Dominique Nabokov

Elliott Carter, New York City, September 1995

There is a fond belief that we glean otherworldly revelations from the late works of composers. We meditate upon the hymnlike final scores from the dying Beethoven and Schubert, are heartened by the brisk comic affirmations of Falstaff, Verdi’s farewell to opera, and marvel at the serene, luxuriant leave-taking in the Four Last Songs by Richard Strauss.

In the case of Elliott Carter, however, mystical expectations are best set aside, even though he wrote more and later “late” music than anyone. He composed steadily in his own distinctive manner from his teen years until that day in November 2012 when, at the age of 103, he simply stopped. More than half of his 150-odd works—including his longest work for orchestra, concertos (or concertinos) for clarinet, flute, horn, violin, cello, and piano, as well as his only opera—were completed after his eighty-fifth birthday.

Carter has been well served by those who love his music. Bridge Records alone has recordings of fifty-six of his pieces in its catalog, more than half of these performances supervised by the composer himself. His most significant work for solo piano, Night Fantasies (1980), has been recorded not only by the four artists for whom it was written (Paul Jacobs, Gilbert Kalish, Ursula Oppens, and Charles Rosen) but by at least half a dozen others, and now ranks with Fredric Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated as one of the most popular large keyboard works of recent times.

David Schiff, a composer, professor, and conductor whose association with Carter spanned more than forty years, first as an admirer and later as a student and friend, has come out with his third book on the man and his music—a concise and impassioned volume, entitled Carter, for Oxford University Press’s Master Musicians series. I admit to some regret that, despite promotional promises, this can hardly be called a full-scale biography, not merely because Schiff writes of Carter with the understanding and affection of a friend, but also because there are Carter studies aplenty, and a biography is what’s needed at this point, before all the primary sources are gone.1

Schiff, most of whose own music sounds not at all like Carter’s, offers insight into his teacher’s concentrated method from the first day they worked together, when Carter agreed to look at a piece that Schiff was working on with John Corigliano at the Manhattan School of Music in 1973:

Carter spent several hours going over my piece—actually tearing it apart note by note. His suggestions were not at all theoretical, but of the nuts-and-bolts variety. He quickly grasped what I was trying to do, pointed out the numerous places which were still only a rough approximation of my intentions, and suggested specific fixes. I knew at once that he was the right teacher for me.

The studies continued when Schiff became Carter’s student at Juilliard:

I would emerge from lessons feeling pummeled, but I found that Carter’s critique was almost always on target and not driven by abstract or ideological considerations. I was in my early thirties at the time. I think Carter’s unrestrained criticism would have been very hard to take at a younger age. To some extent, though, his emotional distance helped to make the criticism tolerable.

This is a trick that might prove helpful for any composer:

There was one compositional method Carter recommended to his students that clearly came from his own practice. He often advised me to compose backwards. Although he believed that the beginning of a piece should suggest everything that would follow, he also said that the opening was much too important an event to be just the first idea that came to the composer’s mind. Instead of beginning at the beginning, he suggested composing the loudest moment of the piece first: “then you will know where you are going.”

Schiff does not entirely ignore Carter’s life. He tells us of New Year’s Eve parties at the spacious Greenwich Village apartment the composer shared with his wife of sixty-three years, the sculptor Helen Frost-Jones Carter; of the films the Carters saw (mostly at art cinemas, of which there were once many in the Village); of his distaste for sports and indifference to religion. “As might have been predicted by his Ivy League education, Elliott’s clothes came off the rack at Brooks Brothers or J. Press,” Schiff recalls. “In short, except for composing, his was a stereotypical upper middle-class life, straight out of William Hamilton’s New Yorker cartoons.”

But every now and then Schiff will throw us a gasper: “He took little interest in jazz and after hearing Rhapsody in Blue did not pay much attention to Gershwin’s music either in the theater or the concert hall, although he sat next to Gershwin at the American premiere of Berg’s Wozzeck.” How many follow-up questions I’d like to ask about this amazing scene!


Still, it is the compositions that engage Schiff most seriously, as they did in his 1983 book, The Music of Elliott Carter, which he rewrote significantly in 1998. There is a difference this time: as might have been expected, Schiff catches up with the music Carter wrote after 1998, but his stated intention this time was to write a book for listeners rather than composers and theorists, so there are fewer intensive technical analyses of the music.

Which is not to say that Carter is easy reading or likely to swing open the doors for newcomers to his music, despite Schiff’s enthusiasm. As so often in discussions of complicated works, the descriptions sometimes prove more difficult to engage with than the music itself. This is not to deny technical analysis its place, but it is rarely the formal mechanisms composers employ that actually draw us in and hold our attention.

There are so many events in the music of Milton Babbitt, for example, that I prefer to think of it as the musical equivalent of cinema verité. In compositions such as Ensembles for Synthesizer (1964) and Reflections (1974), sound follows sound, flash upon flash, all carefully chosen and meaningful in themselves, but adding up to a relentless cavalcade to which one must surrender linear understanding, at least at the start. I am always surprised by the shimmering grace of Babbitt’s music, by its emancipation from any worldly angst, and by its wit and invention; deeper studies by a listener can come later.

