The world of classical music suffered a seismic shock on Tuesday, Nov. 5, though you probably didn’t feel it. Elliott Carter, composer of ultra-modernist music, died at his Greenwich Village, New York home at the age of 103. Amazingly, he had been composing almost until the end.
The rarified demi-monde of contemporary modern music subsists on a different plane than traditional classical music, so it’s entirely reasonable that, if you’re a classical aficionado, its safe to assume that you don’t know much about Carter and haven’t heard a good deal of his music. For the record, Carter was considered by many music professionals to be the world’s greatest living composer.
Others disagree - often vehemently - and complain about the absence of anything so much as palpable music making using traditional ways of composing - meaning, the musical materials composers use to organize their ideas. Here are some: rhythm, melody, harmony, counterpoint, texture, timbre (tone-color) and form. Carter has transformed all these elements into patterns and procedures that bear little or no resemblance to how music of the past was constructed.
Can music thus composed be too original to be understood? Good question.
It’s true that Carter’s music can be off-putting. The truth is, the composer wasn’t concerned with pleasing an audience; he was writing music for performers - challenging them to take their virtuoso skills to undreamed-of levels.
For those not-insignificant number of devoted performers and conductors (and a small corps of intrepid listeners,) Carter’s career, with its steady-as-you-go, progressive development, was uniquely inspiring, as the composer had, for nearly six decades, created his own path, un-deflected by the vagaries of trends and hip fads. Minimalism, neo-Romanticism, the various world/ethno music meldings and electronic/computer interactions left no mark on Carter’s style or on his aesthetic.
So why should this be of interest to music lovers who cherish the masters - Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and Mahler - up to, let’s say, Shostakovich? Because to many, Carter was perhaps the last living embodiment of the great, progressive composer working within the venerated classical tradition, which, for practical purposes, begins with Bach.
Apart from the obvious and amazing longevity issue, I find it more interesting to think about the trajectory of Elliott Carter’s music since 1945. Before that date, Carter was a superbly trained neo-classicist, following the Stravinsky model. The other early influence that tugged at (and bedeviled) the composer was the influence of Copland, who was a colleague and friend. Copland’s mature work was based to a large degree upon Americana.
Carter, unlike Copland, didn’t possess a natural feel for American subject matter, and his training in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, (the pedagogue who taught Copland and championed his music,) reinforced Carter’s natural proclivity towards the more intellectual side of music, with an emphasis on strict counterpoint and complexity over emotionalism.
Carter, eight years younger than Copland, really came into his own as a composer after World War II. His academic, intellectual bent fit in perfectly with the soon-to-be-reborn European "contemporary music" esthetic, which focused on order and structure over program music (pieces like Copland’s that told a story, like Appalachian Spring, Billy the Kid and many others.)
Some have suggested that European composers (Boulez, Stockhausen, et al) were looking for artistic order to replace the political, social and economic upheaval in Europe caused by World War II - a musical version of the International Style in architecture and abstract expressionism in painting and sculpture. The music composed in those postwar years formed the beginnings of what was to become cosmopolitanism, which dominated new music well into the 1960s.
In America, over a crucial 15-year period, from 1945-1960, Carter emerged as the foremost representative in America of that aesthetic, with works like his Piano Sonata (1945/6,) Cello Sonata (1948,) First String Quartet (1951,) Variations for Orchestra (1955) and Second String Quartet (1959-’60).
These are great pieces - all very serious. To an astute listener, they still convey a sense of the grandeur of America. But, it’s the opposite of the nostalgia of Samuel Barber (Knoxville: Summer of 1915) and the optimism (Fanfare for the Common Man and Lincoln Portrait) of Copland; there’s a sense of tragedy, despair and maybe even anger in Carter’s music of this period. Yet, the vision, scope and grandiosity are at once American at its core. Call it the dark side of the American dream.
