Charles Petzold

Elliott Carter’s Sixties (1969 – 1978)

December 8, 2008
New York, N.Y.

In his sixties, Elliott Carter showed no signs of slowing down, writing more music in this decade than in his fortieth or fiftieth (measured both by the number of compositions and total running time) . He continued to compose texturally dense orchestral works, and another challenging string quartet, but as Carter zipped past standard retirement age, there was also a certin shift in emphasis. In this decade you can begin seeing the advent of smaller chamber works that are not quite so overwhelming, including Carter's first vocal music in almost 30 years.

In his fifties, you'll recall, Carter composed two concertos: the Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano with Two Chamber Orchestras and the Piano Concerto. Each is what we usually think of as a concerto: a work for one or more solo instrument and orchestra. Carter called his new concerto Concerto for Orchestra (1969), which sounds like an oxymoron, yet the title has been used by many composers, most notably Bartok. (Wikipedia has a list of them.)

A concerto for orchestra is generally a work in which various instruments or sections of the orchestra are treated as soloists, and Carter's 23-minute long Concerto for Orchestra fits that definition. It was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for its 125th anniversary and first performed in February 1970 under the baton of Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein recorded it later that month, and that recording is still available on a Sony CD coupled with some works by Ives.

The Concerto for Orchestra has four movements played without a break, each dominated by a particular combination of instruments. In terms of sheer orchestral sound color, the composition is a feast. Percussion plays a major role in this work, and Carter's mix of the orchestral and percussive sounds — including a major role for the piano, played in the first performances and Bernstein's recording by Paul Jacobs — makes this one of his most easily accessible orchestral works.

Elliott Carter received his second Pulitzer Prize for Music for his String Quartet No. 3 (1973). The work has an unusual form: The performers are divided into two duos, which are instructed to sit as far from each other on the stage as conveniently possible.

Duo I, consisting of the first violin and the cello, is instructed to play with rubato. The various sections of their score are sections marked Furioso, Leggerissimo ("light"), Andante expressivo, and Pizzicato giocoso ("playful"). Duo II (the second violin and viola) plays in strict rhythm and have sections marked Maestoso; Grazioso ("pretty"); Pizzicato giusto, meccanico; Scorrevole ("flowing"); Largo tranquillo; and Appassionato. During the course of this 20-minute work, each of the duos play each of the differently marked sections alone, and also each in duo with all of the other sections of the other, providing many contrasting moods and styles.

Some of the descriptions of the String Quartet No. 3 seem to imply that the performers themselves determine when to begin the different sections. This is not so. The two duos always play in strict synchronization with each other as indicated by the score. Some descriptions make it seem as if (for example) each Furioso section that the Duo I plays is the same. This is not so either. The sections marked the same are similar in character but there is no literal repetition. Although the two Duos often have different time signatures and different tempi, these are set so that the two Duos always begin and end each measure in the score at the same time.

In the 1991 recording by the Julliard String Quartet, Duo II is heard in the left channel and Duo I on the right, although I wish the stereo separation were greater than it is. In the 2005 recording by the Arditti String Quartet, there appears to be no stereo separation at all.

The String Quartet No. 3 begins in a fast and loud fury with an intensity that seems frighteningly severe. If the quartet retained this tone, it would truly be difficult. But once the listerner is softened up, the music gets rather less hectic. There is much amazingly complex pizzicato in this work, with sometimes both duos playing in pizzicato, but usually just one or the other. This is the most obvious type of contrast between the duos. The work is played without a break, but often one of the two duos has nothing to play for several bars.These occasions are almost like little intermissions of comparative relaxation that let us focus more closely on the often striking beauty of Carter's string writing.

In April 1971, Igor Stravinsky died at the age of 88. Stravinsky was a powerful influence on Carter and many other composers of the 20th century. Carter first knew he wanted to be a composer when he heard the American premiere of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in January 1924 when he was 15 years old. On Carter's 100th birthday Thursday, the Boston Symphony Orchestra will again play the Rite of Spring at Carnegie Hall, as well as the New York premiere of a new Carter work for piano and orchestra.

Igor Stravinsky and Elliott Carter, photo from the Carter 100 web site.

The Canon for 3 (1971) is a short 2-minute work for "three equal instrument voices" composed in memoriam for Igor Stravinsky. Carter rarely gives his interpreters much leeway in the performances of his work, so this piece is rare in that it doesn't even specify the instruments to be used — only that they be "equal." The first performance was for oboe, clarinet, and trumpet. The only CD recording contains two versions: one on three trumpets, and other with flugelhorn, cornet, and trumpet. This is obviously a minor work but its Stravinskian melodic leaps and harmonies make it a fitting tribute.

