"Carter strikes me as a rather exceptional boy. He has an instinctive interest in literature and especially music that is somewhat unusual. He writes well -- an essay in his school paper 'Symbolism in Art' shows an interesting mind. I don't know him intimately, but his teacher, a friend of mine, always speaks well of him -- that he's a boy of good character and does well in his studies. I am sure his reliability, industry, and sense of honour are what they should be -- also, his sense of humour -- which you do not ask me about..."
When American classical pioneer Charles Ives wrote these words of recommendation over 65 years ago, Elliott Carter was a young New Yorker who in his spare time dreamed of writing great music. Though not one to dwell on becoming the next Beethoven -- he hated the old-fashioned dustiness of earlier classical music -- Carter tolerated the piano lessons forced upon him by his lace merchant parents. But as he was exposed to the experimental works of Igor Stravinsky and Edgar Varese in the 1920s, Carter began to contemplate composing as a possible career. He asked Ives, an acquaintance who would evolve into a close friend and teacher, to pen a few laudatory words in the hopes of getting him into the music program at Harvard.
Now, some seven decades later, Elliot Carter is recognized around the world as the last great patriarch of modern American classical music. One of only a small handful of composers to be twice honored with the Pulitzer Prize in music, Carter is the quintessential renaissance man: composer, writer, musician, even professor of mathematics and Greek. And at 85, Elliot Carter is as creative, witty and sharp as a man 40 years his junior. His most recent work, Partita, was premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the winter of 1994 with Daniel Barenboim conducting.
For many students and scholars in the classical world, Elliott Carter is the paradigm for aspiring modern composers. His style sometimes takes a bit of getting used to, though -- known for his aversion to repetition and tonality, Carter composes music that goes against the grain of what many would recognize as typical "classical" music. But yet unlike the groundbreaking atonal works of composers such as Arnold Schoenberg, Anton von Webern and Karlheinz Stockhausen, Carter's music possesses a powerful dose of vitality and passion. Not unlike Walt Whitman, Henry James or his old friend and contemporary Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter personifies this country's pioneering spirit in both art and expression.
After the final rehearsal of Partitabefore its world premiere in February, 1994, I spoke with Maestro Carter. The discussion ranged from his life and work to the problems of young writers composing music today.
Andy Carvin: Though you've composed for a greater portion of this century, your music at age 85 seems just as inspired and original as the works you did at 45. What causes you get up each morning and continue composing with such rigor?
Elliott Carter: You know, I don't feel like I have any specific inspiration. Composing is a constant part of my life, so I don't really need inspiration. My music comes to me just like any thing else I do, like sitting here talking to you. I don't feel that there's some sort of great shining light which comes into my mind at all. It's what I do, and I would feel very unhappy if I couldn't do it. My inspiration is the challenge to write a piece, to form it into shape.
AC: So you aren't suddenly struck by a musical epiphany.
Carter: I feel that the idea that one can have a flash of inspiration for a piece is not really what happens to me. I do get striking moments only when I have begun to write a piece and I am wondering what I'll do next. Maybe that's inspiration, but if it is, it has to be focused very strongly into exactly what I'm working on. It doesn't happen until the music has been worked on and is beginning to be sorted out.
AC: But there must be some driving force that keeps you moving from one commission to the next.
Carter: My attitude towards composing has always remained strong. I'm always ready to write the next piece. The only thing that has changed over the years has been my level of experience, which accumulates with each score, with each rehearsal, with each performance. I feel I've gained the wisdom to empathize with the musicians, to understand how they will handle my pieces. I recognize when a certain phrase will cause the performer a lot of trouble and grief. Now that's not to say I've stopped writing music that will cause a lot of trouble for the musician. [laughs] I merely wish to keep the performer in a state of challenge and offer them a piece which is commanding enough for them to keep them satisfied.
AC: So when you compose a new work, you have the performer interest level in mind.
