Dominique Nabokov

Elliott Carter at Carnegie Hall on his hundredth birthday, December 11, 2008; photograph by Dominique Nabokov

Turning one hundred years old on December 11, 2008, Elliott Carter must have found the experience exhilarating and rejuvenating. When I went to see him on the afternoon of his birthday, he was hard at work on a song cycle for soprano and clarinet on poems by Louis Zukofsky. He looked younger than six months before—in fact, younger than six years before. That night, the Boston Symphony directed by James Levine played a new work of his, Interventions for piano and orchestra, with Daniel Barenboim as soloist. A few days later, a party of a dozen of his friends heard four of the new songs splendidly performed by Lucy Shelton and Charles Neidich; they are among his most lyrical and wittiest inspirations.

The Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel, Switzerland, has produced a large, handsome book, titled Elliott Carter:A Centennial Portrait in Letters and Documents, with many photographs of Carter, his friends and family, and with many photographs of manuscript pages as well. This is natural as the Sacher Foundation is the world’s greatest repository of twentieth-century music manuscripts, possessing most of Igor Stravinsky, Béla Bartók, Anton Webern, Pierre Boulez, Elliott Carter, and many others. The foundation aids scholars and students throughout the world in their studies of the music of the twentieth century, and the collection is housed in a temperature- and humidity-controlled environment in an old house on the cliffs overlooking the Rhine. The book, written and edited by the director of the foundation, Felix Meyer, and by Professor Anne C. Shreffler of Harvard University, gives a detailed visual image of Carter’s career, interspersed with discussions of many of the works. The photographs and the letters make up a wonderfully personal account of a lifetime.

One might say that Carter’s musical life began in 1924 when, fifteen years old, he heard the American premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring by the Boston Symphony and decided that he wanted to be a composer. In 1925 his father, a lace merchant (who knew twenty languages or dialects, and could speak the tongue of wherever lace was produced), took him on a trip to Vienna. The boy bought a copy of Arnold Schoenberg’s Suite for Piano, op. 25. This was the first publication of a twelve-tone piece, and Carter was introduced to the controversial dodecaphonic style that was to dominate so much of European and then American music for the rest of the century.

Carter’s purchase was almost fortuitous, and paradoxical as well, since most Viennese music lovers of that time and for several decades to come remained curiously unaware of Schoenberg’s recent music. Nevertheless, it is interesting that Carter, fascinated by the new work, was one of the few major avant-garde composers of the century never even to try his hand once at writing a twelve-tone piece, as he found the technique too constraining.

He decided to go to Harvard largely so that he could hear the Boston Symphony, more adventurous in contemporary work than other American orchestras, and went every week to its concerts. He naturally found the Harvard music department stodgy. The conservative British composer Gustav Holst, who taught there, remarked, on hearing Carter play the piano, that if he didn’t play so many wrong notes, perhaps he wouldn’t write so many in his compositions.

One of his high school teachers in New York had introduced him to Charles Ives, who became his mentor and played part of his Concord Sonata for him, so that he was already in touch with the most radical elements of American serious music. He later, somewhat to the shock of Ives’s greatest admirers, expressed his disappointment at Ives’s refusal to commit himself fully to a professional activity in music, abandoning composition for so long, and leaving so much unfinished or only half finished.

Carter’s commitment to the profession was total, disappointing his father, who expected him to join the lace business. Like so many American composers, he went to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger, who was the international pedagogical representative of Stravinsky’s style. (“Why should I teach, when there is Nadia?” Stravinsky is supposed to have said.) Carter helped in organizing concerts of new music, and worked with the Balanchine troupe that was to become the New York City Ballet.

For a time, to make a living, Carter took a job at St. John’s College, teaching Greek and mathematics among other subjects, but he never ceased composing or trying to find ways for American music to get a hearing. His early style was not only influenced by Stravinsky and Aaron Copland and even Paul Hindemith (in the 1930s this was hard to avoid), but his compositions already had an idiosyncratic rhythmic energy, with surprising assymetrical twists and a wonderful verve, perhaps partially derived from the great jazz performers of the 1930s. His works before 1945 are accomplished and easily enjoyable, and the ballet The Minotaur and the Holiday Overture have become particularly well known.


A Centennial Portrait has some fine pictures of Carter’s wife, Helen Frost-Jones, an extraordinary woman who retained her beauty until the latest old age (she died in 2003), and who was loved, admired, and feared by all of Carter’s friends and acquaintances. She was a sculptress, very much part of the advanced New York art scene (she used to play chess with Marcel Duchamp), cultivated, and witty. Nevertheless, she abandoned her sculpture when she married Carter in 1939,* and authoritatively and sternly made sure he had the leisure and the peace to compose, as in the 1940s and 1950s he worked very slowly on large projects.

