Charles Petzold

Elliott Carter’s Eighties (1989 – 1998)

December 10, 2008
New York, N.Y.

American composer Elliott Carter will turn 100 years old tomorrow, and he has certainly taken the typical advice for people past retirement age: Carter has kept active. Not by playing shuffleboard or bingo, of course, but by continuing to compose, and to evolve as a composer. In his eighties Carter composed more works for solo instruments and small ensembles, including very unusual ensembles and classical quintets. But this decade also includes several works for large orchestral forces, and Elliott Carter ended his eighties by writing his first opera.

Three Occasions (1989) is a 16-minute work that brings together three short orchestral works composed in the past few years: A Celebration of 100 × 150 Notes (1986) was commissioned by the Houston Symphony Orchestra to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the founding of Texas, and climaxes in a big timpani roll and large orchestral bursts. Remembrance (1988) was composed in memory of Paul Fromm, a benefactor of the Week of Contemporary Music at the Tanglewood Music Festival, a slow work with a solo trombone part and shimmering strings. Anniversary (1989), which Carter composed for his wife Helen for their 50th wedding anniversary, is a gentle meandering work dominated by the strings with amusing little quips from the woodwinds.

In the opening of the Violin Concerto (1990) the violin seems to emerge from the orchestra like a hesitant volunteer for solo-dom, but soon losing its shyness and engaging virtuostically in many wonderful passages. This 26-minute work has a traditional three-movement fast-slow-fast structure, but with a twist: The first movement is marked Impulsivo and the last movement is Scherzando, but the middle movement is marked Angosciato ("anguished") for the violin and Tranquillo for the orchestra. It is this middle movement that I find the most interesting, as the violin weaves long melodic lines with an under-texture of shifting chords and colors. In the last movement the violin skips around in rhythmic patterns in a finale as exhilarating as the Brahms Violin Concerto (but in a completely different way, of course). Near the end the violin even decides to play a traditional solo cadenza, but that seems to baffle everyone and the whole concerto disappears quickly in a puff of smoke.

Con Leggerezza Pensosa (1990) ("with thoughtful lightness," from a passage by Italo Calvino) is a 5-minute trio for clarinet, violin, and cello, with styles that shift from long held notes, to fast bouncy passages, to the wonderful sound of the clarinet playing to string pizzicato accompaniment. The 5-minute flute solo Scrivo in vento (1991) ("I write in the wind," from Petrarch) mixes soft lyrical passages with fiercer, more frenetic episodes.

The 24-minute Quintet for Piano and Winds (1991) combines the piano with oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and French horn, the same combination Beethoven wrote for in Opus 16, and Mozart in K. 452. (Pianist Ursula Oppens has recorded both the Carter and the Mozart.) This is the first of two quintets in this decade, and to me they constitute Carter's most demanding work of his eighties. There are many wonderful passages in this piece, and it builds to a rousing conclusion, but I just can't get a sense of the whole, which usually means I need to listen to it more.

The 17-minute Trilogy (1992) was composed for Heinz and Ursula Holliger, which is why it's for the unusual combination of oboe and harp. The intricate first movement is primarily for harp alone (although the oboe sneaks in there occasionally), the second is a wistful reverie for oboe (with some interjections from the harp), and then the instruments combine as equals in the conclusion — or as equal as an oboe and harp can be as they weave in and out of each other's musical space.

Carter composed the solo-clarinet Gra (1993) ("game" in Polish) for Polish composer Witold Lutosławski's 80th birthday (which was to be Lutosławski's last.) The 4¾ minute piece is marked Ghiribizzo ("whimsically"), with bouncy runs similar to those in Con Leggerezza Pensosa.

For the 80th birthday of Italian composer Goffredo Petrassi in 1984 Carter wrote a work for solo violin. For Petrassi's 90th birthday, Carter followed up with the 5½-minute 90+ (1994) for piano, whose seeming steadiness speeds up and slows down and occasionally breaks out into flurries.

Fragment (1994) is a mournful 4-minute piece for string quartet with shifting shimmering textures built largely upon string harmonics.

Of Challenge and of Love (1994) consists of five songs for soprano and piano set to poems of John Hollander and running about 20 minutes total. This is a very accessible work, with gracefully arcing vocal lines and dramatic climaxes. This is Carter in an "easy listening" mode (relatively speaking, of course).

For Pierre Boulez's 70th birthday, Carter wrote a sequel to last decade's esprit rude / esprit doux, called esprit rude / esprit doux II (1995), of course, adding a marimba to the flute and clarient duo. (The small ensemble of Boulez's most famous work, Le Marteau sans Maître of 1955, has two mallet instruments: a xylorimba and a vibraphone, so this additional instrument is fitting.)

Figment (1995) (not to be confused with Fragment) is a 5-minute work for solo cello that incorporates a variety of string techniques but with a dominant feel of long langourous melodic lines.