Carter: I'm very concerned with the performer, but I'm not too concerned with the listener. It seems to me that if you can interest the performer and make him feel that he's done something really valuable, his playing will convince the audience just that. To write for the audience is just too uncertain. You never know what your audience may be like, but you can usually know what your performers will be like. A good musician has the training to appreciate all sorts of things you might try to do in a piece. A performer will also recognize whether a piece is skillfully written or original -- an audience might not always be so sure.
AC: But it seems you can't completely dismiss the audience, either. As challenging as a new piece might be for a performer, you wouldn't want listeners to be thoroughly disturbed by a piece.
Carter: A disturbed audience bothers me some -- I mean, I don't want the audience going there and suffering through a performance. [laughs] I can't say that this is something that terrifies me too much, though. I've lived through this for so long that I really don't have any feeling about it at all any more.
When one of my quintets was performed in Cologne, we had all sorts of well known performers playing the piece, like Andras Schiff. There were about 3,000 people in the hall, and they were all very enthusiastic. But then one man suddenly got up and yelled 'Boooo!!!' and the performers were furious. They even pointed at him so everyone would know who did it. So as you can see, I think I'm very justified in writing for the perfomer, not the audience.
AC: For the unaccustomed listener, your music may seem a bit confused and complex. Does this supposed need to "grow into" your music ever bother you?
Carter: I've heard people complain about complexity for so much of my life that I think it must be a hoax and no longer believe in it. [laughs] Take a look at a piece like Wozzeck. Obviously, it's very complex, but you're not supposed to dwell on the complexity. You're supposed to focus on the expression of the music. That's what I hope people do with my music. The complexity, if it even is complex, is simply there to create an image.
AC: Why are people so shocked by your style?
Carter: People call my music complex because I will have instruments playing at their own paces, as if the other instruments weren't even there. It doesn't march along in the same way that most older music does. But to me, I honestly don't think that a work like Debussy's La Mer is any less complex than my work. It's full of all sorts of sounds and textures going on at once, yet we still look at is as beautiful, structured and fluid. That's all I'm trying to do; I'm not out to compose for complexity's sake.
AC: From the time you first started composing in school through the time you were a young man, most of your efforts were based on more traditional classical elements. When did you develop your taste for atonality and why?
Carter: I will tell you the honest to goodness truth -- I haven't composed a work in a traditional form since World War II. I wrote a piano sonata in 1945 which had traditional elements like fugues in it, but after that, I pretty much lost the desire to continue in that vein. I think the reason for this is that in my conception of what music is all about, traditional methods hinder the creative process. For instance, there are no reoccuring themes in my music. It continues to evolve and evolve, yet never returns to a thematic point. It's not unlike the plainsong of ages past, where certain motifs would pop up here and there, but never as an intention to provide closure to the listener. Maybe a phrase will hint at another previous phrase, or one instrument may imitate the tones of an earlier instrument. I see no reason to obey the convention of always returning to a musical locus.
Besides, I can't keep my mind on one thing for too long, I guess. [laughs]
AC: How did you become interested in composing classical music?
Carter: In the 1920s, I had this high school music teacher in New York who exposed me to all the contemporary music of the time. He was friends with Charles Ives, Edgar Varese, all these great men, and he opened my world by getting me to learn from them. I remained friends with VarĆse for the rest of his life. Ives would encourage me as I showed him these crazy little pieces I kept coming up with, though I now realize how awful they were. I was blessed with in the right place at the right time -- going to the New York premiere of Rite of Spring, seeing Stokowski conduct Wozzeck [where he, by chance, was sitting next to a young George Gershwin]. The years before the Depression were a very lively time, musically speaking, and having the luck of being exposed to all this was what really steered me into becoming a composer.
Then I realized my abilities were so poor I thought that could never do any of the things I was hearing. So I started to study traditional forms of music much more seriously. When I was a kid, I would hear Beethoven I would walk out of the room because I didn't want to hear that stuff. But then I gradually it wasn't so bad after all. [laughs]
AC: What did you do after you finished school?
