Appreciation: Elliott Carter, Ultra-modernist And Rare Original

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Composer’s Corner: In this occasional series, guest composers write on topics of their choice.

Composer Elliott Carter (Tanglewood Music Center)
Composer Elliott Carter (Tanglewood Music Center)
By Stephen Dankner

On Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2012, the world of classical music suffered a seismic shock: 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.

Five of his most recent works, including the world premiere of the last-completed, Epigrams, will be performed in early August at the Tanglewood Music Festival, summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. See below for the details.

Elliott Carter (1908-2012) was among the last avatars of ultra-modernist music. After 1945, Carter became a leading and highly visible composer of music that comported well with the ascendant International Style in painting, sculpture, theater and architecture.

In recent decades, Carter was considered by many classical music critics and performers to be the world’s greatest living composer. His detractors complain about the absence of traditional musical materials composers use to organize their ideas: rhythm, melody, harmony, counterpoint, texture, timbre and form. Carter transformed all these elements into patterns and procedures that bear little or no resemblance to how music of the past was constructed.

While Carter’s music can be off-putting, he wasn’t concerned with pleasing an audience. He was writing music for performers, challenging them to take their virtuoso skills to undreamed-of levels.

Elliott Carter (Boosey & Hawkes)
Elliott Carter (Boosey & Hawkes)

For a significant number of devoted performers and conductors (and a small corps of intrepid listeners), Carter’s career was uniquely inspiring, as the composer had, for nearly seven decades, created his own path, undeflected by the vagaries of trends. 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 from Mozart up to, let’s say, Shostakovich?

The answer is that, to many, Carter was perhaps the last living embodiment of the great, progressive composer working within the venerated classical tradition.

Consider the trajectory of Elliott Carter’s music since 1945. Before that date, Carter, a superbly trained neo-classicist, followed the Stravinsky model. The other early influence that tugged at the composer was the music of Copland, who was a colleague and friend. Copland’s mature work was based to a large degree upon Americana.

But unlike Copland, Carter didn’t possess a natural feel for American subject matter. His training in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, the pedagogue who also 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. (In a YouTube clip, Carter speaks about Boulanger.)

Carter, eight years younger than Copland, really came into his own as a composer after World War II. His academic, intellectual bent fit perfectly with the soon-to-be-reborn European contemporary music aesthetic, which focused on order and structure over programmatic pieces that told a story, like Copland’s Appalachian Spring and Billy the Kid.

Some have suggested that European composers (Boulez and Stockhausen, notable among them) 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.

Elliott Carter (G. Schirmer)In America, over the crucial fifteen-year period from 1945-60, Carter emerged as the foremost representative 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. They also convey a sense of the grandeur of America. But it’s the opposite of the nostalgia of Samuel Barber (Knoxville: Summer of 1915) or the optimism of Copland (Fanfare for the Common Man and Lincoln Portrait). There’s a sense of tragedy, despair and even anger in Carter’s music of this period. Yet the vision, scope and grandiosity bespeak America at its core. Call it the dark side of the American dream.

Carter embraced musical complexity to an extreme degree. He might be compared with the New York School abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock. 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 from above directly onto an unstretched canvas laid on the floor, 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 see him as one of the last and most prominent composers working in a rigorously constructed musical language – atonality. 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 its convoluted, crushed soda pop can curves. 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 guidance 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 recently listened to about fifteen of Elliott Carter’s works, scores in hand, before writing this article, in order again to plunge deeply into the composer’s world. If I’m not in the right mood, it can sound like a cold, dark, alien universe, a dangerous and threatening place. One has to be a brave and adventurous listener to partake of Carter, especially in mass quantities.

Take for example the Double Concerto for Piano and Harpsichord or the Concerto for Orchestra: Out of almost imperceptibly amorphous percussion rustlings or woodwind twitterings evolves something strange and mysterious. The opera What Next (1997) has as its only action a car crash – a chaotic event. The Third String 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.

Listeners with the time, interest and sense of adventure can trace Carter’s creative path since practically all his 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 sometimes with long layovers before going on. Carter’s music is worth it.

In the 54 years after 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 25 years. Many of these pieces are aphoristic little gems, some lasting only a few minutes.

I have no doubt that the music of Elliott Carter is in the tradition of the masters. Does his music warrant a place in the canon beside the work of other 20th century greats like Bartók, Stravinsky and Shostakovich? Watch for the increasing love of Carter’s music by performers and audiences, and then you’ll know; the jury is still out on that score. In recent years, conductors 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, too significant to be avoided or dismissed. He was a giant and a genius, and the loss of his sly wit and brilliant mind represents a lacuna in the musical world.

The 2013 Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood, which runs from Aug. 8-12, is the place to be to hear a sampling of Carter’s last compositions.

Epigrams, his final work, will receive its second performance. (The premiere was June 22, in Suffolk, UK, as part of the Aldeburgh Festival.) Epigrams, for violin, cello and piano, will be performed Aug. 9 by pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard and members of the Jack String Quartet. Other Carter performances at Tanglewood include “Instances” (2012) for chamber orchestra (Aug. 8), and “Retrouvailles,” “Tri-Tribute,” and “90+” – all three for solo piano – to be performed by Aimard on Aug. 10.

To set it all off, don’t miss a rare performance Aug. 8 by the New Fromm Players of the work that created the Carter mystique: the revolutionary String Quartet No. 1, composed in 1951.

Tickets for these and all Tanglewood events can be purchased online at tanglewood.org, through SymphonyCharge at (888) 266-1200, and at the Symphony Hall box office, located at 301 Massachusetts Ave., Boston. Tickets are also available at the Tanglewood box office at the main gate, on West Street in Lenox.

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Stephen Dankner received his Doctor of Musical Arts degree in Music Composition from the Juilliard School in 1971. A list of his works since 1990 includes ten symphonies, eighteen string quartets, six concerti (two for piano, one for violin, two for cello and alto saxophone); three major song cycles; sonatas for violin (2), piano, alto saxophone, cello; three piano trios; a piano quartet, and five orchestral tone poems. He is the music columnist/commentator for The Advocate weekly newspaper (“The Classical Beat”), which serves Berkshire County, MA, and southwestern Vermont.

Dankner is raising funds to put on a concert of three of his recently completed string quartets – all premieres. The performance by the Curtis Institute of Music-trained Dover String Quartet is slated for Sunday, July 13, 2014, in Williamstown, MA. For more information, visit Dankner’s Kickstarter.com page. To hear Dankner’s music, visit stephendankner.com.