Magna Carter

Magna Carter

Every musical note has life in it. For six decades the composer Elliott Carter imagined that life precisely.


From 1945 to the last day of his life this past November, the composer Elliott Carter lived in an apartment building on West Twelfth Street that likely went up around the time of his birth in 1908. Curious about music at an early age despite his family’s indifference, the young Carter attended the premiere of Rhapsody in Blue in 1924; a half-century later, he would compose, with his Symphony of Three Orchestras, a portrait of Manhattan as compelling as George Gershwin’s. Carter was immersed in the musical life of his native city for a century, yet he was never a member or a rival of any so-called New York School, nor was he drawn, except fleetingly, into entangling musical alliances. He found his musical voice only after he turned 40 and had moved to West Twelfth Street, when he finally figured out how to reconcile the influences of his two mentors. One was Charles Ives, whom he met when he was in high school; the other was Nadia Boulanger, with whom he studied for three years in Paris during the mid-1930s after graduating from Harvard, where he had focused on philosophy, literature and mathematics, but not music.

Ives had envisioned a distinctly American music expressive of the redemptive disorder of democracy. Boulanger demanded a technical mastery of the European tradition and thought Carter’s talents in that regard did not measure up to those of her most famous protégé, Aaron Copland. In the works Carter composed after returning to the United States from Paris in 1937, he often seemed to exist in Copland’s shadow, with only occasional hints of a distinctive voice, let alone musical genius. But with his monumental String Quartet No. 1 from 1951 and the Variations for Orchestra of 1955, Carter ended up redefining American musical modernism, fusing native rhythmic vitality with the sort of structural complexity previously heard only in the music of European masters like Berg and Bartók. The fusion also kept his work far removed from the populist style that had become synonymous with American music. The long incubation of these pieces steeled Carter to follow his own path, undistracted by musical fashion and keen to discover new things to say, right up to the final months of his epic life. He completed his last work, Epigrams, for a piano trio, in August 2012, three months before he died.

I met Carter in January 1971, when Pierre Boulez, the French maestro of postwar musical experiment, was conducting Carter’s Concerto for Orchestra with the Cleveland Orchestra. I was in graduate school at Columbia University, pursuing what would turn into an ABD in English literature and living the out-of-time existence typical of postgraduates back then. My life seemed all the more suspended because I felt trapped: I wanted to be a composer, not an English professor, but could not imagine a career for myself in music. 

I had been devoted to Carter’s music ever since I was 15 and heard his elegant, jazz-tinged Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello and Harpsichord. Soon I was prowling the aisles of G. Schirmer and Sam Goody for scores and recordings of the blockbuster masterpieces Carter was turning out in the 1960s: the Second String Quartet, the Double Concerto and the Piano Concerto (dedicated to Stravinsky, who praised it as the “Magna Carter”). These works had a rhythmic intensity I did not otherwise hear in contemporary music, and it would find its full tempo and strength in the Concerto for Orchestra, completed in 1969. Carter modeled the piece on the Whitmanesque poem Vents, by St. John Perse, which begins: “C’étaient de très grands vents sur toutes faces de ce monde” (There were very great winds over all the faces of the earth).

The Second Quartet and the three concertos that followed marked a new phase in Carter’s mature development. In the late 1950s, the composer had encountered the avant-garde music of Boulez, Stockhausen, Nono and Berio. Once again he found ways to combine European and American developments on his own terms. His music became more disjointed, percussive and unsettled; he wanted the players in the Second Quartet to speak at cross purposes, like characters in a Samuel Beckett play. At the same time, Carter was able to shape anarchic elements into grand masterpieces that transcended their apparent disorder. Within the vanguard aesthetics of the period, Carter’s mixture of disjunction and craft seemed a contradiction in terms. Why, I heard on more than one occasion, did Carter care so much about form? Didn’t he know the masterpiece was dead?

* * *

When the Concerto for Orchestra premiered at the New York Philharmonic in February 1970, I was studying abroad. As soon as I learned that Boulez would be conducting the Cleveland performances, I decided to go. The dates fell during the break between semesters at Columbia, and come January I was looking out the window of a Greyhound coach trundling across the wintry wastes of Pennsylvania. Boulez, though still the four-star composer-general of the European musical avant-garde, was at the time becoming more active as a conductor. He was already renowned for his ability to bring lucid order to the most rambunctious of modern works. A few years earlier, in Cologne, Boulez and two other conductors had realized Stockhausen’s Gruppen, a composition for 109 players divided into three orchestras that were often required to perform simultaneously in different tempos—different by arcane ratios like 13:11. At the podium, Boulez behaved like a cross between a traffic cop and an IBM mainframe, in full command of the music and showing no trace of emotion. Until 1971, Boulez had not bothered to conduct any American music; he once quipped that there was no American music as good as Hans Werner Henze’s, “and that is not setting your sights very high.” But now he was pursuing a conducting career in the States and felt obliged to find some American sounds worthy of his genius; Carter’s Concerto, which presented technical challenges of coordination similar to those in Gruppen, fit the bill.

My friend Peter Kogan, now a timpanist with the Minnesota Orchestra, played percussion in the Cleveland Orchestra at the time, and he arranged for me to attend the rehearsals and performances of Carter’s piece. Although I had played double bass in school and for community orchestras, I had never sat in on the rehearsals of a professional orchestra, and the rigid, contractually defined temporal discipline of the routine—ruled by a large, looming rehearsal clock—surprised me. For a Thursday night concert, there would be four rehearsals, the first being on Monday and each lasting exactly three hours, from 10 am to 1 pm, with a single twenty-minute break. At 9 am, the musicians were free to warm up on the stage; fifty-five minutes later, they were in their places as the concertmaster walked on and the principal oboe sounded an “A” so that the orchestra could tune. At exactly 10 am, the conductor would appear and the music-making would begin; at 1 pm sharp, a union rep would nod to the conductor and the rehearsal would end. I soon understood how Boulez’s disciplinary and mathematical skills (he had excelled in math before taking up music at the Paris Conservatory) would be as important as his musical abilities: rehearsals would become a double struggle of time management, both around and within Carter’s music.

