Elliott Carter
Elliott Carter; drawing by David Levine


Can a new work of music be played brilliantly by musicians who think that it is impossible to get through it technically with confidence, and also be wildly cheered to the galleries by a public most of whom would claim that it is too complex to understand? So it would seem from the first performance of Elliott Carter’s Third Quartet by the Juilliard String Quartet in New York on January 23. It appears certain that, for all its alleged difficulty, this fascinating work will become a permanent addition to the chamber repertory. Carter’s first and second quartets, generally acknowledged as the greatest works in their medium since Bartók, have already achieved this status.

Orchestral works have a harder time making their way. However, at the end of April last year, Carter’s Variations for Orchestra was played four times in one week in New York: three times by the New York Philharmonic and once by the Chicago Symphony. Although this work is a regular part of the Chicago Symphony’s repertory (they have played it all over Europe), it was the first performance by the New York Philharmonic.

Variations for Orchestra was written in 1955, and was Carter’s only major symphonic work before the Concerto for Orchestra of 1969. That Carter should have had to wait seventeen years for its performance by America’s reputedly most distinguished orchestra is typical of the difficult relation between American composer and orchestra today. During these seventeen years—and early enough in them—Carter had been recognized internationally, and considered by many as the finest and most interesting American composer now writing; for most of these seventeen years, in spite of this widespread recognition, the New York Philharmonic had chosen to act as if he did not exist.

The myth of the unrecognized genius is a necessary part of the public aspect of art today. It is important for a radically new work to be understood only little by little and too late: that is the only tangible proof we have of its revolutionary character. There has never, of course, been a truly neglected genius in the history of music—at least not since the time that we have any real data on the lives of composers. Even Schubert, who died so young that appreciation of his stature was only beginning to grow, was already well enough known beyond the small world of Viennese music for the young Schumann, when he heard of his death, to have wept uncontrollably all night.

Nor is Carter himself in any way a neglected figure. With the appearance of his first string quartet in 1949, he almost at once achieved the kind of international fame that would satisfy any ambition. The New York Philharmonic’s neglect of his work is therefore an empty ritual, a symbol of the gap that has opened up in our time between performance and composition.

In 1969, the Philharmonic took notice of Carter, but not to play the Variations. It commissioned a new work, to be written especially for the celebration of its centenary. The Concerto for Orchestra, as its title implies, is a work requiring exceptional virtuosity from the players and was immediately accepted as one of Carter’s most imaginative achievements. It would, of course, have been much easier to play for an orchestra that was already familiar with Carter’s style through the Variations. (It would also have been easier to grasp by a public that was not listening to a work by Carter for the first time—a work, too, of far greater difficulty than the Variations.)

All these barriers to appreciation would no doubt create a reputation for difficulty with any composer. But it is important to note that Carter’s distinction has been won neither in spite of this reputation nor because of it. To a great extent—and this is one of the paradoxes of American musical life—it is assumed that because Carter has developed an original style by purely musical procedures and with no recourse to the doctrinaire shenanigans of many of his contemporaries, his music must therefore be hard to grasp. To the normal difficulties of playing any new music of any originality is added our expectation that avant-garde art must puzzle, shock, and, above all, resist immediate understanding. Both performer and listener come to a new work by Carter with a conviction of initially insurmountable problems. Our sense of history and the organization of our musical life combine to help us realize these comical fears.

The problem of difficulty in contemporary music is most often wrongly posed. It is generally believed that music is difficult to comprehend either when there is too much going on for the ear to distinguish or when the composer’s form—harmonic, melodic, or architectural—is in some mysterious way beyond the grasp of the mind of the listener. Yet both these conditions may be fulfilled and the music still seem lucid and even popular in style.


In the music of Richard Strauss—to take only the most notorious example—not only do a great many of the notes remain totally indistinguishable from an enormous mass of busywork, but the composer was clearly far from caring if they were. “Gentlemen, you are playing all the notes,” he is reported to have gasped, appalled, at a rehearsal of Don Juan with the Boston Symphony.1 As for the understanding of form, I remember a group of college students, all music majors, who did not realize that in a sixty-bar piece of Bach I had just played for them, the last twenty bars were the first twenty repeated without alteration. The appreciation of form of the average audience cannot, I think, be rated very high, and yet it has never prevented their enjoyment. Yet those who take in their stride the most abstruse complexities of Beethoven, the subtlest nuances of Mozart, and the most complex effects of Wagner or Mahler, will stalk angrily out of the hall when presented with, say, the enchanting simplicities of Alban Berg’s post-card lieder.

