Elliott Carter

Elliott Carter is an interesting figure in various respects. There are composers who wrote wonderful music but did not influence the development of music over time. Mendelssohn, for example, is a great composer who wrote many masterpieces; we would be much poorer without the Octet, the Songs Without Words, and other works. To be perfectly honest, however, if Mendelssohn had never existed on this earth, the development of music would have been the same. He did not contribute to a new direction in music. Someone like Berlioz was a less perfect composer whose works are not all on the same level—even within one piece different levels of compositional skill are evident—but he made it possible for Wagner to proceed. What I mean to say is that the historical importance of a composer does not always go hand in hand with the quality of his works.

To understand Carter, one has to look at where he came from and how he reacted to what existed. He began to write music in the 1930’s and ‘40’s. Between the 1950’s and the 1970’s he wrote little, and what he wrote was highly complicated. Beginning in the 1980’s he wrote much more music, and it was less complicated. Carter came from two different worlds of influence: Nadia Boulanger on the one hand, who was truly very conservative in her teaching (I know because I was also her student, if twenty years later than Carter), and Charles Ives on the other hand. Carter worked on the compositions of Ives, a modernist, while studying with Boulanger. Everything Nadia Boulanger taught was new to him, but he also wrote much that Boulanger probably never knew about.

The most influential American composers at the time were Aaron Copland and Roy Harris. Carter was very conservative then, similar to Walter Piston, whose music I also know relatively well. At my first concert in Great Britain in 1954 or 1955, I played Piston’s Concertino for Piano and Orchestra. In the divided city of Vienna in 1952, I gave a recital whose second half consisted entirely of works by American composers. I was ten years old at the time and my father thought it was important for me to become known that way. Back then, American music was really very conservative and not very advanced. Carter pushed it in another direction.

For the American world, Stravinsky and Schönberg in Europe were very interesting, but never together. Carter managed to unite them. He wrote of his Cello Sonata that the cellist should play Schönberg and the pianist Stravinsky at the same time. On the one hand there is the freely declamatory way of treating Schönberg’s influence, and on the other Stravinsky: dry, neoclassicistic, etc. Carter brought together the most disparate worlds without seeking synthesis! This is what I find so fantastic. He did not seek to synthesize Schönberg’s expressivity and Stravinsky’s rhythmic energy or neoclassicism, but created both worlds together, so to speak. He let himself and his music be influenced by both worlds at once and lived in both worlds at once. In this respect Carter is an important historical figure.

The non-musical influences on his personality are also an unusual mixture: Eisenstein, his film The Battleship Potemkin, James Joyce, and Marcel Proust. Normally one does not find these influences in one person, and this makes Carter especially interesting and attractive to me. The fact that he dealt with such differing worlds at the same time is perhaps the reason for, to put it negatively, an unnecessary complexity of his music from the 1950’s to the 1970’s.

It must be said that Elliott Carter is also a physical phenomenon. For the first time in history, a composer is turning 100 years old and still writing. I know of no other great composer who lived so long, let alone one who continued to write at such a great age. In the 1970’s one already spoke of Carter’s “late style,” and then in the 1980’s he went in an entirely new direction. In the 1990’s, in a certain sense he went in yet another completely different direction with his Partita, the first movement of the Symphonia, although he did retain certain elements. For me, the so-called “early works” are the Piano Sonata (1946), the Cello Sonata (1948), and the First String Quartet (1951). The great works of the 1950’s and ‘60’s are the Double Concerto for Piano, Harpsichord, and Two Chamber Orchestras (1959-61), the Concerto for Orchestra (1969) and the Variations for Orchestra (1954–1955). The Piano Sonata of 1946 pointed somewhat in the direction of things to come. In the Cello Sonata of 1948 he shows his own way for the first time: on the one hand there are the European elements of his music, in other words the influence of Nadia Boulanger’s aesthetic. Then there are the influences of the Second Viennese School and Bartók: one can assume that both were completely meaningless to Boulanger. I was her student for two years and we never once spoke about Schönberg.

