We have in our midst an American composer, Elliott Carter, who has reinvented the string quartet, perfected the microdrama for a single voice and a handful of instrumentalists, introduced a new sense of civility into the performance of very difficult pieces for large orchestra, and speculated about the nature of time and memory as persistently as anyone since Marcel Proust and Edmund Husserl.

Like his fellow composer the late Roger Sessions, Carter’s aim in composing has always been “to help build a really new and better inner world.” As long ago as 1944 he wrote in Modern Music that “there must be good thinking and good talking about music to preserve its noble rank as a fine art for all of us.” As for “good talking,” Carter has never fallen short. Already in 1953 he had said in an address at the University of Illinois, “This is the time to work our hardest and our best if we want musical culture to survive.”

In this matter, no one of his generation in the United States has worked harder than he, or been more widely acclaimed in Europe. Musicians in many countries love to play his music, and many audiences want to hear it. And although he turns ninety on December 11 the years have so far lain lightly upon him. In conversation he is, as always, brisk, limpid, intellectually dead-center and ready to chase after whatever hare may have been started by others. His bearing in discussion is that of a senior cherub whose sense of wonder is still very much intact.

Among covert autobiographers—people, that is to say, who contrive to write their memoirs while eschewing the word “I”—Carter has had a place of his own ever since 1937, when he began to write music criticism for Modern Music in New York. (He was twenty-eight years old at the time.) Given that the junior critic customarily is assigned the concerts that no other critic has asked for, these notices might have been journeyman work. But Modern Music, as edited by Minna Lederman, was not an ordinary magazine. It aimed to do for music what had been done for literature by Scofield Thayer’s The Dial and by Eugene and Betsy Jolas’s transition.

Nor was Elliott Carter a beginner. By 1937 at twenty-eight he was entirely able to deal with the New York musical scene, season by season, without a word misused or a word wasted. He was clear, concise, and not afraid of a fight. In an article published in March 1938 he distinguished between two kinds of listener. The first was “the one who gives himself up to an evening of reminiscence or revery after having checked out his conscious critical self at the door with his hat.” The other was the listener “who seeks a living message to him from another living man that will help him to understand the people about him.”

Carter saw it as the duty of the critic to alert his readers to the first appearance of music that had brought “a living message” of that kind. He did not altogether like Eugene Ormandy’s approach to Stravinsky’s Jeu de Cartes in March 1938, but he had no doubt that people should hear it again (and better done). “Jeu de Cartes,” he wrote, “is a piece of finely drawn drôlerie, clever, with sharp wit and mysterious charm, the like of which has never been heard before.”

His fellow critics did not seem to him to be doing their job in that respect. “When Aaron Copland has two premieres in one short month,” he wrote in 1939,

it is an event of considerable musical importance. Again the critics revealed their lack of information and interest. In reviewing Koussevitsky’s excellent performance of El Salón México, these probers gave no evidence of ever having heard works by Copland before and hence failed completely to discuss the important changes in style made evident in this piece.

Nor had the “probers” of the day made anything of An Outdoor Overture, which Copland had written for a New York high school orchestra. Yet, Carter wrote, “its opening is as lofty and beautiful as any passage that has been written by a contemporary…. Copland…is one of the most important, original, and inspiring figures in contemporary music either here or in Europe.”

As has often been told, Elliott Carter had lived in and for music since 1924, when as a schoolboy he had been introduced to Charles Ives by his music teacher at the Horace Mann School in New York. He was made welcome at Mr. and Mrs. Ives’s house near Gramercy Park, and he sat with them in their box at Carnegie Hall when (among much else) Scriabin’s Poème de l’extase, Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps, and Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé were performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra.


About this informal education, Carter wrote in 1939, there were “lively talks” “in the calm atmosphere of [Ives’s] living-room, a Henry James, old New York interior.” Sounds never imagined by Henry James rang out when Ives sat

down at the piano to play from memory bits of a piece just heard—Daphnis et Chloé or Le Sacre—taking off the Ravel major seventh chords and obvious rhythms, or the primitive repeated dissonances of Stravinsky, and calling them “too easy.” “Anybody can do that,” he would exclaim, playing “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” the right hand in one key and the left in another.