It is paradoxically not what is actually to be heard that makes music difficult, but what cannot be heard because it is not there. It is the lack of something which the listener expects to hear but which is refused him that makes his blood boil, that brings the aged Philharmonic subscriber to the verge of apoplexy.2 Every original work represents an omission, even a deliberate erasure of what was previously indispensable to art, as well as a new ordering and new elements. The real irritant for the listener is that what he has so far considered as essential to a work of music he now cannot perceive. The composer has left it out. The appreciation of a new style is as much an effort of renunciation as of acceptance.3

To see what Carter refuses to allow the listener is a preliminary necessity to a comprehension of his art; in the end it will be the same as seeing what he has brought to music. What an original composer “leaves out,” however, is rarely what the public, or the average musician for that matter, thinks. We have only to remember the reproaches that there was no melody in Wagner, no form in Beethoven, no coherence to Schumann, or that the music of Mozart could appeal only to the head and not to the heart.

To show something of the gradual process of understanding a new composer’s thought, I can mention my own experience with Carter’s most brilliantly attractive and apparently most complex work, the Double Concerto for the piano, harpsichord, and two small chamber orchestras. This is a work which has had, happily, a considerable history of performance. At its premiere (in which I played) it was felt that future performances would be rare. The requirement of four virtuoso percussion players, each playing more than ten instruments, was alone sufficiently dismaying. Yet it has been recorded twice, and given more than thirty performances, by many different groups. I have played in more than a third of the performances and in both recordings, so that for once I have some personal knowledge of the unfolding history of our understanding of a work of music. The original difficulties of performance—and of hearing—transformed themselves, becoming at once easier to deal with and more problematical, both more traditional and tied to a new vision of the art of music.


In the summer of 1961, I received the last pages of the piano part of the Double Concerto in Paris a few days before flying to New York for the first rehearsal. It is not only eighteenth-century musicians, waiting for Mozart to blot the wet ink on the score, who have had to learn a new work at the last minute. (Recently for Boulez’s Eclat-Multiples the copyists were working until the day before the first performance.)

This final section or coda of the Double Concerto contained the most complicated rhythmic passage I had ever been asked to play, a few measures of moderately fast septuplets against triplets—that is, while the right hand plays seven even notes to each beat, the left hand plays three. The real complication comes from the division of the septuplets into groups of four by a melody (marked singing and expressive) whose line consisted of every fourth note. The most complicated cross-rhythm I had seen before this was the famous eight against nine in Brahms’s Variations on a theme of Paganini. The Carter seven against three was more difficult because of the internal subdivision of the sevens and, paradoxically, because of the slightly slower beat—so that the irregularities were easier to hear. (As we shall see, this passage will turn out to be not a true cross-rhythm at all, but something quite different.)


I had not yet succeeded in persuading my left hand to ignore what my right hand was doing when I had to leave for New York and one of New York’s late-summer heat waves. Rehearsals took place during a ten-day period in which the weather frustrated a sane and cool approach to a difficult new work. The luxury of ten day’s rehearsal was due to the generosity of Paul Fromm, who commissioned the work and allowed the composer his choice of performers. The small chamber orchestra was made up of the best of New York’s free-lance players with a considerable awareness of contemporary style. The conductor was the young Swiss, Gustave Meier; the harpsichordist, the older and more experienced Ralph Kirkpatrick. Kirkpatrick’s experience, however, was almost entirely in eighteenth-century music, his style of playing was heavily dependent on the kind of freedom (or rubato) most appropriate for Baroque music. This did not prevent him from giving an impressive account of the work, the solo cadenza in particular; one of the graces of his performance was indeed a tension between an older style of playing and a newer style of writing.4

But Kirkpatrick had recently undergone an eye operation which exacerbated the most ticklish problem of the Double Concerto: the seating arrangement. Each of the two solo instruments is placed in front of its own small orchestra of six men: two strings, two winds, and two brass. The separation between the two orchestras (and, therefore, the two soloists) should be both visually and audibly evident. Spread out over a half-circle behind the two orchestras are four percussion players, each with a formidable array of about a dozen instruments to cope with. The harpsichordist, in front of his orchestra, and two percussion players are on the left of the stage as the audience sees them; the pianist and his ensemble to the right. The problem is to place the conductor so that he can see and be seen by both soloists and both orchestras. There are various solutions possible, but the wide separation of the two chamber orchestras and the danger that the raised lids of the two solo keyboards might hide the conductor from part of the orchestra created unexpected difficulties.

