Carter, Berio, and the “Events” of 1968

By David Schiff

Written for the concert Music of the 1960s, performed on January 17, 1999 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Anyone looking for the musical Zeitgeist of the 1960s (the long 1960s, which extended from Kennedy’s election through Nixon’s resignation) would turn first to the popular songs of that decade, then to jazz and the movies–and might ignore classical music altogether. “We Shall Overcome,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Dancing in the Street,” “The Sound of Silence,” “Respect,” “All You Need Is Love,” “Satisfaction,” “Say it Loud”–just to mention those titles immediately invokes the Civil Rights movement, the Free Speech movement, the Watts riots, SDS, the summer of love, the Chicago convention, Attica, Kent State, and a numbing series of assassinations. Classical music seemed out of touch with the riptide of history. The avant-garde movements of the 1950s, abstract painting, absurdist drama and atonal music may have sewn the seeds of the coming revolution, but in the face of actual events advanced music in particular seemed apolitical and obscure. The 1950s’ avant-garde, piously devoted to the ideals of high art, made revolution from the top down; the politics of the 1960s came up from the streets. With the possible exception of Terry Riley’s In C, no piece of classical music served as an anthem of the period the way Rhapsody in Blue did in the 1920s or Fanfare for the Common Man did in the 1940s, and the work that tried to capture the age most directly, Bernstein’s Mass, met with, and continues to have, a very mixed reception. But classical works often reveal their relevance slowly, as their historical context becomes clearer, and as they begin to be well performed which often takes may years after their premieres. Today Berio’s Sinfonia and Carter’s Concerto for Orchestra, both commissioned for the 125th Anniversary of the New York Philharmonic, are just emerging as powerful representations of their time.

Because the two works and their composers seem to be so different in character, I would like to point out their similarities.

Vanguard roots. Both Carter and Berio were shaped by the hothouse world of the European post-Webern avant-garde, though both also maintained an individuality of national background and temperament. Carter had already built his own advanced style around 1950 by rejecting neo-classicism and re-exploring the ideas of the American ultra-modernists; Ives, Cowell, Crawford and Nancarrow. His String Quartet No.2 (1959) and Double Concerto (1961) fused American ultramodernist ideas with some of the latest developments in Europe, especially the primacy of rhythm and percussion, the possibilities of stereophony, and the development of new kinds of musical textures. Berio, seventeen years younger than Carter, was closer in style to the concerns of the vanguard leaders, Stockhausen and Boulex, but quite early his music revealed his theatrical sensibility abetted by the extraordinary performance presence of Cathy Berberian, the American singer to whom Berio was married at the time. Where Carter’s use of his own means of tonal organization rather than serialism distanced him from the vanguard consensus, the hard core also dismissed such works of Berio as Circles (1960) and Epifanie (1961), both written for Berberian, as updated Puccini. Their individualism, however, allowed both composers to react to the events of the late 60s when the abstract language of the post-Webern school had become exhausted.

Transatlanticism. The Italian Berio, spent much of the 1960s in America, teaching at Mills College and Juilliard, but with residencies in Paris and Berlin as well. The American Carter spent much of the 1960s in Europe (in fact he led a transatlantic existence from early boyhood) , composing his Piano Concerto in Berlin and the Concerto for Orchestra in Italy. Berio’s score contains English text for performance by the American-style scat singing of the Belgian Swingle Singers; Carter’s score is based on a French poem about America.