On one occasion, I was present when there was a telephone call from the Ford Foundation, inquiring about a commission which Carter was already almost a year late in delivering. I heard Helen say, “Yes, Mr. D’Arms, Mr. Carter is thinking about your commission a great deal—too much in my opinion. Goodbye,” and she hung up quickly. “That should hold them for another year,” she said to me. Both Helen and Elliott were generous to musicians when they could be, and many performers and composers were helped by them over the years. I remember that Elliott once had to rent a dress suit to attend a dinner at the White House, because he had given his tails to a member of the Parrenin Quartet.

It was in 1945, when Carter was thirty-six years old, that he moved in a new direction, stimulated by the idea of exploiting the characteristic sound of an instrument, the concert piano. He derived the basic motivic material of his Sonata for Piano from the idiosyncratic sonority of the instrument and its harmonic overtones, the way the strings vibrate sympathetically with each other. The Centennial Portrait ‘s observation that this work includes a “large-scale Beethovenian fugue…like Samuel Barber’s Piano Sonata,” written around the same time, is misleading. Neither fugue is Beethovenian, Barber’s being an imitation of the fugue in Brahms’s Handel variations, and Carter’s is also a Romantic concert fugue like others from Liszt to Hindemith, but without a stylistic dependence on a single model. The sonata is inventive throughout in developing the strange sonorities that only a piano can produce, for example changing the pedal rapidly after hitting one note hard, so that most of the sonority is damped and then suddenly recaptured with the sound of an echo.

Three years later, Carter produced an even more important work, the Sonata for Violoncello and Piano, in which new conceptions of music were developed that later became the foundation of his international reputation. The significance of this work seems to escape the Centennial Portrait, as the article on it discusses only a minor passage of changing rhythms in the fourth and last movement, and completely neglects the first movement, which was written last, and which is the most radical of all (Carter himself has said that he is sometimes disturbed by how much more progressive the first movement is than the rest of the work). The whole sonata is remarkably effective in concert, but only a consideration of the opening will explain why many musicians find it the finest work for cello written since Debussy’s sonata for that instrument.

A letter of Carter’s written many years later, in 1959, will give us the key to the originality of this work. The letter is to Peter Yates, the founder of a concert series in Los Angeles, and is mostly about Carter’s String Quartet No. 1, but clearly alludes to the cello sonata:

Certainly my music has sought mainly two things—to deal with vertical and horizontal dimensions in a more varied way than is usually done—I try to find continuities that gain meaning, change, and operate in time on a level of interest that is parallel to our present experience of living. Thus there are textures and shifts of character that feature very contrasting musical behaviors, simultaneously or one after the other, but linked together by phrasing. The other aspect is an attempt to use the performing situation, the instrument, its player, and the combination of instruments as a means of individualization. To find the special music, so to speak, that needs the ‘cello and the piano—which don’t go together very well. To bring out their differences and make a virtue of that, even a means of expression.

The cello sonata opens with the piano in strict time, ticking away in moderate tempo with a quiet percussive staccato. The cello, however, exists in a different space-time, with a long, lyrical, and eloquent line, irregular and seemingly improvised, very few of its notes coinciding with the beats of the piano. The opening may be the first example of the long, expressive, singing arabesque line that was virtually absent in modernist style (Carter’s direction of espressivo for this kind of writing has shocked some of his modernist admirers, who find it absurdly old-fashioned). In the cello sonata and later works this singing line will often employ and unite the entire compass of the instrument from the lowest to the highest pitches.


No previous work for cello and piano had ever differentiated the two instruments so distinctly, and exploited the individual sonority of each. Even in the finest works of the small repertory for cello and piano before this—those of Beethoven (who wrote the first great cello and piano sonatas), Brahms, Debussy, and Rachmaninov—it will sometimes sound as if the piano is given a musical effect that should really belong to the cello and vice versa, making an effect of necessary compromise.

At the end of Carter’s sonata there is, in fact, an interchange of material, but without compromise. On the last page of the finale something like the first movement returns, but now it is the cello that is quietly ticking away metronomically with the only percussive sound a cello can make, a pizzicato, and the piano tries modestly to imitate the cello’s initial lyricism with very long, quiet notes in the deepest bass register in an irregular rhythm that seems to pay no attention to the cello’s strict tempo. This beautiful passage that returns to the earlier movement is prepared by one in which the slower tempo of the first movement in the piano is superimposed over the uninterrupted faster movement of the finale in the cello, mixing the two tempos. A continuous movement of fast notes is played by the cello accenting every fourth note, while the piano plays on every fifth note of the cello part, making not only a counter-rhythm but a counter-tempo, 20 percent slower, with the effect of a jazzy syncopation.

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.

This Issue

March 12, 2009