The new American elements were Charles Ives, Henry Cowell und Conlon Nancarrow. Carter himself wrote a very interesting article in 1955, “The Rhythmic Basis of American Music.” In his explanations it came out that he always sought complexity in the music that influenced him. He did not restrict himself to Stravinsky’s Neoclassicism or what he learned from Nadia Boulanger; he also took the Second Viennese School, Bartók, and American music as influences. He never took sides, neither the European nor the American; he always sought unity without compromise or synthesis.

The most important thing one can say in this context about Carter’s way of thinking is that he learned something decisive from Nadia Boulanger: counterpoint. Counterpoint in the broadest sense of the word, not just in the musical sense but applied to all the influences he received. For that reason he never hesitated to take on influences entirely different from what he was used to. It is perhaps this complexity that drove him (until the 1980’s) to write such complex music that, to be honest, it is very difficult for the human ear to perceive. Everything in his great works, whether in his Double Concerto for Piano and Harpsichord, the Piano Concerto, or the Concerto for Orchestra, is composed of so many layers that it is almost impossible for the listener to take in everything. Throughout Carter’s development, he never gave up the idea of contrapuntal thinking. This is perhaps the most important point in Carter’s creation.

For me personally, Elliott Carter is also one of the most important composers of the 20th and 21st centuries because he represents substance. He is living proof of uncompromising, complex music, and is for this reason at first glance inaccessible. When one delves into the music and sees its development, it becomes more accessible. I believe this is Carter’s great lesson: to always concentrate uncompromisingly on the musical substance, and not to try to incorporate popular elements like so many composers today. I don’t want to name any names, but there is too much so-called “contemporary” music that gives not very curious interpreters the opportunity to claim that they are also interested in contemporary music. This is in fact simply a populistic attitude, and the “contemporary” aspect is usually limited to the fact that the composer still lives and may even be young.

Carter did in fact invent musical modernism after Stravinsky’s Neoclassicism. I believe Carter will become a symbolic figure because he combines America with Europe. I believe that in 100 years, Carter will be spoken of as one of the most important figures of the musical scene in the second half of the 20th century precisely because he represents all of these elements.

I am very happy that we played an entire evening of Carter’s music with the Staatskapelle in Berlin! The program consisted of late works, but who knows; I don’t want to overuse the term “late style.” Maybe he will live another fifty years and begin writing in a completely different way ten or twenty years from now: anything is possible! All of the pieces we played were written after 1990, which makes them important for the musical development of the present. Which contemporary composer has written such a great symphony as the Symphonia? Although all the pieces of our program were written separately, they still seem to belong together: the Horn Concerto, Soundings with Piano, the Orchestral Songs, the bigger symphonic works. I went into this concert with special joy because it was something that interested me extraordinarily.

I have experienced everything I said about the difficulty and inaccessibility of Carter’s music in stages with various orchestras. When I began to conduct his music in Chicago, he was nearly a persona non grata, and the orchestra was something of an institution non grata for him. He had had bad experiences there, not with the orchestra but with the performance of his music.

The Staatskapelle has a certain amount of experience with Carter’s music from the 1999 premiere of his opera What Next? Nevertheless, his music is not easy. It is not easy to spend a whole day rehearsing Carter’s music for six hours, which I had to do to prepare for the concert, because this is not the kind of music you can look at for the first time two days before the concert. One can still organize the way one plays, a bit softer, a bit louder, slower or faster, but it takes more time to perceive and digest the musical content. The Staatskapelle told me practically from the beginning: “We don’t actually understand why this music is so important to you, but we are curious and interested.” They rehearsed very intensively indeed, and no detail was too minor for their effort.

Carter is an incredibly cultured person in the realm of music and beyond it. He has an excellent knowledge of the musical literature: Bruckner, Debussy, Stravinsky, Bach, Beethoven, and many others. Thanks to this knowledge, everything he expresses has a solid foundation. I first came into conversation with him over the Ring. When I met him for the first time, I had just conducted the Ring in Bayreuth and he began to comment on the orchestration of the prelude to the second act of Siegfried. He knew all the lyrics, too, he knew everything, and he has a phenomenal ear. I can only hope that so many people grow as old and stay as healthy as he is—and as creative!


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