Carter embraced musical complexity and difficulty to a degree nearly impossible to explain in words. I think a comparison with the New York School abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock might help. In the late 1940s, both painter and composer gradually developed new techniques to transcend traditional modes of expression. Pollock developed his "action painting" technique of dripping paint directly onto the un-stretched canvas laid on the floor from above, achieving a tremendous sense of fluidity and motion. Carter, around the same time innovated a new rhythmic procedure, later dubbed "metric modulation," wherein the notes in a piece sped up or slowed down not by taking more or less time to play them, but by a planned inter-relationship with each other, depending on the flow of what came before and what comes next - action composing, if you will. The big difference was that Pollock’s work was similar to jazz improvisation - his paintings were finished relatively quickly - while Carter was always a pencil and paper composer, often spending up to four years on a single work by the 1960s.
Carter is often thought of as the ultimate avant-garde composer. I have a different opinion: I see him as one of the last and most prominent composers working in a rigorously constructed musical language - atonality, as mentioned above. For all his innovations with rhythm, he represents the end of a tradition of craft and supreme musical know-how; he is not the bridge to the future of music. His music, like Jackson Pollock’s paintings, is too personal to be imitated.
People today seem to have few problems with Pollock’s art. Also with Frank Gehry’s architecture, with it’s convoluted, crushed soda pop can curves, original as Pollock and Gehry are. Not so with Carter’s music. I think the eye is more easily intrigued than the ear, which, being less adventurous seems to require the solace of mostly familiar sounds to keep from getting lost. Music is the most abstract of the arts, and listeners have plenty to deal with even to make sense of a Beethoven symphony, given all the variables of performance. How, then, to comprehend Carter when all the musical elements have been re-programmed to do and to mean different things?
I’ve re-listened to about fifteen of Elliott Carter’s works, score in hand, before writing this column, in order to again plunge deeply into the composer’s world - or, if I’m not in the right mood, what sounds like a cold, dark, alien universe - a dangerous and threatening place. Isn’t it amazing, though, that music can do that?
Yes, one has to be a brave and adventurous listener to partake of Carter.
Listen to the Double Concerto, the Concerto for Orchestra or the Third String Quartet. Out of amorphous percussion rustlings or woodwind twitterings evolves something, though often I find what it becomes to be alien, harsh, unforgiving and unrelentingly cold. The opera "What Next" (1997) has as its only action a car crash - a chaotic event. The Third Quartet (1971) has a train wreck of an opening - the most ear-splittingly dissonant 30 seconds of chamber music (along with George Crumb’s "Black Angels," for electrically amplified string quartet) I have ever heard.
In the 53 years since the Second String Quartet, Carter composed many big works: concerti for piano, violin, clarinet, cello, oboe; a huge symphony; three more string quartets; an opera; vocal works in all manner of configurations; solo works for piano and other instruments - you name it. The true miracle is his fecundity after 1990. In fact, most of Carter’s output of over 100 works springs from the last 20 years. Many of these pieces are aphoristic little gems, some lasting only a few minutes.
Listeners with the time, interest and sense of adventure can trace the un-deflected path I referred to, since practically all Carter’s music has been recorded. As a lifelong devotee, I’ve taken the journey, but admit that I’ve had to stop to catch my breath often, and with long layovers before going on. Carter’s music is worth it, but it can be tough going.
I have no doubt that the music of Elliott Carter is in the tradition of the masters. Does his music warrant being accorded a place in the canon, along with other 20th century greats Bartok, Stravinsky and Shostakovich? Watch for the increasing love of Carter’s music by performers and audiences - then you’ll know; the jury is still out on that score. In recent years, James Levine and Daniel Barenboim have come on board, leading the way very visibly at Tanglewood, Carnegie Hall and other high profile venues.
Love it or hate it, the music of Elliott Carter is a force of nature.
The composer’s perhaps extreme and errant brilliance must be reckoned with; his music is too significant to be avoided or dismissed.
On a deeper level, I wonder, with remorse, that the like of such a master is no longer with us. Only Henri Dutilleaux, 96, and Pierre Boulez, 87, remain - the last champions of High Modernism in music.
Who will - or can - replace them? Classical composition will move on, but the day of the path breaking genius appears to be over.
Though I continue to have my difficulties with Elliott Carter’s music, I greatly respect him. He was a giant and a unique genius.
Right now, the loss of his presence, with his sly wit and brilliant mind is sad for the musical world, but he left a large and great legacy of incomparable works, and he lived the most rewarding and meaningful musical life conceivable for a composer. Farewell, Maestro.