The String Quartet No. 5 (1995) is Carter's last string quartet so far. This 20-minute work is quite different from Carter's previous string quartets. It is divided into 12 short sections that explore several different soundscapes, including dense evolving chords, scurrying melodic lines, ethereal harmonics, and clouds of pizzicato.

Carter explores some of these same soundscapes in the 18-minute Clarinet Concerto (1996). The work is divided in 7 constrasting sections dominated by various groups of instruments, and although the accompanying orchestra has only 17 players, 3 of them are percussionists, and at times the work seems like a nostalgic golden oldie form the percussion-laden 1960s. Unlike the Violin Concerto, the clarinet here is mostly in stylistic harmony with the ensemble, sometimes playing together, and sometimes in back-and-forth conversation.

I've never heard A 6 Letter Letter (1996), a 3-minute piece for solo English horn.

Shard (1997) is a driving 3-minute piece for solo guitar, and the 10-minute Luimen (1997) ("whimsy" in Dutch), for an odd sextet consisting of trumpet, trombone, harp, vibraphone, guitar, and mandolin (making its debut appearance in a Carter composition), expands on the material in Shard in an engrossing manner that makes the earlier work seem like a sketch.

The Quintet for Piano and String Quartet (1997) is Carter's second piano-based quintet of this decade. The 15-minute work begins very hectically — the listener might feel almost like being dropped into a cold bath — but the action calms down quickly. An initial constrast between the piano and strings breaks down, it seems, when the strings begin imitating the piano. A series of loud dense chords on the piano in the middle of the piece give the strings more to mull over. Towards the end, both the piano and strings are playing very quickly, and they both slow down at the same time, but they never do come together, and can't even figure out how to end the quintet at the same time.

At 45 minutes in length, Symphonia: Sum Fluxae Pretiam Spei (1997) ("I am the prize of flowing hope" from a 17th century Latin poem) is easily Carter's biggest and longest work for symphony orchestra. The very existence of this work might seem at odds with my introductory comments about the sad state of orchestras yesterday but this work originated with three separately commissioned short works, Partita (1993), Adagio tenebroso (1995), and Allegro scorrevole (1997), that Carter had always intended to be part of this large triptych.

One of these commissions did not go smoothly. Originally the New York Philharmonic had commissioned Carter to write the Allegro to celebrate its 150th anniversary, but then backed out in a grossly insulting manner. The movement was premiered instead by the Cleveland Orchestra. Here's the story by Paul Griffiths in the New York Times. He writes:

Indeed, the New York Philharmonic itself is not playing a new Carter work this season. Their entire celebration of the Carter Centennial is relegated to a Saturday afternoon Day of Carter (actually 2 hours and 45 minutes) not even taking place in a real concert hall. I'm still looking forward to it, of course; the participating musicians are mostly members of the New York Philharmonic (who generally have a wider vision than the orchestra administration).

Symphonia is an extraordinary dazzling work, almost Mahlerian in its scope and ambition. The opening Partita is an aggressive and powerful display of orchestral color rarely heard these days, and the closing Allegro is of a completely different character altogether, building on much quieter elements in a massively joyful crescendo and a characteristic quiet ending.

But the most sumptuous part of this work is the Adagio, a vast landscape of shifting colors and sudden swells, with hints of Ives' Unanswered Question peeking through, and an overall mood that is reminiscent of the opening Adagio of Mahler's unfinished Symphony No. 10, with Mahler's aching loud dissonant chord substituted with a frantic loud quickening of tempo towards the end of this movement.

On the eve of his nineties, not only was Elliot Carter composing his most ambitious symphonic work, but also his first opera — a one-act work (the score indicates a running time of 47 minutes but the only recording is 40 minutes) entitled What Next? (1998) to a libretto by Paul Griffiths (the author of the Times article cited above).

With a plot inspired by the Jacques Tati film Trafic, Paul Griffiths' libretto has a rather absurdist bent in a static setting. The action of the opera takes place immediately after an automobile accident. No one is seriously hurt, but the six passengers wander disoriented around the stage and, of course, sing of their predicament and confusion and derailed lives.

The small orchestra has an augmented percussion section, including Carter's first use of non-traditional percussive devices such as trash cans and brake drums. The metallic sounds at the opening are obviously intended to suggest the accident happening in slow motion, but largely the orchestra provides the minimum of accompaniment to the singers engaging in sections for solo, duets, trio, and on up. In a quintet entitled Uproar near the end, the memories of their previous lives begin coming back, and they are none too happy about this little plot twist.

(More detailed descriptions of Carter's music can be found in David Schiff's The Music of Elliott Carter, second edition, Cornell University Press, 1998. Recordings of many of the compositions I've mentioned can be purchased from the Elliott Carter page at Bridge Records has released seven CDs of Elliott Carter's works that are essential sources for his music of the last three decades.)