Pierre Boulez is another composer too often defined by his compositional techniques and modernist innovations, to the detriment of what keeps us listening to his music—namely, its sheer prettiness: his poetic, logical, and altogether gratifying extension of the late work of Claude Debussy, very much in an ongoing French tradition. (What colors Boulez extracted from his forces in Pli selon pli, as the bassoon melds with the piano in the afterglow of evanescent chimes, and the snare drum patters away like distant rainfall.)

I find Carter’s music less sensual than that of Babbitt or Boulez, more tensile, insistently linear, and hard-edged. The composer’s admiration for the choreography of George Balanchine is instructive:

There is a continually evolving motion; everything is interlocked. You feel that the man is alive to the time that’s passing. I hope a lot of my pieces are like that—a panorama going by with the focus on one detail after another.

His String Quartet No. 2, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Composition in 1960, certainly lives up to that idea. Carter treated the instruments in the quartet as four individuals with markedly distinct behavioral patterns. He described the music for the first violin as “fantastic, ornate and mercurial”; for the second violin, “laconic” and “orderly”; for the viola, simply “expressive”; and for the cello, “somewhat impetuous.” “The form of the quartet does not follow traditional patterns,” Carter added, “but is developed directly from the relationships and interactions of the four instruments, that result in varying activities, tempi, moods, and feelings.”

It is quite the opposite of Goethe’s description of chamber music as a “discourse between reasonable individuals.” The “individuals” are there, to be sure, but it is no chaste discourse. On the contrary, we hear storm, strain, disruption, and then a shrug of a conclusion, rather than the traditional reconciliation.2

It is startling how much more effective some of Carter’s works are in live performance than on recordings. The Brass Quintet (1974), which always strikes me as bleak and growly at home, is invariably thrilling in concert—alternately ferocious and serene, with a cathedral-like grandeur that seems to sum up every quintet written for these forces since Gabrieli. And even though the String Quartet No. 3 is so complicated that most live performances are accomplished with recorded click-tracks in the players’ headphones, it regularly brings audiences to a standing ovation.

Born in 1908, Carter may have been the first composer to discover music through mechanical reproduction rather than live performance. Before he could read, he was able to identify and sing all of the music in the eclectic family record collection. He was one of those startling children with an innate glimmering of what they were born to do, and he was fortunate to have been able to do just that for almost a century. A Boston Symphony Orchestra performance of The Rite of Spring at Carnegie Hall in 1924 convinced Carter that he liked only modern music, and thereafter he used his affluent family’s yearly trips to Europe to purchase scores that were unavailable in New York. It was a privileged upbringing: his music teacher at Horace Mann, Clifton J. Furness, brought the young Carter along to meet Charles Ives, and his classmates at Harvard included figures as diverse as Lincoln Kirstein, Philip Johnson, Leroy Anderson, Ralph Kirkpatrick, and James Agee. When he went to Paris in 1932, he studied with Nadia Boulanger, who had already numbered Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, and Virgil Thomson among her students.


Once settled back in New York in 1935, Carter wrote criticism for Modern Music, the remarkable quarterly edited by Minna Lederman from 1924 to 1946, which published writing by the most interesting musicians of its time. The review Carter wrote of the premiere of Ives’s Concord Sonata in 1939 is notable for what it tells us about both composers:

In form and aesthetic, it is basically conventional, not unlike the Liszt Sonata, full of the paraphernalia of the overdressy sonata school, cyclical themes, contrapuntal development sections that lead nowhere, constant harmonic movement which does not clarify the form, and dramatic rather than rhythmic effects…. Behind all this confused texture there is a lack of logic which repeated hearings can never clarify, as they do for instance in the works of Bartók or Berg. The rhythms are vague and give no relief to the more expressive sections, and the much touted dissonant harmonies are helter-skelter, without great musical sense or definite progression. The aesthetic is naïve, often too naïve to express serious thoughts, frequently depending on quotation of well-known American tunes, with little comment, possibly charming, but certainly trivial.3

He summed up Ives’s sonata as “more often original than good.” This is the same sort of brash youthful attack that Henry James launched on Walt Whitman’s Drum-Taps in his twenties, and, like James, Carter recanted in later years after discovering his own mature voice. While parts of these reviews can seem wrongheaded and even bratty, they retain a dash of truth. If there was to be jangle and discord, clearly Carter wanted it carefully—inevitably—organized.

Drawing of a man playing a trumpet

Before reading Schiff’s new book, I had not known that Carter was upset when Copland neglected to mention him in an article entitled “The New School of American Composers” that he wrote for The New York Times Magazine in 1948. Copland began by acknowledging what he called “the generation of the 1930s” (Marc Blitzstein, William Schuman, Samuel Barber, David Diamond, and Paul Bowles, all but Blitzstein younger than Carter) and then went on to mention seven other composers, among them Leonard Bernstein, Lukas Foss, and John Cage.