This new technical obstacle arose from a new and even revolutionary conception of the use of space in performance. Contrast of two or more groups, echo effects, and other static devices are common enough, and have been since the sixteenth century when the Venetians decided to exploit the immensity of the interior of St. Mark’s. In Carter’s Double Concerto, however, the choirs are not merely set off against each other, but the music describes arabesques in space as rhythms are passed from one musician to another. The simplest example of this is a roll on the cymbals that goes from right to left as each one of the percussionists takes it up, overlapping with the previous one.

The most elaborate use of the spatial arabesque is in the slow movement, where the winds and brass intone a soft chorale-like texture in strict time and—imposed like a grid over this—a continuously and uniformly accelerating (and, later, decelerating) rhythm is played with great delicacy by piano, harpsichord, and percussion staccato, and strings pizzicato, each instrument playing only one or two notes as the steadily changing rhythm passes around the orchestra. It is a beautiful conception, but difficult to notate: everybody’s part must be written to refer to the conductor’s beat, the conductor must direct the continuously accelerating instruments, and when an absolutely simple and even rhythm is written to conform to a continuously changing beat, it comes out looking very queer indeed.

Some of the members of the orchestra in many of the performances had such difficulty trying to place their notes relative to a uniformly changing beat that they never realized that their own parts are actually played in strict time. Their difficulties, indeed, were aggravated by the fact that when the acceleration has proceeded to a certain point, the conductor’s beat has become so fast that for purely physical reasons he must shift to beating only the longer note values—without, however, interrupting the acceleration. At these moments the beat becomes three times as slow, and the notation three times as fast, and it is difficult for most musicians to make the shift imperceptible to the audience.

At the first rehearsal, the passage in the coda that had so frightened me in Paris (three against seven, with the sevens accented in groups of four) became far more terrifying when I at last saw the full score. The piano and its small orchestra have their parts notated in 3 beats to the measure, the rhythm of septuplets in the right hand therefore coming out to 21 notes against the 9 (3 triplets) per measure in the left; but the harpsichord and its orchestra have their music written in 2 beats per measure, the harpsichord playing 5 notes per beat in the right hand against 4 in the left, or 10 against 8 per measure—with the quintuplets accented every third note, the quadruplets every fifth, so that the accents of all four lines in piano and harpsichord never coincide.5 The already complex cross-rhythms of 21 against 10 against 9 against 8 were made infinitely more difficult by the subdivisions of phrase and accent.

It was some time afterward that I began to realize slowly and painfully (how slowly I am ashamed to confess) that these were not cross-rhythms at all, at least not as they had always been understood so far in music. Brahms’s eight against nine in the Variations on a Theme by Paganini is a true cross-rhythm because the beginning of each group of eight and nine—their moment of coincidence—is clearly marked. There is, in short, a central beat in Brahms which occurs every eight (or, in the left hand, every nine) notes, and which provides a frame. We hear a larger, slower rhythm within which the cross-rhythms are to be understood.

What Carter has done is to remove the central beat—except for purposes of pure notation. No central beat can be; heard: the rhythms therefore do not cross, but proceed independently. They are, in fact, cross-tempi or cross-speeds, if you like. The occasional coincidence of accent in two parts no longer refers to the existence of a slower and all-governing beat, but to periodic movements which have momentarily come together and are about to spread apart once again. There is a central rhythmic frame of reference in the Double Concerto but it is no longer a static and immovable principal beat; the frame is the system by which one tempo is transformed into another in the course of the piece. The central rhythmic conception cannot be heard as completely revealed at any one moment of the work, but is a function of the work as a whole.

In other words, those complicated-looking septuplets divided into groups of four in the right hand of the piano part were not septuplets at all, and not in the least complicated: they were simple groups of four. They coincide with the left hand rhythm every seven notes, but the moments of coincidence are not supreme, have no privilege. But they are what the conductor must beat to keep the ensemble together.

Music is “difficult,” as I said above, when we are listening for something which is not there. It is not the multiplicity of rhythm in this passage that creates the initial impression of obscurity. The four different superimposed tempi are clearly audible: we can all hear, in a beautifully transparent texture with ravishing tone color, four lines moving at four different rates of speed. Four different lines are, surprising as that may seem, very easy to perceive when clearly different in rhythm, and have always been easy in music from Bach to the present; they merely demand a carefully nuanced and sensitive performance.