Carter: I went off to study with Nadia Boulanger in France, who at that time was the only person besides Arnold Schoenberg who really took contemporary music seriously and would provide intelligent criticism about it. I mean, most American teachers of the time couldn't stand any of it, wouldn't talk about it, and wouldn't let any of their students study it. So many Americans had to go to France to study with Nadia. It was an ackward time -- I left for Europe at the time of the Reichstag Fire, and Schoenberg fled to America soon after. If I had worked it a little better, I would have had a chance to have studied with him, too.
AC: How would you describe the kind of music you were working on at that time?
Carter: A lot of my work from the '30s and early '40s contained elements of jazz and popular music in general. But then I stopped composing that sort of stuff when I realized that this wasn't the reason I wanted to be a composer, and I was tired of it. So I went off and began writing this other stuff which was so hard and complicated. [laughs]
AC: Tell me a bit about Partita.
Carter: Partita is different than any piece I've ever composed. Then again, if it sounded like everything else I've done, I'd grow tired of composing and not even bother writing it. [laughs]
I use the name Partita in this particular piece partly because when I lived in Italy, you'd see the word 'partita,' the Italian word for 'game,' posted everywhere whenever you were near a soccer game. So there's this sense of action, of adventure in this piece, almost like taking a ride, and there's no way a traditional sonata form could have ever captured that same level of feeling I had in mind.
AC: So you're not using the word 'partita' in the traditional musical sense.
Carter: The title Partita confuses people because they think it implies a style, like a Bach partita, which is just a series of dances.
AC: You've said in the past that you like to develop themes which run through your works over a period of time. Does Partita fit into a recent musical scheme?
Carter: This piece is part of a series of works I've been working on. I've become interested in composing works that seem both long and fragmented. To be able to write a winding piece that ends, and then to have another bit of music begin, and to see how the two actually blend together, I found that both very moving and compelling. About 10 years ago while composing a piece in honor of a friend of mine, I thought of creating a work for violin which would have the strings striving on throughout the composition while being interrupted by other instruments, not unlike how our lives are interrupted by unpredictable challenges and tragedies. That idea of a living struggle has permeated all my work since then.
I like to look at my work as a series of trips -- one piece a trip to Egypt, another a trip to Colorado. Music should be an adventurous experience.
AC: Partitais written for full orchestra. But a great deal of your works, from your Sonata for Cello & Piano (1948) to your clarinet tribute to Lutoslawski, Gra (1992) are composed for solo or chamber settings. Do you favor this intimate format over larger-scale commissions?
Carter: It's difficult for me to write music for a full size orchestra -- a lot more difficult than writing chamber music, for example, which I often do. My style of music requires a great deal of rehearsals, and because of the way orchestras are managed in this country, their rehearsal schedules are both short and fast. Some of my older works are just impossible to perform in this country for that very reason. So when the Chicago Symphony asked me to write a piece, I had to think twice because I'm always a bit worried that there just won't be enough rehearsal time. And even if they did get the time to practice it, who's to say that any other orchestras in the future would have the same luxury. Now in Europe, it's quite different. State subsidies of orchestras allow greater attention to perfecting a piece, rather than hastily assembling it for performance. So I honestly hesitated with the Chicago commission, but as you can see, I eventually broke down. [laughs]
AC: At today's rehearsal of Partita, Maestro Barenboim asked when you would try to write your first opera. You responded by saying, "Oh, maybe sometime in the next 20 or 30 years."╩Why haven't you tried it already?
Carter: I've seriously considered writing an opera many times, but I've never found a subject that meant enough to me to be written in an opera. And most of the things that I think might be powerful enough for an opera seem to be all the great historical tragedies I've seen over the years, but I just can't see how I could ever write a work about such things.
AC: Are you working on anything at the moment?
Carter: I'm actually trying to write this awful thing for guitar and trombone right now. I think I might actually call back the people who commissioned it and tell them 'No!'. [laughs]
AC: What do you think of some of the younger composers coming out of school today?