This was the same Charles Ives who would play a fugue from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier after breakfast before going to the offices of the very successful New York insurance firm of Ives & Myrick, in which he was the senior partner. When Carter applied in 1926 to enter Harvard as a freshman, Ives allowed him to give his name as a reference. “Carter strikes me as rather an exceptional boy,” he wrote to the Dean. “He has an instinctive interest in literature and especially music that is somewhat unusual…. I am sure his reliability, industry, and sense of honour are what they should be—also his sense of humour which you do not ask me about.”

After majoring in English at Harvard, Carter turned—much against his father’s will—to music. As a graduate student from 1930 to 1932, he studied harmony and counterpoint with Walter Piston and composition with Gustav Holst, now remembered primarily by a sprinkling of Anglophiles as the composer of The Planets.

In the matter of personal tuition, Carter’s good luck continued. “In the United States, at that time,” he was to say in 1975, “contemporary music was generally brushed aside by most musicians as the work of lunatics…. Most of my teachers, except for Walter Piston, seemed to hold this opinion.” Piston had lately returned from Paris, where he had studied with Nadia Boulanger, at that time the most intelligent music teacher in Europe. When Carter went to Paris in 1932 to study at the Ecole Normale de Musique, Piston urged him to ask Boulanger to accept him as a private student. Not only did she give him formal lessons, but she arranged for him to rent a room in a farmhouse near Fontainebleau that was within walking distance of her own country house. Informal summer visits and long forest walks resulted. (Doubtless it helped that Carter had spoken French even before he could write in English.)

As a teacher, Boulanger never failed to surprise and enlighten. Carter always remembered that, toward the end of his stay in Paris, “she used [Schubert] waltzes in final exams in the history of music, invariably mystifying her students while at the same time illustrating the extraordinary range of types within one style of those beautiful pieces.” And, much as she disdained Richard Strauss’s Salome, which Carter had not yet heard, she brought to his attention, he would later write, “that extraordinary slowly mounting chromatic scale in the strings, against which many different motives later to appear in the opera are projected, giving that strange, unearthly, and ominous sense of terror that pervades the work and is established quietly yet intensely at the very beginning of it.”

Nadia Boulanger was as attentive to Renaissance and pre-Renaissance music as she was to the cantatas of J.S. Bach and to Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. (From this, there resulted her still-cherished pioneer recordings of Monteverdi madrigals.) She loved language, too, and there was a time when she memorized Shakespeare’s sonnets in the original, night after night, and on the next morning called upon Elliott Carter to correct her pronunciation.

Paul Valéry once said to Saint-John Perse that Nadia Boulanger was “music personified.” What mattered to Elliott Carter, as to her other students, was that that personification extended as much to new music as to the vast range of earlier music with which she was minutely familiar. By the time Carter returned to the United States in 1935, she had given him the kind of continuing education that never palls, and results in a lifelong and constructive curiosity. “This kind of curiosity,” Carter was to say later, “is something that we don’t expect to see much anymore.”

Carter himself had that kind of curiosity in the years from 1945 to 1955, when he was tussling with the problems of time and memory in music. In 1969 he recalled how he had then rethought

the rhythmic means of what had begun to seem a very limited routine in most contemporary and older Western music. I had taken up again an interest in Indian talas, the Arabic durub, the “tempi” of Balinese gamelans (especially the accelerating Gangsar and Rangkep), and studied the newer recordings of African music, that of the Watusi in particular. At the same time, the music of the early quattrocento, of Scriabin, Ives, and the techniques described in Cowell’s New Musical Resources also furnished me with many ideas. The result was a way of evolving rhythms and rhythmic continuities, sometimes called “metric modulation.”

Metric modulation, under whatever name, was to be a constant in Carter’s compositional practice. He himself is a master of plain verbal statement, and in 1969 he simplified the ideas outlined above by saying that he was in direct opposition to what was then being written: “First you do this for a while, then you do that.”


I wanted to mix up “this” and “that,” make them interact in other ways than by linear succession. Too, I questioned the inner shape of “this” and “that”—of musical ideas—as well as their degrees of linking or nonlinking.

His conclusion was that musical discourse at that time “needed as thorough a rethinking as harmony had had at the beginning of the century.”

What he saw of birds, animals, insects, and plants in climates remote from our own experience also played a part in this. While working on his first string quartet in the Lower Sonoran Desert near Tucson, Arizona, in 1950 and 1951, he found a certain “specialness” in the way in which the “comic road runners, giant suguaros, flowering ocatillos” adapted to the special, dry world in which they lived.

