Charles Petzold

Elliott Carter’s Late Twenties and Thirties (1936 – 1948)

December 2, 2008
New York, N.Y.

Listeners familiar with any music of Elliott Carter composed during, say, the past half century are often surprised when they hear Carter's earliest compositions. Carter had studied classical harmony and counterpoint with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, and his early compositions certainly make use of that training. This is often described as Carter's neoclassical period — works that rather ignore the innovations of early 20th century composers such as Debussy, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and others, in favor of a rhythmic and harmonic vocabulary closer to the 19th century, and even the pre-Wagner 19th century.

Carter's neoclassical phase was probably partly due to the long time he spent finding his own voice. However, the period also stretches into the time of the Second World War, during which it was considered patriotic to create popularly accessible music. It was only following the war that Carter's musical style began to change and become more rhythmically and harmonically complex. Beginning in his late thirties, Elliott Carter became the composer we've come to know and love rather than a lesser Aaron Copland.

The earliest published compositions of Carter (and available on CD) are from his late twenties. The choral works Tarantella (1936), originally composed for the Harvard Classical Club for a performance of Plautus's Mostellaria with a Latin text by Ovid, and To Music (1937), with a text by Robert Herrick, are probably more fun to sing than to listen to, but I find Heart Not So Heavy as Mine (1938), to a text by Emily Dickinson, to be entrancing.

The opening chords of Carter's ballet score Pocahontas (1939) (only a suite from the ballet has been recorded) are pleasantly Stravinskian, and Carter handles a full orchestra with no problem. Carter wrote Pocahontas for Lincoln Kirstein's Ballet Caravan, which later (through some merging) evolved into the New York City Ballet. In its final form, Pocahontas premiered on the same evening as Aaron Copland's Billy the Kid, which has remained an enduringly popular work along with Copland's Rodeo (1942) and Appalachian Spring (1944) while Pocahontas is virtually unknown. It's easy to understand why: Billy the Kid is tuneful and gleeful while Pocahontas is ponderous and austere. During some slow sections one can almost hear Carter making melodic choices that avoid turning the music into something pretty and hummable.

Pocahontas ends with a mournful Pavane, more interesting that the short Elegy (1939) originally written for cello and piano but most commonly recorded in an arrangement for string quartet. The simplicity of the Pastoral (1940) for clarinet (or viola or English horn) and piano is interesting only in contrast with the chamber music Carter will compose later in the decade.

If there's one "musical instrument" I simply can't tolerate, it is the spoken voice, so perhaps I am not the best person to discuss The Defense of Corinth (1941), written for the Harvard Glee Club based on a text of Rabelais in an old English translation. The work uses a speaker, male chorus, and piano. I'm sure it was quite fun at the time.

As I was playing a CD of Carter's Symphony No. 1 (1942) the other day, Deirdre said "Sounds like Copland," but that's not the only problem with this work. It certainly isn't good Copland, and it's oddly unbalanced: The first movement is mostly slow and plodding, and the second is even slower and more solemn, which makes the festive last movement (labeled Vivaciously) seem phony, which then casts suspicions on anything you may have felt during the second movement.

Although Carter would later compose works with the titles A Symphony of Three Orchestras (1976) and Symphonia: Sum Fluxae Pretiam Spei (1997), there was never a Symphony No. 2.

After the symphony, Carter returned to smaller forms with several wonderful songs for voice and piano: Three Poems by Robert Frost (1942), Warble for Lilac Time (1943) to a text by Walt Whitman, and Voyage (1943) to a text by Hart Crane. Carter later adapted the Robert Frost settings for voice and chamber orchestra, and the other two songs for choruses, but I much prefer the earlier versions with just a sole soprano and piano. (All these songs were recorded that way by Phyllis Bryn-Julson.)

The Harmony of Morning (1944) to a text by Mark van Doren, for women's chorus and chamber orchestra, creates a fascinating balance between the two ensembles. Sometimes the woman sing a cappella or with almost no accompaniment, and sometimes the chamber orchestra plays by itself. It's more like a — I'm not sure what to call it — Concerto for Chorus and Orchestra? Musicians Wrestle Everywhere (1945), for mixed chorus, is Carter's second Emily Dickinson setting and takes unusual harmonic paths through the verses.

Carter wrote the Holiday Overture (1944) to celebrate the liberation of Paris. It begins with a short fanfare, and you expect a longer melody to follow, but the second melody in the strings winds onward without ever quite coming to a resolution, almost as if Carter were experimenting with something here that doesn't quite fit.

The Piano Sonata (1946) is one of Carter's most popular works, but it is also regarded as the first of his "break-through" or "transition" works that move away from the earlier neoclassicism. The two movements are marked as Maestoso and Andante but this is a piece of many moods and dramatic contrasts. The opening chords are reminiscent of a Debussy Prelude, but it breaks away into exquisite syncopated patterns, and goes off into other directions as well. The second movement begins almost like a hymn — something out of Ives' Concord Sonata perhaps — until it picks up speed and energy and propels itself along more like early Stravinsky. Towards the end the music becomes very slow, quiet, and ends without a flourish or fuss.

Carter would not write another work for solo piano for over 30 years, but recently he's written several more. It's amusing to see CDs of Elliott Carter's piano music entitled The Complete Music for Piano (three works played by Charles Rosen, released 1997), Complete Piano Works (five works played by Winston Choi, 2003), and Elliott Carter at 100: The Complete Piano Music (seven works played by Ursula Oppens, 2008). I suspect Miss Oppens herself regards the CD title as a little premature.

The Minotaur (1947) is Carter's second and final ballet score. It was written for the Ballet Society, another predecessor to the New York City Ballet. It contains some wonderfully energetic passages, including an off-kilter dance for Ariadne and Theseus, and the use of a chamber orchestra gives many individual instruments much solo face time.

Carter wrote Emblems (1947) for the Harvard Glee Club, but apparently due to its difficulty it was not performed in its entirety until 1952. Several minutes into the work, a piano enters sounding somewhat reminiscent of the Piano Sonata and assuming a much larger role than a typical choral accompaniment. Emblems was Carter's last work for the chorus. Like The Minotaur it seems awkward, as if Carter were trying to adjust familiar forms to a new vocabulary.

In the delightful Woodwind Quintet (1948) the flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon only rarely play in unison, and the rhythms are often quirky. It's easy pleasurable listening without being simplistic.

Judging strictly by the number of recordings, the Sonata for Violoncello and Piano (1948) is Elliott Carter's most popular work. (The work will be performed on May 11, 2009, with Daniel Barenboim at the piano in an all-Carter concert at Zankel Hall.) In an interview, Carter has said that in the opening movement he tried to combine the two dominent trends of progressive music in the early 20th century by juxtaposing the rhythmic music of Stravinsky in the pulses of the piano with the long conversational melodies of Schoenberg in the cello. But the music really sounds nothing like Stravinsky or Schoenberg. Unlike the Piano Sonata where other composers make periodic appearances, the Sonata for Violoncello and Piano is all Carter. This work represents a great expansion of Carter's rhythmic and harmonic vocabulary, but it is still extremely accessible, with a rollicking second movement, a dramatic third movement, and a vibrant finale that surprisingly slows down towards the end, gets softer and sparser, and then twinkles into nothingness.

The score of the Sonata for Violoncello and Piano is dated December 11, 1948 — Carter's 40th birthday. During his forties, Carter will publish only four works — and in his fifties only three more — and all of those will also have soft undramatic endings — but perhaps not-so-soft beginnings and middles.

(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 Not available there but orderable through New World Records is an album of Elliott Carter's orchestral songs and choral music from 1936 through 1947.)