Elliott Carter: An Appreciation

by Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Elliott Carter: An American Original, performed on Nov 17, 2013 at Carnegie Hall.

If there was ever a persuasive instance for thinking about the appropriateness of the analytical category of “late” style it can be found in the case of Elliott Carter. His longevity and vitality were extraordinary. Few have been blessed with such a dignified and productive old age. Much has been written about Carter. It is hard to avoid being intimidated by the length, consistency, versatility, and centrality of the composer’s career. He was one of the towering figures of twentieth-century music, certainly in America, and for decades was considered by many this country’s greatest living composer. What made Carter’s career so central and interesting, however, is the extent to which it stands at the crossroads of a century-old fractious and intense debate about the nature and place of music in the modern world.

That debate began as the “long” nineteenth century came to an end, during Carter’s early childhood. It has been commonplace to locate the public recognition of a generational reaction against the compositional practices, musical culture, and habits of listening developed between 1750 and the end of the nineteenth century in the year 1913, when Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was premiered in Paris and a “scandal” concert took place in Vienna on which music by Mahler, Schoenberg, and Berg was performed. It is ironic that after World War I, when the emergence of competing approaches to writing new and “modern” music deemed adequate to a radically changed world became most evident and apparent, the pioneer of American musical modernism, Charles Ives, had for the most part fallen silent as a composer.

For Elliott Carter, the initial encounter with the music of Ives (whom he met while still in high school), Stravinsky, and Schoenberg would be crucial in the development of his approach to composition. But in contrast to Roger Sessions, his older contemporary (whom he admired) and fellow Harvard alumnus, Carter exhibited few signs of his genius and talent early. He was no prodigy, no wunderkind in the way many other great composers, from Mozart to Korngold, were. What Carter did reveal from the start was the remarkable and wide range of his intellectual abilities. He taught at St. John’s College in Annapolis, where he was required to teach not only music but also Greek, philosophy, and mathematics. In the impressive set of collected essays by Carter, there is an affecting and eloquent defense of music as a crucial component of liberal learning. Carter displayed a natural affinity to literature and language. He credited his interest in addressing through music the competing constructs and experiences of time to Proust and Joyce. Poetry held a central, if not growing role as a constituent of his musical imagination.

With uncanny discipline and patience Carter pursued his compositional career. Although he taught composition, on and off, at Peabody, Columbia, Cornell, Yale, Queens College, and Juilliard, Carter devoted his time essentially to composing. His leap to prominence took place in the 1950s with the First String Quartet. From then on a series of commanding works followed, including the Variations for Orchestra (1956), a second quartet (1960), the Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano (1961), the Piano Concerto (1967), the Concerto for Orchestra (1970), a third quartet (1973), the Symphony of Three Orchestras (1977), and Syringa (1978), as well as many smaller works. All this was done before he turned 70.

Carter, like Copland, was generous to colleagues. He accumulated a wide range of colleagues and friends, ranging from nearly contemporary composers (including Wolpe, Piston, Sessions, Petrassi, Boulez, and Lutoslawski) to performers (Charles Rosen, Ursula Oppens, Fred Sherry, Gilbert Kalish, Daniel Barenboim, and James Levine), composer-performers (Heinz Holliger and Oliver Knussen), and younger composers (Frederic Rzewski, Richard Wilson). Between age 70 and age 100, an astonishing series of works came into being, including songs, chamber works, an opera, and concertos for oboe, the violin, and for horn, as well as numerous works for orchestra.

Throughout all these years Carter sustained the modernist project that came into being in his youth. That project was to extend but yet confront the inherited traditions of musical composition in ways that seemed consonant with the distinctive and seemingly discontinuous features of modern twentieth-century life. Modernism sought to continue musical culture and musical expression and communication along a trajectory that was understood to be progressive in the ways in which it corresponded with, or perhaps responded to, the historical moment. That moment, from 1913 to the mid-1970s, when modernism began its retreat, witnessed a mix of tragic and transformative events. In the light of modern experience, Carter’s impulse was never either restorative or nostalgic, even during the period between 1939 and 1944 when he wrote the ballet Pocahontas and the Holiday Overture. Neither was his approach rigidly ideological.

