Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: A Life Well Lived

Elliott Carter
Elliott Carter

We mark the death of the American Composer Elliott Carter, who died six years ago today – on November 5, 2012 – one month shy of his 104th birthday.

When Elliott Carter was born on December 11, 1908, Theodore Roosevelt was President; an Indian’s head was on the obverse of a United States penny; Gustav Mahler was the conductor of the New York Philharmonic; and the United States was just beginning its run as a dominant nation on the world’s stage. If the twentieth century was “America’s century”, it was “Elliott Carter’s” century as well: there’s hardly an artistic, cultural, or political event that Carter did not actively observe from the early 1920s through almost yesterday. His musical interests and compositions trace a direct line through some of the most important musical trends of the twentieth century: the experimental, expressionist music of the 1920s; the musical populism of the thirties and early forties; the modernist impulse of the fifties and beyond. 

Throughout his compositional career, Elliott Carter has proven himself to be a quintessentially American composer. Not in an Aaron Copland, “folkloric” sense, but more profoundly. Carter’s mature vision of America mirrors, according to his biographer David Schiff:

“the energy, violence, and instability of contemporary life, sometimes finding pathos in this situation, sometimes elation, and at other times tragedy.” 

Elliott Carter in 1917
Elliott Carter in 1917, age 9

Elliott Cook Carter, Jr. grew up lucky. He was born into a prosperous family that had built its wealth importing lace. Elliott was groomed from the first to take over the family business. During his childhood, he spent six months of every year in Europe; he was fluent in French before he learned to read English.

But early on, Carter’s passions tilted towards music. He attended the prestigious Horace Mann School, and then went on to Harvard, where he earned a BA in English in 1930 and a MA in music in 1932. But even more important than his educational pedigree was the fact that Carter had the extraordinary good fortune to grow up in New York City during a particularly rich time in that city’s history. New York in the 1920s did indeed “roar” with energy and creativity, and in those days before the rise of Hollywood, it was the heart and soul of American culture. 

As a teenager Carter met and befriended Charles Ives, with whom he attended concerts. He was witness to the development of the American Musical Theater tradition, the dissemination of jazz, and the birth of a bona-fide “American” concert music, as composers like Aaron Copland and George Gershwin began to incorporate jazz and American folk and theatrical idioms into their concert works. As a teenager, Carter heard Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire performed in concert; he heard first performances of music by Edgard Varese, Carl Ruggles, Roger Sessions, Aaron Copland, and Ives himself. He heard Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s groundbreaking concerts of new music at Carnegie Hall. In 1925 he accompanied his father on a trip to Vienna, where he bought every available score by the composers of the so-called “Second Viennese School” – Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern. Vacations were spent attending the great European music festivals at Salzburg, Munich, and Bayreuth. 

I told you he grew up lucky! And like so many American composers before and after him, Carter “finished” his music education at the hands of Nadia Boulanger in France, between 1932 and 1935. 

By the time Carter returned to the United States in 1935, the European situation was looking darker by the day and America was in the middle of the Great Depression. The artistic spirit of the time was to create art, literature, and music that would be accessible to “the people”; a musical populism that would edify and educate, entertain and intrigue, that would elevate and nourish the entire American community. This meant composing music that utilized the familiar harmonic and melodic structures of traditional tonality and that somehow evoked – in sound or spirit – “America”. 

The music Carter wrote between his return to the United States in 1935 and 1945 fits into this category. 

Post-World War II Modernism

Carter, circa 1945
Elliott Carter, circa 1945

However, this all changed in the years immediately following the second world war. The rise of Hitler and Nazi Germany was perceived, among other things, as a function of mystical Romanticism intensified a gazillion-fold by a virulent brand of “exclusionary nationalism”. The catastrophe that was World War II was increasingly perceived as being a function of nineteenth century romantic impulses, impulses that celebrated “mystical emotion”, “nationalist self-expression”, and the “justification of feeling” above everything else. 

An upshot of this perception was the conviction among many of the best and brightest young composers of the time that the only appropriate post-War music was one that was devoid of Romantic expressive impulses and national identity: a music that was, instead, based on intellectual rigor and experimentation. 

We generally refer to the period of experimentation between 1946 and 1960 as that of “post-War modernism”, a period that saw the emergence of new musical languages and philosophies, created by such composers as Milton Babbitt, Pierre Boulez, John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Iannis Xenakis, and Elliott Carter.

Having said that, what makes Carter different from most post-War modernists is that he never dogmatically embraced formulaic processes to “construct” his music; he never abandoned his ear as the ultimate arbiter of what he put on paper. Carter’s music is unerringly dramatic and rhythmically engaging. Difficult though his post-War music may be, Carter never forgets that we – his audience – need to hang our ear on something when hearing one of his works for the first time. 

Carter’s Road to Modernism

Elliott Carter with Igor Stravinsky, 1966
Elliott Carter with Igor Stravinsky, 1966

Like so many composers of his generation, the end of the War had a liberating effect on Carter, the idea of writing direct, accessible music – an “idea” that had seemed so important during the War – seemed utterly meaningless after the war. In an interview conducted in 1990, Carter said:

“I finally said to hell with that whole accessible point of view and decided to write what I really always hoped to write, and what I thought was most important for me. I’ve taken that point of view ever since.” 

At the very core of Carter’s developing musical craft was polyphony. Polyphony – or counterpoint – is the art of combining simultaneous melodies. For Carter, Polyphony became the central, driving principal behind his mature music. He recalled that:

“at a certain point I decided that the traditional categories like ‘theme and accompaniment’ or ‘subject and countersubject’ really didn’t deal with the vast spectrum of relationships that [musical elements] can have with each other. [I began] to think in terms of simultaneous streams of different things going on together, rather than in the usual categories of counterpoint and harmony.” 

What Carter is talking about is sort of “grand” polyphony, a “mega” counterpoint: the simultaneous presentations of not just different melodies but of entirely different sorts of music.

Carter’s artistic triumph as a mature composer was his ability to meld completely different, simultaneous musical elements into a convincing, homogeneous, whipped-and-blended “whole”. The collisions of unlike musical parts that characterize his mature music have a sometimes conversational, sometimes argumentative quality that has caused me to program Carter’s string quartets side-by-side with those of Joseph Haydn!

Elliott Carter in 2011, age 102
Elliott Carter in 2011, age 102

What lies at the heart of Carter’s mature music is the democratic ideal, an Enlightenment-inspired vision that recognizes the essential validity, the genius, the uniqueness of each individual “voice”, as well as the essential responsibility of that voice to contribute to something greater than itself.

Carter’s mature music is about the democratic ideal, about the will of different individuals with different points of view and different agendas to work together. “The will to work together”: that is – presumably – the essence of our democracy, heaven help us. It is the spiritual essence of Carter’s music as well. 

For much more on the modernist musical explosion that followed World War II, I would direct your attention to my Great Courses Survey, “The Great Music of the 20th Century”, which can be sampled and downloaded from my Courses page

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