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Elliott Carter’s Music of Time

Charles Rosen
A German pre-Romantic philosopher, Johann Georg Hamman, held that the sense of music was given to man to make it possible to measure time. The composer Elliott Carter’s fame comes partly from a reconception of time in music that fits the world of today.

drawing by David Levine

Elliott Carter

A German pre-Romantic philosopher, Johann Georg Hamman, held that the sense of music was given to man to make it possible to measure time. The composer Elliott Carter’s fame comes partly from a reconception of time in music that fits the world of today (although there are many other aspects of his music to enjoy). We do not measure time regularly, like clocks do, but with many differing rates of speed. In the complexity of today’s experience, it often seems as if simultaneous events were unfolding with different measures. These different measures coexist and often blend but are not always rationalized in experience under one central system. We might call this a system of irreconcilable regularities.

In Carter’s music, things happen for different instruments at different tempos—none of them dominates the other, and an idiosyncratic character is often given to the different instruments that preserves their individuality. Carter is never dogmatic, and the different measures of time may occasionally combine briefly for a moment of synthesis. The individuality of tempo and rhythm can make his music difficult to perform as each player unconsciously responds physically to the different rhythms he or she hears and yet tries to preserve his or her own system intact. He is, for this reason, best interpreted by those musicians who have often played his scores. Just as, in a polyphonic work of Bach or any other competent and genial contrapuntist, one takes pleasure in the independent line and interest of the separate voices and rejoices in the way they illuminate each other, so in Carter we can often delight in a quick foreground movement heard against a mysteriously shifting background that gives the foreground a new sense.

On December 8, friends of Elliott Carter arranged for a concert at the 92nd St. Y in honor of his 103d birthday, which arrived three days later. All of the works were written in recent years, nine of them since Carter reached his century mark. The evening began with the most promising sign, a performance of a Duettino for violin and cello played by two well-known and superb performers, Rolf Schulte and Fred Sherry, who have played Carter for many decades, and continued with a new piece for solo violin.

This was followed by a world premiere of a string trio written this year. The program notes by John Link claim that Carter tries in this piece to give an unaccustomed leading role to the viola and writes revealingly that “as in much of Carter’s recent music, the line between dispute and shared expression is ambiguous,” but this was already true of the treatment of the viola in Carter’s second string quartet of more than a half century ago. Nevertheless, the new string trio is a dramatic and satisfying work. Some even grander works appeared later in the program.

The one slight disappointment for me was Retracing III for solo trumpet (a US premiere), a new version of the grand trumpet solo at the opening of A Symphony of Three Orchestras (1976) that is a musical take on Hart Crane’s verse image of the seagull circling the Brooklyn Bridge. The solo has turned out to be too difficult for some players, and Carter has now made it easier by breaking it up with interpolations. I prefer the more unified and intense original form.

The new eight-minute Double Trio of this year is one of Carter’s most brilliant creations: the two trios are violin, percussion and trombone on the one hand and trumpet, cello and piano on the other. This work showed both how much and how little Carter’s style and outlook has changed since his first indisputable masterpiece of more than a half century ago, the Sonata for Cello and Piano. Here he achieved an invaluable revival of an effect that had been abandoned by almost all modernist composers, a long eloquent legato line of deeply expressive character. Like the cello sonata, the double trio exhibits Carter’s inspiration that derives from the desire to write music of entirely different nature for each individual instrument, to exploit its character. As the cello sonata opens with the piano ticking away staccato, the cello outlines a long expressive and rhapsodic line that seems to have nothing to do with the accompaniment but the dramatic contrast and combination are memorable. In the last section of the trio the trombone is given a beautiful lyric meditation unrelated to the music of the other players. These remarkable pages of eloquence in earlier works have disconcerted some dogmatic modernist critics, shocked at old-fashioned directions like espressivo. In the Double Trio the effect has become more subtle and more moving.

Perhaps the flashiest piece on the program was Hiyoku, a duet for two clarinets performed with astounding virtuosity by Ayako Oshima and Charles Neidich, which was dazzling and went by like a whirlwind. One would have thought that only a young composer could think up such bravura.


Since 1975, perhaps Carter’s signal achievement has been the several song cycles he based on poems, for which he has written a different kind of music for each poet—witty, quirky and gripping for Elizabeth Bishop’s A Mirror on which to Dwell with its extraordinary musical picture of the sandpiper bird walking on the shore; a tone of self-deprecating conversation for John Ashbery’s Syringa; a melancholy and intensely moving lyricism for Moravia in Tempo e Tempi. At the end of the program, there was the song cycle written in 2010 on poems by E.E. Cummings called A Sunbeam’s Architecture for tenor and nineteen instruments. Cummings has not been a favorite poet of mine and I share R.P. Blackmur’s disdain for the over-profuse flower imagery that can seem hokey, but it works superbly when set to music. With the eighth and final song, he has made it possible for Carter to compose a passionate opera aria rising at the end to a wonderful climax at the words “the voice of your hands is deeper than all roses.” It has been a long time since a composer has been willing to write so powerful a musical setting to poetry. The cycle was brilliantly sung by Nicholas Phan and conducted by Ryan McAdams.

A few days later at the Juilliard School’s Alice Tully Hall the new music ensemble Axiom performed Three Explorations, a song cycle to lines from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets for baritone and wind and brass. This was music of a darker hue, but I felt that dynamics of the individual lines needed to be set more in relief. This is always important in Carter, as the sense of his music is dependent as much upon tone color and dynamics as it is on pitch; the more salient aspects of the individual instrumental lines have always to be brought out.

Elliott Carter: Three Explorations
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