stravinsky, and all the others that were so shocking are now an essential part of the concert scene. Some of this music is accepted because of its prestige; an average audience would find Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue for string quartet as annoying as Schoenberg or Stockhausen if they were not told the name of the composer. In fact, as recently as the 1950s, when the Budapest Quartet programmed a late Beethoven quartet, there were towns in the United States that would threaten to cancel their concerts.

Carter is as intransigent as Wagner or Beethoven. Not only has he refused ever to write a piece of twelve-tone music, but he has never succumbed to the neotonal fashion, a style that annoys today’s audience somewhat less than the modernist style because it has familiar-sounding triads—they still rightly prefer Mozart and Brahms. But it should be clear that today’s neotonal music is not tonal like Mozart’s, which was much more highly organized and ordered. All the modern tonal music I have heard is loosely and simply organized, incapable of the subtle articulations and complex significance we find in Haydn or Beethoven.

Every note in a work by Mozart is related to the basic key of the entire piece and acts in accordance with that relation. This well-defined coordination was slightly loosened in the nineteenth century, blurred by the increasingly rich chromatic palette. Composers from Schuman to Wagner and Debussy had to unify their pieces by an obsessive use of short motifs that would dominate the texture; different motifs for each piece would give individuality. However, the renunciation of motivic repetition by modernists from Boulez and Stockhausen to Carter, Milton Babbitt, Brian Ferneyhough, and many others has made new work initially more difficult to comprehend. The Carter centennial celebrations have been a joy to those who knew and loved the music, but there have been a few scattered critical protests from journalists who find the music antipathetic or simply puzzling, protests that are the sign of a genuine and healthy interest in the contemporary scene.

It is sometimes thought that if one can first recognize the emotion or the sentiment represented by the music, then one can end up understanding the music. This is a serious misapprehension. When I played Carter’s Night Fantasies some years ago in Toronto, a local journalist complained that there was no emotion in the music except what the pianist put into it. I thought then, and still think now, that I was bringing the emotion out, not putting it in. Only when one understands how the music works (that is, consciously or unconsciously, feels at ease with the music) can one perceive the emotion.

At the end of the eighteenth century, the editor of the most distinguished music journal complained that Johann Sebastian Bach, suddenly more in view in the 1780s, was a great contrapuntal technician but had no knowledge of the human heart. Decades later, the emotional power of Bach became obvious, but it took a lot of careful listening.

How does one understand a new style? Not by studying music theory, but the way children learn language, by listening to their parents and siblings. Unlike language, music cannot convey information (like “meet me tomorrow for lunch”), so we have only to learn how the sounds are ordered, and not an elaborate vocabulary. We listen until the ordering becomes familiar, and we absorb the style and learn what to expect.

But why would anyone ever listen again to something that is irritatingly unintelligible? In a museum, when I dislike or don’t understand a picture, I pass on to the next wall or the next room. But in a concert hall, I am obliged to sit there listening to something of which I can make neither head nor tail, feeling like an ignoramus—which, indeed, I am for that moment. (My first experience of a Bartók quartet, when I was sixteen, produced a sensation of nausea.) Why would I continue listening and try again? Because a friend or a professional has told me that the music is great, or because I know that it is fashionable and I wish to be in the swim. There is always a certain amount of snobbery about culture, and sometimes it is pernicious (and we pretend to like what we secretly detest), but sometimes it is useful and we get hooked on a new style that will give us pleasure for years to come.

The last hundred pages of the Centennial Portrait are a witness to the passion that Carter’s music has stimulated in so many performers. To understand the power of the work of the recent decades, one might try the inspired recorded performance of the cello concerto by Fred Sherry, conducted by Oliver Knusson, a lyrical and even tragic work, written when Carter was only ninety-two, which escapes all the generalizations often made of intransigent modernism. It is from performances like this that one realizes that the music of Elliott Carter offers pleasures and delights that no other composer can offer.

The Centennial Portrait excels in its account of Carter’s steady development and his integration into the musical life of the last half of the twentieth century. Not often discussed in the literature devoted to him, however, is the richness of his contacts with the long history of the Western tradition. Some years ago, I spoke to him of my admiration for the originality of a few measures of virtuoso figuration in his piano concerto. He smiled and said, “Oh, that just comes from the Chopin Études.” And so it does. However, it does not sound like Chopin, but only remarkably like Carter.

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