If there was something quintessentially American about Carter it was his pragmatic approach to influence. As if by trial and error, he absorbed and adapted ideas around him to generate a unique way of composing. By teaching himself and resisting the role of being someone else’s disciple and heir, he fashioned the means to lend his music a distinctive character. From Ives he took the fascination with the experience of simultaneous hearing and the intersection of aural memory and experience as well as the practice of combining discrete contrasting but continuous elements, not mere fragments, and weaving them into a single fabric within the frame of a composition. In one Carter work, the listener confronts disparate and changing constructs of time and of regularity and irregularity.

From Schoenberg and his followers Carter adapted the idea of construing all the pitch elements of the tempered scale as equivalent to one another and without normative priority and therefore without implied hierarchical relationships. He accepted the idea that tonality had run its course and that the dissonance had been truly emancipated. What he developed was an elaborate and intricate catalog of note sequences that could be combined into chord groupings, ranging from three to twelve. These could be manipulated in ingenious and nearly inexhaustible ways. For those not given to cowardice, one can find these pitch groupings painstakingly outlined and analyzed in Carter’s book on harmony. Carter seemed to select a particular pitch grouping as the raw material for a single composition. In the most dense of the orchestral works, a twelve-note grouping often defines the material.

Varèse’s influence on Carter can be found in Carter’s attention to sonorities. Stravinsky left his mark in the interaction between materials and form in relationship to elapsed time. And Bartók’s impact might be found in the vitality of rhythmic patterns and development and Carter’s acute sensitivity to time duration within clearly defined movements. Inspired by all three of these masters, Carter pursued the intimate connection between pitch groupings and particular sound color, developing correspondences between structural elements in pitch and rhythm and the specific use of instruments in a single work. In the end, however, Carter invented himself without propagating a school, a system, or training a group of imitators. He was a meticulous builder, an engineering experimentalist with an uncanny sense of practical utility.

The respect accorded Carter has not been without controversy. Together with Roger Sessions and Milton Babbitt, he was heralded as a composer concerned with the possibilities of new music as a self-contained logical system, a self-referential act of the human imagination distinct from ordinary language and meaning. In Richard Taruskin’s five-volume tour-de-force account of Western music, Carter’s music is understood as not carrying any intent to express some “extra”-musical meaning—to narrate or illustrate to one’s public in one’s own time. There is as little residue of the Wagnerian in Carter as there is in Stravinsky. Rather, as Carter suggested in a 1984 interview, he saw himself as a contemporary analog to Haydn, a composer whose powers of musical invention per se were prodigious and who wrote for an audience that could follow the intricacies of musical thought and did not expect or require any presumed translation into verbal narrative or visual imagery. Carter knew that the audience he faced was by and large unable to respond to him the way Haydn’s audience could to every new work.

Indeed, as Charles Rosen has argued, Carter wrote for a select few, primarily musicians and those who are willing to learn how to understand and follow music. The task of the listener is not to reject what seems at first encounter irritatingly “unintelligible,” but rather to stick with the new as if it were a new language, and learn its order and logic and then derive pleasure from it. For Rosen, all great music demands this kind of time and energy if it is to be understood and loved. But for Taruskin this notion is quite possibly inherently meaningless, in the sense that the distinction between the purely musical and the extra-musical is artificial and a conceit. If music is a form of life, which it is, it has an inevitable connection to speech and sight. The writing of music that demands close study, seems impenetrable and meaningless, and is dauntingly counterintuitive and complex, may be an act of elitism, requiring the creation of an exclusive club of cognoscenti and true believers who share a common delusion. If appreciation depends on exclusive and arcane knowledge, we must abandon, either tacitly or explicitly, the commonplace claims regarding the social importance of music, its universality, its humanistic essence—all claims held dear by many who would argue how central the traditions of concert music are to culture and society. In any event, the public is dismissed as a legitimate arbiter of quality. American musicians and composers, most notably Copland, inspired by the populism of the New Deal and the artistic and democratic vision of Walt Whitman, rejected the extreme conceits of modernism. Accessibility and comprehensibility became requirements of the craft of composition and not markers of debased cultural standards.