In retrospect, the omission doesn’t strike me as unfair. Carter, for all of his intellectual brilliance, was a late bloomer, and most of his music written to that date had not been very strong. His early efforts at Americana were aggressively bumptious: the Holiday Overture (1944) sounds exactly as its title would suggest, and Carter himself disowned much of the dreadful, faux-Indian kitsch Pocahontas (1939). The Symphony No. 1 (1942) comes off as a hybrid of Copland and Walter Piston, without the charm, originality, or personal sentiment of either composer. His first attempt at experimentalism was the Piano Sonata (1946), in which he fussed so endlessly with the sostenuto pedal that the piece seems gimmicky. (It must be the only work in the repertory written up to that time in which it is more interesting to watch the feet of a pianist than the hands.)

The history of twentieth-century music has been too often presented as some sort of gladiatorial death bout between Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky, with a slight detour offered to Americans through the work of Charles Ives. This wildly reductive modernist explanation ignored significant figures such as Richard Strauss (who wrote masterpieces both before and after the definitive works of Schoenberg and Stravinsky) and Jean Sibelius, who was long presented as a plodding nationalist, a sort of Finnish answer to Edvard Grieg, as well as other significant composers such as Ferruccio Busoni and Dmitri Shostakovich, who added to the mix and who (with Strauss and Sibelius) would be rediscovered with a passion in the 1980s.

And so Stravinsky and Schoenberg seem to me overemphasized in Schiff’s book (there are four densely packed pages comparing the Carter and Schoenberg Variations for Orchestra). Carter, like most composers, was certainly influenced by his great predecessors, but he ultimately went his own way, listening for himself and taking or leaving as he pleased. Indeed, if I were to choose a composer who sounds through most of Carter’s work, it would not be Stravinsky, Schoenberg, or any of their disciples, but rather Copland, especially the fiercely rigorous Copland of the great piano works.

Schiff also makes some curious pronouncements about the poets with whom Carter worked, especially Elizabeth Bishop (“A Mirror on Which to Dwell”) and Robert Lowell (“In Sleep, In Thunder”). What are we to make of the following?

At the time [1974] Bishop’s reputation was on the rise but Lowell was still deemed the more important poet, a view that would be reversed within a few years. Today Bishop is generally considered the finest poet of her generation.

Who are these judges? Why must the two of them fight it out? And what possible importance does their perceived stature in literary histories have to do with a composer’s nothing-if-not-personal choice of poetry to set to music?

I’m also amused by the fancy precursors Schiff cites for Carter’s only opera, What Next? (1997–1998). The libretto, by Paul Griffiths, tells of the aftermath of a car crash and the stunned passengers wandering in the chaos between death and life. Schiff suggests Jacques Tati and Strauss’s Capriccio as the inspirations for this odd work; it is likely that more of us will be reminded of nothing grander than the once-popular film and television series Topper, from which it seems to borrow wholesale.

Finally, I grow weary of the tendency to expose Manichaean editorial plots in the media, and especially in the pages of The New York Times. As someone who wrote for the paper for five years and knew or knows most of the people who have served as critics there from the mid-1950s onward, I find Schiff’s examination of the Times’s cultural politics naive. He links Harold C. Schonberg (the chief music critic from 1960 to 1980) and Donal Henahan (who held the position from 1980 through 1991) together in some sort of anti-Carter cabal, quoting Schonberg’s evaluation of the Concerto for Orchestra as “essentially uncommunicative, dry and a triumph of technique over spirit” and following that with a Henahan review that comes to much the same conclusion about A Mirror on Which To Dwell. But this “plot” against Carter didn’t stop with them: according to Schiff, when John Rockwell became the music editor, “the Times’ longstanding conservatism flipped to a ‘post-modern’ stance equally, if not more, dismissive of Carter’s music.”

There was never any institutionally enforced New York Times policy toward Carter or any other composer. Edward Rothstein, who followed Henahan as chief critic for a while, called Carter not merely “the most important living American composer” but assured his readers that he continued, at what turned out to be the relatively youthful age of seventy-five, “to astonish and to challenge.” Schiff believes that the front-page obituary (an honor in itself) the Times published for Carter—“Composer of the Avant-Garde”—somehow repeated “a rubric that the ‘newspaper of record’ had assigned Carter in 1967: ‘Carter’s Tomorrow Concerto; Work by Avant-Garde Leader Has Premiere.’”4

Carter is by no means “avant-garde” today, although his work is still played and of continuing interest to younger generations. His music was always too distinctly personal to inspire a “Carter school,” and the very thought of “imitation Carter” would seem to miss the point entirely. But his students—Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Alvin Curran, Jeffrey Mumford, Tobias Picker, Tod Machover, and Schiff, among others—have forged fertile and distinctive paths of their own, and what better tribute to an American individualist?