The events. Both Berio’s Sinfonia and Carters’s Concerto for Orchestra explicitly reflect political events of the late 60s, although neither composer presented their works as agitprop and both situated their politics within rigorously modernist structures. The second movement of the Berio is an homage to Martin Luther King, written in 1967 before Dr. King was murdered, which uses the sounds of his name as a source of timbre, while the third movement quotes revolutionary graffiti from the Paris student uprising of May 1968; these quotes, however, are scattered amongst other words derived from Samuel Beckett. Carter presents American events of the late 1960s in a similarly masked way. He has written that the Concerto was based on the poem “Vents”, a Whitmanesque vision of winds sweeping across the American continent by the French poet St. John Perse. The French text allowed Carter to give his own gloss on “Blowin’in the Wind” with a musical depiction of the disintegration of old forms and arrival of new forces with vivid tone colors that at least one critic at the time dubbed “psychedelic.” At the center of the Concerto, morevoer, a lone prophet, speaking through the sound of a solo tuba, articulates a dream which seems to release the surging energy that drives the piece to its conclusion; Dr. King seems present here as well.

Symphonic ghosts. Both works are haunted by the spirit of symphonies past. Berio builds his astonishing third movement on the third movement of Mahler’s symphony No. 2, which seems to be played from beginning to end (Berio has written that the Mahler is like a river which flows underground and then suddenly comes to the surface) while musical and verbal fragments are piled on top with great acuity and wit–listen for the interchanges between Der Rosenkavalier and La valse, and between early and late Stravinsky. Although Berio has described this movement in sturcturalist terms, its Mahlerian ghost imposes its own agenda; it seems no accident that the homage to Dr. King is followed by a movement that Mahler based on his own song, “St. Anthony’s Fish-sermon,” where the saint, ignored by mankind, preaches to the fish, who are just as incorrigible as humans. Carter’s Concerto has its own familiar spirit, the Third Symphony of Roy Harris, the archetypical Great American Symphony of the thirties. We hear Harris in the pious cellos of the first movement, the woodwind arabesques of the second, the dramatic timpani solos of the third and the brass chorales of the fourth–though Carter pulverizes all of these images and treats them with a subversive humor. The dialogue of European modernism and an older vocabulary of Americana recalls the WPA roots of abstract expressionism.

Cinematic techniques. The third movement of Berio’s Sinfonia and all of Carter’s Concerto present the events of the late 1960s with the musical equivalent of cinematic montage with constant jump cuts. Both present the “contemporary” in an image of complex multi-layered disorder, which, however, is controlled by underlying structural principles. In Berio’s case the idea of “structure” is explicitly invoked through text from the structuralist anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. The music wants to de-familiarize sounds , whether they are the syllables of Dr. King’s name or the musical and literary quotations, to reveal an underlying structural pattern of binary oppositions akin to the structural diagrams in Levi-Strauss’s writings. In the Carter, a huge rhythmic pattern based on four simultaneous pulses establishes structural control over a flickering series of brief episodes. In their evocative gestures and dramatic manipulation of musical references, both composers seem to be looking toward a post-modernist, post-structuralist view of events, and yet refuse to cross into the terrain of free-floating signifiers.

Leonard Bernstein. Both works were commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and are dedicated to its Music Director Leonard Bernstein, and both contain homages to Bernstein. Berio’s interest in Mahler’s Symphony #2 sprang from hearing Bernstein’s recording. The Americana elements in Carter’s Concerto connect the work with the Copland-Harris-Schuman line which Bernstein championed, and Bernstein’s recording of the Concerto brings out this aspect of the work more clearly than those by Oliver Knussen and Michael Gielen, although these more recent recordings are more accurate technically. Bernstein did not conduct the Berio with the Philharmonic–the composer did– and never recorded it. His successor, Pierre Boulez, would champion both the Berio and the Carter. Bernstein, who never recorded any music by Schoenberg, Webern or Varese, programmed avant-garde works at the Philharmonic in the 1964-65 season, but made no effort to hide his mixed feelings. His own works at the time, Mass and the Harvard Lectures, rejected the vanguard in favor of tonality (which Bernstein defended with his own brand of structuralism, derived from the linguistics of Noam Chomsky) and a new (or at least revived) romanticisim. Whether Bernstein’s position was anti-modern or post-modern (and whether any of these terms stands up to scrutiny) is for historians to decide. But both the Sinfonia and the Concerto for Orchestra owe their existence to Bernstein’s commissions, and to some extent, his spirit as well.