Charles Petzold

Celebrating the Elliott Carter Centennial

December 1, 2008
New York, N.Y.

In 10 days, American composer Elliott Carter will celebrate his 100th birthday, and he won't be the only one celebrating: Many orchestras and ensembles in the United States and around the world will be playing Carter works this season, and several new recordings have been released in commemoration.

The best thing about this particular centennial is that Elliott Carter is still actively composing. At the end of next week, three concerts in New York City will feature a total of two world premieres and two New York premieres.

Elliott Carter was born in 1908 in New York City to a family whose business involved importing lace from Europe. In being groomed to take over this job, the young Carter spent much time in Europe and learned French, Flemish, and Romansch. He became interested in music as a teenager. In 1924, while a student at the Horace Mann School (a well known prep school in Manhattan) his music teacher introduced Carter to Charles Ives, who wrote Carter a letter of recommendation to Harvard. At Harvard, Carter studied literature, Greek, mathematics, and philosophy, and received an MA in music. He then studied composition with Nadia Boulanger in Paris (as did many other American composers of the period; Mlle. Boulanger's other students included Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, Roy Harris, Walter Piston, and Marc Blitzstein). Although Carter has lived in various places in the United States and Europe, he is fundamentally a New Yorker, and he has an apartment in the West Village overlooking the former site of the World Trade Center. (Biographical information from The Music of Elliott Carter, second edition, by David Schiff)

I think of Elliott Carter as a mainstream — if not exactly a conservative — composer. His music seems an inevitable extrapolation of the European tradition as extended through the music of early 20th century composers such as Debussy, Schoenberg, Berg, Stravinsky, Bartok, and Ives. For the most part, Carter composes in traditional forms for traditional instrumental ensembles. (In recent years he has sometimes composed for rather odd combinations, such as two clarinets in a 2001 composition and a viola and bassoon duet in 2002, but these are often the results of specific commissions.) Perhaps the most characteristic of Carter's compositions are his five string quartets, dating from 1951, 1959, 1971, 1985, and 1995, two of which won the Pulitzer Prize for Music.

To my knowledge, Mr. Carter has never experimented with electronic music, unlike many composers just a generation later such as Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez. Nor has he ever even asked for any amplification in live performances. Carter does not use traditional instruments in unusual ways, unlike George Crumb and Krzysztof Penderecki. Sometimes Carter will have performers play outside the normal range of the instrument, and he asks for rather advanced techniques from his string players, but that's about it. Carter's instruments are basically the same as those of Brahms with just a few additions: the harpsichord (in two works), acoustic guitar (in a few recent works), and (at least in one work) vibraphone and mandolin.

Carter does not use stochastic or aleatoric devices, such as those that John Cage popularized. Performances of Carter's music are strictly deterministic aside from variations found in the performances of music of any composer. Carter's mature compositions (dating from, say, the mid-1950s) have virtually no repetition, putting him at the musically philosophical antipodes of the minimalists such as Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass. Carter is not interested in the serene spaciness of composers such as Henryk Górecki or Arvo Pärt, or the rather reactionary (although immensely enjoyable) crowd-pleasing raucousness of John Adams.

It is perhaps the lack of repetition most of all that makes Carter's mature music challenging for listeners — that and the dense textures and frenetic activity that characterize his work. In a Carter composition, different instruments or groups of instruments will often assume certain emotional characteristics or personalities, and (accordingly) different rhythms and tempi. He has likened this technique to modern society, in which unique individuals engage in their own pursuits of happiness, yet coming together in a coherent — I almost wrote "harmonious," which is not quite right — whole. Carter's music is a recognition that in real life not everyone's going to be singing the same tune, but the composite symphonic conglomeration can be synergistically exhilerating.

Basic to Carter's work is the urban energy of New York City, where it's only necessary to look out one's window to see multitudes of individuals engaged in a constant flux of goals and directions. Alex Ross uses a somewhat different simile when he writes that "Carter's favorite strategy was to juxtapose independent streams of activity in overlapping, intersecting layers, each going at its own rate, each accelerating or decelerating like multiple lanes of traffic." (The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Centry, p. 404) Carter's music is perhaps the most jazz-influenced music that never ever sounds anything like jazz.

Yet, there is really no such thing as a "typical" Carter work, for he was a rather late bloomer, and his early tonal, rhythmically straightfoward, neoclassical works barely hint at the overwhelming panaromas of rhythms and sonorities found in his work of the 1960s and 70s (which assume the audience appreciates the Charles Ives dictum that "beauty in music is too often confused with something that lets the ears lie back in an easy chair" — Essays Before a Sonata), and no one back then could have guessed that Carter would still be actively composing in the 21st century, sometimes creating works that are small, light, delicate, even — I'll say it and I mean it — lyrical.

Very much of Carter has been recorded, and CDs are readily available of Carter compositions dating from 1936 through 2006 (most conveniently through the Elliott Carter page at, a period of time greater than the total lifespans of Mozart and Schubert combined. In celebrating Elliott Carter's 100th birthday we have the unprecedented opportunity to trace a composer's development over the course of 70 years and beyond.

In my next several blog entries, that is precisely what I'll be doing.