Fascinatin’ Modulation

The Music of Elliott Carter

by David Schiff
Da Capo, 371 pp., $39.50

Elliott Carter
Elliott Carter; drawing by David Levine

During a recent public discussion at a British festival of contemporary music, someone told Elliott Carter that his new Triple Duo sounded relatively “free” compared with the elaborate constructions of his previous works. “Oh, no!” he replied. “It has just as strict an underlying scheme…only, at a certain point, this began to get boring, so I curtailed it.” Instantly the faces of his predominantly student audience brightened: “If even the great Carter can break his own rules, then perhaps we needn’t feel so inhibited,” was evidently the unvoiced collective thought. It implied much, not only about Carter’s reputation but about several notions of composition and musical analysis widely assumed today.

Much, too, about the dilemmas David Schiff must have faced in planning the first full study of this formidable composer—little though one might suspect their existence from the confident and readable surface of his prose. Admittedly he has undertaken to explain Carter’s work and only incidentally to criticize it—understandably, it might be thought, since he studied with Carter in the mid-1970s and has kept in close touch with him since. At least this enables him to relay many an enlivening personal comment of Carter’s in a study not ostensibly biographical.

In fact, we get a tantalizingly brief account of Carter’s life to start with. It is well known that he grew up in the 1920s during a radical phase of New York’s musical history, when the scandalous latest from Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Varèse, Ruggles, and others was all to be heard. And he had the good fortune, while still a schoolboy, to attract the attention of Charles Ives, who encouraged him in his composing. It is less well known that his parents expected him to go into the family lace-importing business and actively opposed his musical aspirations, cutting down his student allowance when he stuck to his plans and refusing, ever, to attend his performances. We are left to speculate how far the pugnacity of his mature music reflects his early experience of modernism and how far a more personal rebellion.

Schiff’s most remarkable revelation, however, is that Carter destroyed almost his entire output up to the age of thirty—including a piano sonata, a symphony, two or three string quartets, a comic opera, and possibly a ballet collaboration with James Agee entitled “Bombs in the Icebox.” Clearly he took a long view of his musical development from fairly early on. In a way, necessity forced him to. Though his indiscriminate avant-garde ardors had begun to cool before he went to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger between 1932 and 1935, the exactitudes of Boulanger’s neoclassical regime must still have come as a challenge. And when he returned to the America of the Depression, he found that neither the avantgarderie of Schoenberg or Varèse nor the neoclassicism of the followers of Stravinsky cut much ice; what was wanted was a mildly leftish populism…

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