But when we ask—as we do after our experience of traditional music—“what is the basic rhythm?” we receive no answer from Carter where we have always had one from Bach. Debussy’s writing, for example, is always exquisitely balanced, rich, and harmonious, but when his public asked, “What is the key?” “What is the central chord?” and received no answer, the music seemed an intolerable succession of dissonances. Critics have sometimes complained of Carter that many of his notes cannot be heard, where in fact everything in his work is as easy to hear, as transparent as the scores of Mahler, Berg, Ives, or Tchaikovsky. Paradoxically the Double Concerto appears most difficult to musicians who are trying to follow the score. The bar lines traditionally mark a regular strong beat: in Carter they are often a purely visual aid to the ensemble with only occasionally a genuine significance for the ear.6

The reliance of the public upon the conductor’s movements for the sense of what they are hearing leads to an analogous misunderstanding. For many people the gestures of the conductor are a guide: they interpret the piece, clarify its rhythm, indicate the climaxes, tell them what to feel. In the Double Concerto the conductor’s beat does not indicate a central rhythm, but only one of two or more equally important lines, and the public is often puzzled to hear nothing fundamental that corresponds to the most vigorous gestures. They conclude that something has gone wrong with the ensemble—and matters are not helped by the fact that occasionally something has.

Musicians take almost as long—and sometimes longer—than the public to accept and understand something new in music. They are as dependent upon the gestures of the conductor for a feeling of security. But the conductor’s beat largely must correspond to the notation. The bar line is the traditional place for the conductor’s down beat, and it generally means the strong beat, the mark of the dominating central pulse which often disappears from Carter’s music.

At one point, indeed, in the Double Concerto, traditional notation is stretched beyond its limits and even abandoned, if only briefly. The climax of the slow movement is a brilliant and enchanting one: the piano and the harpsichord have been softly accompanying long melodies in the wind instruments; then, as the harpsichord and both orchestras begin to slow down in an immensely long ritard, the piano begins gradually to accelerate more and more until its notes end in a soft, resonant blur. It is a beautifully poetic effect; and an extraordinarily simple and direct one. A gradual acceleration against a gradual deceleration, however, would require for its exact notation the solution of a differential equation of the second degree. The points of coincidence between piano and orchestra are therefore only approximately notated in the score. In playing this passage, I have always found it best not to look at the conductor at all and just pray that it will come out right. It generally does, as the extreme speed of the repeated notes at the end demanded by Carter represent the technical limits of the instrument as well as of the performer.

The mood of the first performance was one close to panic. In particular the last section of the piece, with one orchestra’s part notated in 6/8, the other in 3/4, caused special anxiety. “I feel more like a traffic cop than a conductor,” said Gustave Meier, trying to balance the sonority of one orchestra against another. Would we get through the piece without breaking down? We made it to the end. I had no clear idea how the performance went, but it turned out to be an enormous success with the public and, the next day, the critics.


The poetic content of the Double Concerto and its dramatic conception imposed themselves at once. The fragments of the introduction that seem to grow together in a continuous organic movement, the end of the slow central section in which the extreme slowing down of the orchestra suddenly becomes identical in its total suspension of movement with the extreme speeding up of the piano carried so far that no increase of motion is audible (like two opposed infinities that meet), the scherzo dramatically broken twice by the violent cadenzas of the piano, and the fierce coda that superimposes all the rhythms of the work in one great sonority and then falls to pieces “and in a flash expires” (like the end of Pope’s Dunciad, as Carter himself has remarked)—all this was immediately obvious in spite of so much about the music that was not yet clear to the musicians or to the public.

Stravinsky, indeed, spoke of the Double Concerto as the first American masterpiece. What was most evidently masterly, most easily accessible to the general public, was the rich play of sound, not only in contrast and blending of sonority, but in a dynamic conception of one kind of sonority moving into another—piano staccato, violin pizzicato, and bongo drums clearly taking over the successive notes of a single rhythmic phrase, for example. Virtuosity, too, is still a direct and legitimate way to the public heart, and the virtuoso passages in the Double Concerto for the harpsichordist, the pianist, and four percussion players are spectacular. So difficult, in fact, are the percussion parts that these players generally tend to swamp the others—less from an inability to damp their instruments than from an attempt to give themselves confidence by more vigorous and hearty thumps.