Carter: When I first started writing music, there were very few composers in America and colleges didn't even teach composition. Harvard and Yale did, but that was about it, and most of the people studying there planned to use their training to write organ hymns for churches and so on. So a small group of my generation -- including Aaron Copland, even though he was a bit older than us -- worked very hard to get universities to offer both courses and credit for musical composition. We also struggled to put on concerts of modern music. A good half of my life was spent running the Modern Music Society in New York.
We made it easy for young people to be able to write music, and now I think it's their turn to take the lead and work hard to get much of this new and unknown material performed. It's difficult to get your own music performed, but you must put forth the effort or you'll never get anywhere. I often think that many of today's young composers are spoiled because they expect their work to be simply picked up, played and praised. I don't mean to be cranky, but it's never that easy, and it probably never will be.
AC: But what about the pieces they compose?
Carter: I taught for 20 years at Julliard, but I finally left because I got bored with all these students who wanted to write tonal music, but weren't trained to write harmony or good counterpoint. They didn't know the backbone of their art -- Bach, Schumann, Mozart -- so they'd come out with these really trashy pieces which were poorly written. I couldn't take any more of that; it was impossible to teach people without the background to write the kind of music they wanted to write. It was all a childish parody of what good music was a long time ago. Others would try to write by patching bits of work together. Years ago, that was the sign of a really bad composer. Suddenly it was the sign of a fashionable composer.
AC: Do you see any value in the music of the past?
EC: To me, the music of the past must belong in a museum-like situation. The music of the present is much more vivid, much more striking, and even much communicative.
AC: But it seems that the average audiencegoer would often rather be hearing Beethoven than Boulez. Musn't you at least somewhat cater to the audience's tastes?
Carter: I think more audiences would like contemporary music if they were presented with it, told about it. It's just a matter of familiarity, I think. Then one begins to look back at old music as stuffy, or even tiresome.
It's funny -- I'm beginning to like older music more than I used to, but it's like I'm going into a museum and contemplating a Rembrandt. It just feels like its part of the aristocratic class system of kings and queens and dukes which just doesn't exist anymore.
AC: Do you just not like tonal classical music?
Carter: I'm not against tonal music -- it's just that I don't think it's possible to write music in the traditional style which is as good as the music of the past. Whatever you may do, it will still sound poorer than the original masters. The field is pretty much exhausted. Even when Strauss was composing, he had to turn to atonality sometimes to get away from the sounds of old. I'd be willing to consider the possibility of using tonality in a whole new context, such as in performance art or something. But then you begin to enter a new musical realm, like John Cage, assuming you consider what he did to be music. But that's not something I'd like to do. I like being stuck in the realm of the concert world too much. [smiles]
AC: What do you listen to when you suddenly have a desire for tonality?
Carter: This year I find myself listening to a lot of Hector Berlioz. It seems I didn't know his music as well as I thought I did. I'm not sure if it's even really good, but I still find it very interesting. Every year I seem to pick another composer to delve into -- like Mussorgsky for instance -- but no matter what I will always find the work of men like Debussy, Stravinsky and Charles Ives sticking with me. To me, a piece like Rite of Spring is more of a masterpiece than the even the great works of Mozart or Bach. This isn't to say that theirs aren't masterpieces in their own right, but they don't have the same vividness and strikingness you get from a Stravinsky piece or a Berg piece.
And of course I still listen to Mozart. I did even before it was fashionable. [laughs]
AC: You've often said that hearing Stravinsky's Rite of Spring was the catalyst for your musical career. And years later, upon hearing your Double Concerto for Harpsichord & Piano with Two Chamber Orchestras, Stravinsky said it was the American masterpiece of the century. That must have been an unimaginable honor for you.
Carter: Oh yes, but that's a bit of a stretch -- he actually said something like, 'Finally, a masterpiece that comes from America,' which to me is a very different statement. Either way, I was so touched I composed a piece for him in honor of his 85th birthday, which he said was even better than the Concerto.
I don't know -- he was getting awfully old when he said that. [laughs]
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