Elliott Carter

by Richard Wilson

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

Carter born Dec 11, 1908 in NYC; died Nov 5, 2012 in NYC

Pocahontas composed for piano in 1936, revised for orchestra in 1938–9, Suite composed in 1960; Original version premiered Aug 17, 1936 in Keene, NH; Orchestra version premiered at the Martin Beck Theatre in NYC on May 24, 1939 under Fritz Kitzinger
Approximate performance time: 20 minutes
Instruments: 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 French horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, percussion, 1 piano, 1 harp, and strings

Sound Fields composed in 2007; Premiered Jul 20, 2008 under Stefan Asbury at the Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood
Approximate performance time: 7 minutes
Instruments: strings only

Clarinet Concerto composed in 1996; Premiered Jan 10, 1997 under Pierre Boulez
Approximate performance time: 20 minutes
Instruments: 1 flute, 2 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 1 bassoon, 1 French horn, 1 trumpet, 1 trombone, 1 tuba (doubling euphonium), percussion, 1 piano, 1 harp, strings, and solo clarinet

Warble for Lilac-Time composed in 1943; Premiered on Sep 14, 1946 by the Yaddo Orchestra under Frederick Fennell
Approximate performance time: 7 minutes
Instruments: 1 flute, 2 clarinets, 1 bassoon, 1 harp, strings, and solo soprano

Voyage composed in 1943; Premiered in NYC on Mar 16, 1947
Approximate performance time: 6 minutes
Instruments: 2 flutes (1 doubling alto flute), 1 oboe, 2 clarinets, 1 bassoon, 1 French horn, percussion, 1 piano, 1 harp, strings, and solo mezzo-soprano

Concerto for Orchestra composed in 1969; Premiered on Feb 5, 1970 by the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein
Approximate performance time: 22 minutes
Instruments: 3 flutes (2 doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 3 clarinets (1 doubling bass clarinet & 1 doubling E-flat clarinet), 3 bassoons (1 doubling contrabassoon), 4 French horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, percussion, 1 piano, 1 harp, and strings

Elliott Carter’s Pocahontas, the earliest work on this program, was commissioned by his Harvard classmate Lincoln Kirstein—son of the president of Filene’s Department Store—for his Ballet Caravan. The impulse for the scenario came from the second part of Hart Crane’s epic poem The Bridge, entitled “Powhatan’s Daughter.” Much of the music dates from 1936, when a preliminary version was performed with piano accompaniment. The official premiere took place three years later. The score was revised in 1960.

We will hear the suite that comprises four scenes from the ballet. An overture begins with attention-grabbing hammer strokes and continues in a fierce tone leading to less threatening music in tarantella style that depicts the English adventurers John Smith and John Rolfe lost in the Virginia forest and engaged in an improbable dance. (It is, after all, a ballet.)  A beautifully graded transition introduces Pocahontas and her ladies who are depicted by a solo violin in conversation with flute and clarinet. “The Torture of John Smith” recalls the stormy opening, now enhanced by angry trumpets and trombones. The turmoil is suddenly interrupted and we hear a gentle melody in flute and harp—the famous moment when Pocahontas saves John Smith. But she goes off to England with his sidekick John Rolfe. In a final “Pavane,” Carter reveals his affection for Elizabethan keyboard music.

The orchestration of Pocahontas exhibits many conventional devices such as lines doubled at the octave, instruments treated in traditional groupings, with large sections of the orchestra playing in similar rhythm—all features Carter would abandon in his mature works.

One such work is the Clarinet Concerto, the form of which—its delineation into seven parts—is made clearer by subdivisions of the ensemble of 17 players in addition to the traditional means of tempo and character contrast. The full assemblage participates in the seventh section and punctuates transitions among the others. But it is piano/harp/marimba in the first; percussion in the second; muted brass in the third; woodwinds in the fourth; strings in the fifth; and full-voiced brass in the sixth that give support and contention to the busy soloist. Sections three and five provide opportunities for expressive lyricism. This is one of the very few Carter works where the first and last sounds are loud.

A striking moment occurs at the exact midpoint of Carter’s only opera, What Next?. The five vocal characters retreat to the wings and the stage itself “sings.” The music consists of less than two minutes of quietly floating intervals and chords. In Sound Fields, the most recently composed work on this program, the composer takes the idea of restricted means further, choosing only the sonority of strings playing without vibrato, at a single dynamic level (mezzo piano), with no change in tempo, and without obvious rhythmic impulse. In a note in the score he writes: “Helen Frankenthaler’s fascinating Color Field pictures encouraged me to try this experiment.”

About his Warble for Lilac-Time, a setting of Walt Whitman’s poem, composed in 1943 for soprano and orchestra, Carter wrote: “In this song, I tried to catch Whitman’s visionary rapture, using smooth-flowing diatonic lines in the accompaniment and a lyric vocal line that becomes increasingly rhapsodic as the song progresses.”

Also from 1943 is Voyage, a setting of Hart Crane’s poem “Infinite Consanguinity” from the collection entitled Voyages. Originally for medium voice and piano, it was orchestrated in 1979

Elliott Carter’s Concerto for Orchestra salutes similarly titled predecessors by Walter Piston, Béla Bartók, and Witold Lutoslawski in which virtuosity is demanded of all members of the ensemble. Virtuosity is also demanded of listeners hearing this work for the first time, who may be surprised to learn that its design has 19th century antecedents. There are four movements framed by an introduction and coda. These components dissolve one into another with no articulating pause between. It helps to know that the first movement features cellos, piano, harp and wooden percussion; the second, a high-pitched scherzo, relies on stratospheric violins, piccolos and metallic percussion; the “slow movement” is ushered in and out by fairly violent timpani and bass drum attacks but includes some moments of repose, even a lyrical solo for double basses; clarinets, trumpet and snare drum color the finale which undergoes a gradual acceleration until, in the last measures, bell sounds mark the quiet close.  While composing this work, Carter found the poem Vents by Saint-John Perse, with its wind-swept images of change and renewal, suggestive of musical textures as well as overall character.

Personal Note: Elliott Carter’s conversation was as surprising as his music. Here are two examples.

RW: Did you ever meet Shostakovich?

EC: No, but I went to the movies with Prokofiev. In Paris. We saw a film about Schubert.

RW: I’ve just heard Fabio Luisi conduct Till Eulenspiegel with the Met Orchestra.

EC: Well I heard Richard Strauss conduct Till Eulenspiegel. In Munich. He had a very small beat…like Reiner. Did I ever tell you my Reiner story…?

Richard Wilson is ASO’s Composer in Residence and the Mary Conover Mellon Professor of Music at Vassar College.