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Elliott Carter’s Fifties (1959 – 1968)

December 5, 2008
New York, N.Y.

The compositions Elliott Carter published in his fifties total just 90 minutes of music (based on the estimated lengths printed in the scores) but include three of his major works. For the most part, Carter has used these compositions to continue exploring the relationship between individual instruments and the ensembles in which thay are presumed to be cooperating.

In the String Quartet No. 2 (1959) each of the instruments is associated with a different set of musical intervals, a different type of rhythm, and a different expressive character. The work is ostensibly divided into four movements with a rather traditional structure (fast, faster, slow, fast) but these movements are preceded and separated by other sections:

These nine sections all have different degrees of cooperation and independence among the four instruments. Over the course of the work, the sections identified by the numbered movements become increasingly cooperative, while the instruments in the cadenzas become increasingly independent. (In the first cadenza, the viola is accompanied by the other instruments, but in the last cadenza, the violin plays mostly alone. Yet this is not like a triumphant cadenza in a violin concerto. The violin seems positively lonely playing by itself, and actually stops playing for several seconds as an invitation for the others to join in.) The Conclusion (like the Introduction) finds what might be assumed to be a happy medium.

This operatic drama isn't all that apparent on casual listening — there aren't any helpful breaks between the sections — or need it be. What is most apparent is the vibrancy and excitement of the string writing. My favorite section is the beautiful Andante, which moves almost like a canon of long-held notes punctuated by fierce interjections.

The String Quartet No. 2 was awarded the first of Carter's two Pulitzer Prizes for Music.

Elliott Carter's second work requiring harpsichord, the Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano with Two Chamber Orchestras (1961) was suggested by the well-known harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick, who played the harpsichord part in the early performances. The performers are requested to sit in a particular arrangement with the harpsichord and piano in front on either side, the two small orchestras behind them, and rows of percussion at the rear. (In the Paul Jacobs/Gilbert Kalish performance on a Nonesuch CD, the harpsichord section is heard on the left channel, the piano section on the right.)

The Double Concerto has much more percussion than Carter ever used before. The work begins with this percussion, obviously suggesting Bartok and Varèse, and uses percussion in combination with the other instruments in building melodic passages buit on timbre. (In German this is known as Klangfarbenmelodie, a word coined by Arnold Schoenberg in 1911.) Both the harpsichord and piano play two kinds of roles in this piece. They both have several solo passages, but at other times they seem to belong to the percussion ensemble.

The Double Concerto is divided into seven sections in a somewhat symmetrical structure built around an inner fast-slow-fast sequence:

But these divisions correspond only roughly with the actual music, which is played mostly without breaks.

After a concert of Elliott Carter's music at the Whitney Museum in November 1974 — a concert that included the Double Concerto with Paul Jacobs playing a harpsichord specifically built for the two Carter works requiring the instrument — I requested Carter's autograph on a score I had brought for the occasion. I asked Carter if the opening of the Double Concerto contained a quotation from the beginning of the slow movement of Bartok's Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. "No," he replied. When I noted that they were similar, he said "Maybe a little." (Yes, it's a lame story, but it's the only one I have.)

Carter deliberately restrained the piano part in the Double Concerto so it wouldn't overpower the harpsichord. In the work immediately following the Double Concerto he didn't have that restriction. The Piano Concerto (1965) is obviously a more traditional title for a composition, but the form of this particular piano concerto is not. The work has only two movements (identified simply as "I" and "II") of about equal length, but the break is really just a pause in the overall scheme that Elliott Carter once described like this:

Not only is the piano allowed to explore its full expressive power in this work, but it is augmented by its own little ensemble of seven instruments apart from the main orchestra. The increasing dominance of the piano in the second movement, and a seeming counter-attack by the orchestra, is particularly exciting.

Carter dedicated the Piano Concerto to Igor Stravinsky on his 85th birthday in 1967, the year the concerto was first performed. Stravinsky wrote to Carter the following year "I am more delighted with it than I can tell you. It is a masterpiece, and I like it even more than the Double Concerto." (letter reproduced in The Music of Elliott Carter, p. 263)

Eight Pieces for Four Timpani (1966) is Elliott Carter's first composition for a solo performer other than a pianist. (More solo works would come later.) Six of the pieces were actually composed in 1950 and not published, and two were published in 1960, but these were all revised for the 1966 publication. These pieces explore different interests Carter had in rhythm, and accelerating and decelerating tempi, but in the context of the other three works Carter composed in his fifties, the Eight Pieces is certainly a minor work.

(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 ArkivMusic.com.)


Comments:

While I was in school studying music, I had the opportunity to perform several movements from Carter's Eight Pieces for Four Timpani. I can honestly say that they are some of the most interesting and exciting solo works for the instrument. It's always nice when an established composer chooses to write a percussive work, as there is so much poor quality literature written by percussionists who have no sense of what makes a great composition.

Rob Eisenberg, Fri, 5 Dec 2008 12:38:41 -0500 (EST)

Thanks for that perspective! I should probably have mentioned that they do sound like they'd be fun to play. The Music of Elliott Carter says that Carter was disappointed with his earlier versions, and worked with percussionist Jan Williams to improve them. (p. 132) — Charles


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