The debate between Rosen and Taruskin over the character of Carter’s music may in fact not be as central as the protagonists believe. Whatever may be true of other modernists, perhaps Carter’s music, despite its aggressive allegiance to modernism, like the music of Berg, can win the affections of the public. Whether one speaks of Bach or Mozart, Beethoven or Chopin, Stravinsky or Bartók, or Ives or Copland, there are many different but compatible ways of listening to and enjoying the music. Each of the aforementioned composers has won adherents and admirers from among the entirely untutored and the literate professionals in the public. What the late music of Elliott Carter suggests is that even the most dense and complex of Carter’s finest mid-career works can succeed with the wider audience because his music works on many levels.

Take the Concerto for Orchestra, which is among Carter’s most demanding scores. I have had the honor of conducting this work before with the American Symphony Orchestra at a concert that the composer attended. At a distance, taken as a composite experience, the work engaged and reached an audience that most likely “knows” nothing about music in Rosen’s sense. Given the acoustic environment we live in and the unparalleled eclectic range of musics we hear unintentionally and willingly, the work strikes listeners as dramatic, arresting, original, powerful, and lyrical. And for those curious to dig deeper, there are certainly depths to plumb. The culture wars of the 1950s and 1960s, which Taruskin discusses so deftly and insightfully, are long over. They have receded into history, together with the Cold War. No doubt, Taruskin is right when he observes that there was at a minimum an irony in the anti-Communist Cold War-era support for a forbidding modernism celebrated by a very few. Today’s audiences are beyond these quarrels. The eclecticism of the last thirty years has spawned an unusual tolerance among listeners. Young players now listen to all kinds of music, be it Western, non-Western, rock, or classical music. Old-time snobbery is on its way out, and there is no more persuasive sign than the success of Alex Ross’ And the Rest Is Noise.

What drove audiences of the past mad, beginning with the pre-World War I concerts featuring the music of Schoenberg, was the sense that they, members of the audience, were being insulted. For decades after that, it was fashionable for composers to heap contempt on the musical judgment of avid amateurs and music lovers and to deride the taste of the bourgeois concert-going public. The traditional audience of the past felt at best condescended to. This dynamic has, with the passing of generations, largely vanished, in part because today’s audiences are neither so conceited nor so invested in their connoisseurship. Managements may be conservative but audiences are not. They are far more relaxed and catholic in their tastes. Given the types of things they hear and listen to, they are unlikely to be startled and put off. They are happy, in a world that celebrates near subjectivity with alarming ease as a sufficient basis for action, to make what they can of something they hear on first encounter and to find a way to enjoy it. Because there is so much genuine richness in Carter’s music, it has a real chance for success with the audiences of today and tomorrow.

Perhaps what makes Carter great is that he, through painstaking discipline and concentration, invented music that works the way the music of the great masters from the Classical era did and that reaches across a wide range of listeners. Carter’s music has, in the end, an emotional necessity behind its existence. It is therefore neither academic nor polemical. Its surface of modernity is not artificial but human in a unique introspective, dramatic, and elegant manner: what is unexpected and seemingly unintelligible has emerged in an uncompromisingly modern manner akin to Mozart, Haydn, and Chopin, leading listeners to trust what they hear.

The suspicion that this might be the case emerges not exclusively from the music. The materials of Carter’s biography reveal integrity, kindness, and an almost naïve generous enthusiasm for and devotion to music as a vital medium of personal expression. Carter’s response to the predicaments of a life fully engaged in the paradoxes and contradictions of modernity was to write music honestly, from within himself. That disciplined candor, ambition, and obsession are and will remain audible and alluring no matter how difficult Carter’s music appears or may be to perform. But has there ever been any music to which we wish to return that, in the end, is easy to perform?

A version of this essay appeared in Musical Quarterly, Vol. 91, No. 3/4, Fall – Winter, 2008: 151-157.