Carter is also a master mixer and blender of what he calls the “many-layered contrasts” that characterize his work. Meter is the essence of that mixing, but there are also certain overall images that we should never identify unless Carter had done it for us.

Who would guess, for instance, how much of the ground plan of the First Quartet is owed to Jean Cocteau’s film Le Sang d’un poète? In that film, Carter said in 1970,

the entire dreamlike action is framed by an interrupted slow-motion shot of a tall brick chimney in an empty lot being dynamited. Just as the chimney begins to fall apart, the shot is broken off and the entire movie follows, after which the shot of the chimney is resumed at the point it left off, showing its disintegration in mid-air, and closing the film with its collapse on the ground.

The relevance of this to Carter’s First Quartet is that the quartet, like the movie, begins with a cadenza for solo cello that is abruptly interrupted. Only at the very end of the quartet does the motif recur in a cadenza for the first violin alone. For Elliott Carter, both episodes established the difference between external time (measured by the falling chimney, or by the cadenza) and internal dream time. There is no dynamite, and no falling chimney, in Carter’s quartet, but there is a clear division between the cadenzas, in each of which a single player ruminates at his own pace, uninterrupted, and the rest of the piece, in which a multitude of ideas go forward, each at its own varying pace. Unlike many other composers, Carter has always known exactly how to bring his pieces to an end. David Schiff, in the new edition of his The Music of Elliott Carter, finds the right words for the end of the First String Quartet: “With the most stunning gesture of all,” he says, “the first violin completes the motion of the work in solitude, slowing the music to stillness on a celestial high E.”

Where language—whether spoken or written—is concerned, Carter’s has been an all-risking commitment. When prompted by something that he had read he could write for a large orchestra, though the work that resulted was never on the scale of Bruckner or Mahler. Big but short were the major orchestral works that resulted. The impassioned incantations of Saint-John Perse in his book-length poem Vents of 1945 stood guard in 1970 over Carter’s Concerto for Orchestra. The death by suicide of Hart Crane inspired the trumpet solo at the opening of Carter’s A Symphony of Three Orchestras in 1977. It also inspired the end of the piece, when the piano makes a downward leap, “con bravura” (as David Schiff puts it) in its role as “the transformed persona of the opening trumpet,” while “a grotesque halo of xylophone and marimba parod[ies] the screeching gulls of the opening bars.” That is a mar-velous reading. But as Carter once said, music is an “expressive” art and not a representative, let alone a descriptive, one.

Those big and “difficult” works are not often heard in the United States. “Ears learn fast,” the English critic Andrew Porter said in 1974 when he was writing for The New Yorker. But they can’t learn if they don’t hear. And it is the microdramas that Carter has written for poems by Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, and John Ashbery that get performed more often, because the ensembles required are small and there is no lack of dedicated performers. As a dramatist, Carter wastes no time in setting the scene. Even when setting a poem by Lowell that begins with the word “blank,” he goes straight in with precisely the right contribution for the voice.

With those tiny orchestras of his, he can do anything he wants, from the quick little strut of the sandpiper on the beach to the offstage music of the Air Force band playing on the steps of the Capitol. He can make a solo trumpet impersonate a soprano on the skids. And we sense, even if we have not seen it, the marking “light and ironical” that comes with the last line of Robert Lowell’s “In Genesis,” when the sons of Orpheus “dance with grateful gaiety round the cook-out” after they have killed their father. All these make one look forward to the opera that he is writing to a libretto by Paul Griffiths.

Like every other established composer, Carter has often been asked to write for American symphony orchestras. Publicity, not performance, is often the motor force behind these invitations. For both composer and orchestra, a commission brings with it a brevet of “importance.” A sum of money is usually forthcoming, together with the promise of a first performance. In 1970, Elliott Carter had plenty to say about that in his contribution to the book called The Orchestral Composer’s Point of View: Essays on Twentieth Century Music by Those Who Wrote It. “With the explosion of the publicity industry,” he wrote,

more and more emphasis has been put on the public image of the composer as the real item of consumption. His musical composition is only one of the contributing elements, others being his ability to perform, to talk, to write, to teach, and to be photographed—all of these being more salable, and hence more highly paid, than his music.