The Duo for Violin and Piano (1974) is an 18-minute work in one movement that for much of the opening sounds almost like a work for solo violin, so softly is the piano playing in the background. This work is not quite so (let us say) exhausting as Carter's String Quartet No. 3. The violin playing is fairly slow but dense with fierce stabs of double and triple stops, punctuated with more melodic sections and very little pizzicato. The piano gradually assumes a more dominant role, and helps to move the music in different directions, including faster tempos and more frenetic violin lines.

Elliott Carter's Brass Quintet (1974) is an oddity. This 17-minute work was commissioned by the American Brass Quintet and requires two trumpets, two trombones, and French horn. Judging from Carter's other compositions, these would appear to be his least favorite instruments, and indeed he seems a little weighted down here, as if he can't quite make the brass move with quite the same agility as he can the strings and woodwinds.

Following the premiere of the Brass Quintet Carter gave the American Brass Quintet a Christmas present — the only time he explicitly based a composition on something by another composer reaching back three centuries. The English composer Henry Purcell (1659 – 1695) wrote a number of works for the viol (also known as viola da gamba), which comes in a variety of sizes and is the predecessor to the string instruments we know today. (A recent CD of Purcell's Fantasias for the Viols played by the Hespèrion XX ensemble features a consort of seven viols in five sizes, which have an amazingly deep rich sound when played together.)

Purcell's Fantasia upon One Note in F major is in five parts, one part of which plays a constant C, hence the title, and is generally played on viols. Elliott Carter wrote his 3-minute variation A Fantasy on Purcell's "Fantasia on One Note" (1974) for brass quintet. This is obviously another minor work, but an amusing one.

In 1975 Elliott Carter arranged his three songs to poems by Robert Frost for chamber orchestra, and in the same year wrote his first new vocal music since the 1940s. A Mirror on Which to Dwell (1975) is a 20-minute song cycle for soprano and chamber orchestra set to six poems by Elizabeth Bishop. These poems are too long and not structured quite right for normal song settings (with virtually unsingable passages such as "Days that cannot bring you near or will not, Distance / trying to appear somewhat more obstinate, / argue argue argue with me endlessly neither proving / you less wanted nor less dear"), and so Carter sometimes has the soprano scurry rather quickly through the verses, reminding me somewhat of Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire but with a normal singing style. As the work goes on, however, the tempo becomes more relaxed and contemplative. This is a work that has steadily grown on me; I like it more each time I listen to it.

A Symphony of Three Orchestras (1976) was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and first performed in concerts conducted by Pierre Boulez in February 1977, one of which I attended. In that same month, Boulez recorded the work, and it's still available in a Sony CD along with three works by Edgard Varèse.

A Symphony of Three Orchestras was one of six works by contemporary American composers commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to celebrate the American Bicentennial. Earlier in the 1976/1977 Philharmonic season, the premiere of another one of these Bicentennial compositions — Renga with Apartment House 1776 by John Cage, featuring an orchestra accompanied by solo singers representing the Sephardic, Black, Protestant Hymn, and Native American traditions often performing simultaneously — was the scene of a minor scandal when hundreds of audience members walked out during the performance, as reported by the New York Times the following day. ( abstract, full article) That was a Thursday concert and I know I wasn't there; I probably saw the performance on Saturday or Tuesday, and only a few people walked out then. It's amazing how much power a chastisement from the New York Times has.

(And while I'm accessing the New York Times web site, here's the abstract and full article of the New York Times review of Carter's Symphony of Three Orchestras three months after the Cage, and the abstract and full article including a photograph of the composer of the review of Concerto for Orchestra in 1970. The patronizing tone of both reviews is characteristic of the work of Harold C. Schonberg, who had little regard for contemporary music and did not attempt to hide his contempt.)

The single-movement 17-minute Symphony of Three Orchestra has some similarities with the earlier Concerto for Orchestra. Both works divide the orchestra into parts, and both works feature much solo playing and percussion to effect constantly evolving shimmering textures of sound.

Like most people, I guess, there was a period in my life where I struggled with the poetry of John Ashbery, considering myself a hopeless nitwit unless Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror and The Double Dream of Spring made at least a little bit of sense to me. In retrospect I guess there are worse fates than not comprehending Ashbery. I didn't know at the time that Ashbery was a fan of Elliott Carter, and his poetry had been influenced by Carter's music, but it probably should have been obvious.

It was Ashbery who suggested to Carter that they collaborate on a work. Ashbery contributed his poem "Syringa" (published in his book Houseboat Days) based on the Orpheus legend. Carter struggled with setting this poem, and had a breakthrough we he decided to supplement Ashbery's text with simultaneously sung texts in Greek consisting of excerpts of Plato, Aeschylus, Sappho, and others. The result is Syringa (1978), a 20-minute work for mezzo-soprano (singing the Ashbery), baritone (singing the Greek), and chamber orchestra. The simultaneous singing — not exacly a duet — works extraordinarily well, much better than one might expect, partly because Ashbery's poetry turns out to sound terrific when sung, and the Greek counterpoint (stretching the work's meaning back over two millennia) never gets in the way.

(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