One Easy Piece

Quartet No. 1

by Elliott Carter
(Nonesuch), Composers Quartet

Eight Etudes and a Fantasy

by Elliott Carter
(Candide), Dorian

Sonata for flute, oboe, cello and harpsichord

by Elliott Carter
(Nonesuch, Deutsche Grammophon, Columbia, Decca)

Variations for Orchestra

by Elliott Carter
(Columbia Masterworks), New Philharmonia, Prausnitz, cond

Quartet No. 2

by Elliott Carter
(Nonesuch), Composers Quartet

Double concerto for harpsichord, piano and two chamber orchestras Orchestra

by Elliott Carter
(Columbia Masterworks), Jacobs, Rosen, Prausnitz, English Chamber

Piano Concerto

by Elliott Carter
(RCA Victor), Lateiner, Leinsdorf, Boston Symphony

Concerto for Orchestra

by Elliott Carter
(Columbia Masterworks), New York Philharmonic, Bernstein

Quartet No. 3

by Elliott Carter
(no recording as yet)
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…

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