On another occasion, our covert—or perhaps not-so-covert—autobiographer said,

One might imagine…that the challenge of good, effective yet technically advanced scores would be helpful in maintaining high performance standards in an orchestra, if not in raising them, as it did in the past. But,…as you and I know, new works that make an immediate effect with a minimum of effort and time are favored.

As for any kind of “new, vital or original music,” Carter went on in his 1970 essay,

the fact that [it] has been written here, though not often, amid miserable circumstances, at great human cost to its creators, and in almost utter neglect—that Edgard Varèse, Charles Ives, Carl Ruggles, Stefan Wolpe, and others fought this desperate battle—means that these composers had such a strong inner vision that they were able to overlook the preposterous circumstances that surrounded them in our musical society, particularly in the orchestral field….

Commissions…are very often given by those entirely concerned with publicity, a kind that feeds on the composer’s reputation but is not interested in his actual work…. Very often,…the commissioners do not even know what kind of music the composer has written and hence is likely to write—with the curious result that the finished score comes as a disagreeable surprise to conductor and performers, who then churn through it desultorily or with hostility, misrepresenting the score to the public and ruining the possibility of future performances for a long time.

As for the sums offered, they “are usually far less than a professional copyist would be paid to copy the score.”

For these and other reasons, Carter’s own experiences with commissions in the United States have not always been happy. To remember a period during which major orchestras were consistently programmed and rehearsed without regard for the box office, we would have to revert to the glory days of the orchestras that were subsidized by the radio, whether in the United States or (since World War II) primarily in Europe. In the great days of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in London before 1939, Toscanini more than once cut his rehearsals short, saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, I look forward to seeing you this evening.” Great cities could also play their part. There was also a time when the Berlin Philharmonic under Karajan came to Avery Fisher Hall and the audience applauded them just for tuning up.

Even in New York, which has an eager and informed core audience for new music, subscription concerts for major orchestral music concentrate on what Carter has called “the performance industry”—on familiar “masterworks,” that is to say, which the subscribers can encounter as old friends and judge primarily by how they are performed.

Carter went on to say that in the United States commercial exploitation was destroying this familiar repertory, just as it had destroyed forests in the nineteenth century.

So far, in America at least, no concerted effort of musical reforestation of the rapidly dying repertory of increasingly tired and worn-out classics is planned. (The mortality of the Francks, Regers, and Saint-Saënses is very high these years.)

If there is a minority among the subscribers who would like to hear something new, the conductor is often under pressure (not least from himself) to find “works that do not demand much rehearsal, will not cause much dismay, or be too long or too unusual.” Whereas extra rehearsals are money down the drain, playing all nine Beethoven symphonies in succession (as the New York Philharmonic did in Avery Fisher Hall last September) is money in the bank. Almost all the great orchestras of the world now function not as creative instruments but as guardians of the flame—or, to put it plainly, as service industries. Within an agreed-upon repertory, they aim at an agreed-upon and expected near-perfection.

But the particular kinds of perfection that suit the traditional repertory do not necessarily suit new music. Nor can the orchestra for new music be whipped into shape and terrorized by an old-style “great conductor.” The qualities that audiences prize in the standard repertory—above all, the “big sound” of a hundred and more men and women playing as one—may be irrelevant to music of more recent date.

The thing to remember about Carter’s compositions for large orchestra—with or without soloists—is that he does not want the orchestra to play “as one,” as a matter of built-in routine. Nor does he want the orchestra to be conditioned by what he describes as “Romantic music based on a common practice of standardized harmony, rhythm, and counterpoint, of singing themes, of widening sonority by octave doubling.” The glorious, well-cushioned, and entirely familiar sound that results from that brings comfort and reassurance to big-city audiences the world over. It is wonderful to hear, and it can be energizing to watch.

But, as Carter wrote in 1970,

the orchestra’s very instrumental makeup severely limits its possibilities of sound. All of the instruments of the usual orchestra playing a tutti can only be written for in a very few ways that will produce a balance of sound in which each element contributes significantly to the whole and is not partially or totally blotted out by more powerful instruments.