No matter what the performance is like, the work is almost player-proof, always a success. The only exception occurred the following year in London when it was directed by the greatest conductor to have done the piece to this day, Hans Rosbaud. The work had already been played in London a few months previously under Jacques-Louis Monod, one of the finest and most intelligent young conductors. His performance was exciting, with great vitality, but half the rehearsals were devoted to changing the seating arrangements of the orchestra and soloists. In one of these periodic redistributions, I bumped my head on a pendant microphone and had three stitches sewn in my scalp (the BBC refusing to let me leave for the hospital until I had filled out a long official form describing the accident).

Rosbaud, a courteous gentle man, beloved by orchestral musicians, had devoted a great part of his life to contemporary music. When he directed the Double Concerto at a festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music in London, he was a dying man, the cancer that was to kill him six months later already far advanced. The program, as at most such international occasions when each country must be represented, was far too long. On this one evening there were major works from England, France, Italy, and Poland, as well as the Double Concerto.

Rosbaud was fascinated with the Double Concerto but had not realized its difficulties when studying it (if, indeed, he had been able to study it at all). He confided to me that it was the only work on the program he liked, along with a beautiful song cycle by Thaddeus Baird. Accordingly, he rehearsed the Double Concerto and little else, as the Baird songs were much easier. Rehearsals took place in an atmosphere heavy with resentment, smoldering with tension, as other composers and soloists waited around for their scheduled turn, only to be told that Rosbaud wished to continue rehearsing Carter’s work.

It was a measure of the greatness of Rosbaud’s character as well as a poor omen for the performance that, as we were about to step onto the stage, he turned to me and said, “Tell me, where were those places I was beating wrong this morning?” The performance did not break down, but it was a dead one, drained of all vitality; in part this was due to one of the lead players then in the BBC symphony, who hated contemporary music and was doing his discreet best to sabotage the festival. Carter, who was there, was ashen afterward. It is a terrible thing for a composer to hear one of his works played with most of the right notes and no musical life.

At all other times, the Double Concerto seems to have created excitement against whatever odds. There have been beautifully controlled, relaxed, convincing performances by Gunther Schuller. There have, of course, been many performances that I have neither played in nor heard. A measure of the progress of our understanding of the work was a recent performance in New York under Dennis Russel Davies at Tully Hall. When the work was first played in 1961, there were ten full days of rehearsal. In 1972, for a completely relaxed execution, less than half that was necessary. The New York musicians were beginning to learn how to deal with the piece.

It was in these recent performances that certain aspects of the music began to be clear. As we all gradually shed our fears of getting lost, of the performance breaking down, as we stopped accenting the down beat in a desperate effort to keep together, and started phrasing the music as it asked to be phrased, making the delicate nuances that Carter had written, we began to hear things we had never suspected in the work. The enchanting play of intervals, each with its own periodic rhythm, moving in and out of phase with each other, suddenly became clear.

We realized that the absence of one dominant pulse did not mean a loss of control, but that it made possible a new and powerfully expressive set of relations between the apparently independent voices. In fact, Carter’s rhythmic innovations—which are now famous—can be seen as affecting all the other elements of music, and even as radically altering our conception of the nature of music itself. Carter’s recent works—the new quartet in particular—can no longer be heard as purely linear, narrative progressions in time, but as the intersection of opposed forces in a kaleidoscopic pattern.

Paradoxically, the most satisfying performance of the Double Concerto I have played in took place a few years ago with students at the New England Conservatory in Boston, directed with love and understanding by Frederick Prausnitz. Students have a great advantage over full professionals for a work of this kind: they don’t have to be paid for rehearsals, and they are usually eager to take the music home and really work on it. The Double Concerto, too, needs only one violin, one cello, one oboe, etc., and any important conservatory can generally provide one first-rate player on every instrument. The New England Conservatory has a uniquely deep stage, and the problems of the seating arrangement solved themselves at once with an incomparable gain for the spatial conception of the work.

The history of the Double Concerto is one of a gradual but irregular progress of understanding, perception, and sympathy. When the work first appeared, there were hardly any performers who did not, at least secretly, regret the absence of the central pulse that made ensemble playing so much easier, just as those who saw the first cubist pictures must necessarily have felt—along with a liberated excitement—a curious anxiety at the loss of the central point of view destroyed by cubist fragmentation. A multiplicity of vision has become central to the artistic imagination of the twentieth century. Carter’s is the richest and most coherent realization of this multiplicity in the music of our time. The simplicity and directness of his achievement, however, its permanence and its solidity, are only beginning to be felt.

This Issue

February 22, 1973