As long ago as 1928, Arnold Schoenberg had defined the dangerous fascination of a huge orchestra going full blast. “When the sense of hearing cannot compel the imagination,” he said, “the sense of sight must also be brought into play…. As long as Europeans continue to maintain large orchestras, they will never acquire that finesse of ear for which the creator must always hanker.” From this, there followed the decisive element in Carter’s orchestral practice: “The fewer the instruments that play, the more possibilities of combinations there are.”

That is why there are no parts for peons in Carter’s orchestration, any more than there are in the original orchestration (for fifteen players only) of Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony of 1906. There is a full-throated energy in Schoenberg’s Op. 9 that is as infectious, and as invigorating, as any of the familiar finales in the repertory for an orchestra seven or eight times as large.

Furthermore, the ideal placing of the players on the stage had to be re-discovered. Even when a string quartet comes onto the platform, Carter does not see anything mandatory about the standard familial huddle, with all four players at center stage. He originally wanted the players of his Second String Quartet to sit as far apart as possible so that, like the characters in Waiting for Godot, each should seem to be speaking to himself.

With his Third Quartet, where the four players are divided into two duos—one for violin and cello, the other for violin and viola—Carter again wanted the seating on stage to correspond to their distinct and separate roles. The audience would thereby “not only perceive them as separate sound sources but be aware of the combinations that they form with one another.”

This was an aural decision, but it was also a moral decision. “To me,” he said in 1960, “the special teamwork of ensemble playing is very wonderful and moving.” In his chamber music, all are equals and no one has a back seat. Even so, the Third Quartet poses devilish problems. As David Schiff says,

Tempo modulations occur so frequently, and the relationships of cross-pulses are so complex that the Composers Quartet employed a tape-recorded click-track (inaudible to the audience) to give each player the tempo…. Beyond its rhythmic difficulties, however, the work calls attention to instrumental virtuosity. Triple and quadruple stops abound and pizzicato passages demand a Segovian technique.

The sound, as well as the sight, of two duos playing unrelated music had its problems for the audience.

Like every other established composer, Carter has sometimes been asked to write for a major American symphony orchestra. The same principle applies in works by Carter that use larger, and sometimes much larger, numbers of players. These larger forces are used, as often as not, to make it possible for several chamber music groups to work with one another. In 1970 he traced the origin of this ambition to Stravinsky’s Agon and Variations. These “treat the orchestra,” he wrote, “as a storehouse for many changing chamber music combinations, avoiding the full sound almost entirely throughout. This requires sensitive playing by the musicians and careful listening by the audience, which neither are prepared for, especially…in halls where acoustics prevent great delicacy of sound from being heard distinctly.”

It was Carter’s purpose to deconstruct—or to reinvent—the standard “symphony orchestra.” “If there is still any point in composing for orchestra,” he said, “it is to treat the medium with as much novelty of concept as one does harmony, rhythm, or any of the older musical methods, so rethought in our time.”

The ideal to which Carter addressed himself, and was later to achieve, is one in which

the entrance, register, sound of an oboe or a solo viola must be a matter of formal and expressive signification for the whole piece. The combinations of instruments are as much a compositional consideration as the material they play, even to determining the materials, and all must reflect the overall intention.

This “novelty of concept” was carried out in the Piano Concerto (1967), the Concerto for Orchestra (1970), and A Symphony of Three Orchestras (1977). In all of these, Carter reinvented the orchestra.

The Piano Concerto used the orchestra “mainly as an elaborate ambience, a society of sounds or a sounded stage setting for the piano.” In the earlier Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano with Two Chamber Orchestras (1961), the percussion became “the main body of the orchestra, the pitched, blown, and bowed instruments secondary, with the two soloists mediating between them.”

The key phrase here is “a society of sounds.” The big orchestra, when Carter used it, was in effect a society of small orchestras, each with its clearly distinguished set of sounds. They worked together not as day laborers in the service of an all-powerful will, but as groups of people who lived together, each in their own way, with a shared aim. No one can sit through a performance of Carter’s Triple Duo or of his Clarinet Concerto and not realize that every single instrument seems not only to have a new freedom but to be reveling in it.

That is what is meant by “a society of sounds.” It is the “really new and better inner world” that Roger Sessions had hoped for. To have brought it into existence is a noble achievement, and the Clarinet Concerto drew loud cheers at its first performance in Carnegie Hall in November. All ears—even long ones—will come round to it in time.

This Issue

December 17, 1998