The Monday morning before the concert, I found a seat in Severance Hall as the orchestra members gradually filled the stage. The composer soon arrived wearing a rumpled trench coat and carrying a large black case containing the blue-printed copy of his manuscript score (computers had not yet taken over the job of musical notation). I was the only other person in the hall and introduced myself to Carter. He asked if I wanted to follow the score, pulling an extra copy from his case. It measured twenty-four by eighteen inches, and some pages were packed with more than sixty staves of music (in a Beethoven symphony, by contrast, there are rarely more than twenty per page).

Carter’s Concerto for Orchestra was one of eighteen works commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to mark its 125th anniversary. Leonard Bernstein, who had never performed Carter’s music before (and never would again), conducted the premiere performances and the first recording. Carter’s score could not have been more different from Bernstein’s contemporaneous work, Mass, with its famous “Simple Song,” yet Bernstein grasped its turbulence and sonic splendor: the concerto sounded complicated and complex without being oblique; its percussion-rich sonorities and sweeping motion seemed as much in tune with Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” as with Perse’s poem. This palpable agility impressed one of the work’s best-known admirers, Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead, who would underwrite a later recording conducted by Oliver Knussen.

* * *

The orchestral concerto of the twentieth century was essentially a new genre. The most famous ones are by Bartók and Lutosławski, and both spotlight the virtuosity of the various sections of the orchestra: strings, winds, brass, percussion. Carter interpreted the form differently; in his concerto, every member of the orchestra becomes a soloist at some point in the score. Instead of dividing the orchestra along the usual family lines, Carter grouped it into four ensembles of instruments playing in the same register, as if each instrument in a string quartet had morphed into a mini-orchestra. The flutes, for instance, don’t play with the bassoons, but rather with the violins and glockenspiel, and the trumpets play with the violas, not the trombones. Carter redivided the orchestra in space as well: the published score includes a semicircular “stereo seating” diagram that places many instruments far from their accustomed locations. Eight percussion players surround the orchestra and play virtually continuously throughout the piece, so that the timbres of drums, bells and rattles fuse with the strings, winds and brass; piano, harp, marimba, xylophone, vibraphone and glockenspiel help to link the percussion with the pitched instruments. Carter also splintered the usual string choir into four separate groups—violins, violas, cellos and basses—that rarely play together; at many points in the piece, he assigned each player within each group a separate part in a dense thicket of polyphony. All this derangement produces a hallucinatory effect as the sound washes from one direction to another in changing combinations of timbres. The derangements also make the music very hard to play, and Carter’s rhythms—his derangements of time—present even more of a challenge.

The concerto begins with barely audible drums and low gongs that crest and subside like waves striking the shore after a long calm. As their sounds ebb, flickering tones emerge in the strings and winds and rouse a second crescendo, this time a cacophonous tsunami for the entire orchestra that peaks just twelve measures into the music. The apocalyptic explosion of the first climax is created by the friction of different rhythmic values. While the conductor gives six beats to the bar, some instruments subdivide these beats into three, four, five or seven parts; few of their notes coincide. These precisely calculated nonsimultaneities would be difficult enough to perform if, as in a string quartet, just one musician played each of the clashing subdivisions. In Carter’s piece, though, groups of instruments share each rhythmic strand and so have to articulate the subdivisions precisely together (one rationale for rearranging the orchestra’s seating plan). The piano and xylophone, for instance, must play fourteen even notes exactly together while the conductor is beating six. Making the rhythms even more challenging, Carter often accented these temporal divisions counterintuitively, stressing the relatively easy triplets in the second violins in groups of four rather than three.

In Cleveland, the players were bewildered during the first read-through of the score. Tensions flickered and were fanned by Boulez’s effortless, if glum, command of the music’s complexity. He could sing any instrumental part with exact precision, and in the proper solfeggio syllables—do re mi. Whenever players were not precisely together in pitch or rhythm, he would stop and sing the phrase at them again, a call-and-response repeated with growing exasperation to the ticking of the rehearsal clock. Boulez could instantly hear if a note or a player’s timing was off, and he had no inhibitions about locating the exact source of error. If several repetitions failed to produce an accurate rendering of the score, Boulez would angrily declare that the entire cello section needed to go back to “conservatoire” to correct their glaring inability to count. Any conductor who spoke to an orchestra that way today would lose his job before the next rehearsal. After he took over the New York Philharmonic a few years later, Boulez became known to its players as “the French Correction.”

Throughout the frustrating stop-and-go of the first reading, Carter sat quietly behind his huge score, letting Boulez be the disciplinarian; as soon as the first break arrived, however, many of the players made a point of telling him how much they disliked his piece. One violinist confided that he had been playing passages from Der Rosenkavalier because they were undetectable in the general din. Slightly more conciliatory, a tuba player told Carter that he hated the music but appreciated that the score contained a big tuba solo. Carter turned the other cheek several times, though without ever apologizing for his music, and the rehearsal continued. Everyone knew that, no matter what they might think of the concerto, it and the three other works on the program—including Sergei Prokofiev’s raucous and still challenging Scythian Suite—would have to be played to perfection by Thursday night.

As the rehearsal continued, the professionalism of the players overrode whatever doubts they may have had about the music; the piece began to emerge, though still hobbled by Boulez’s insistence on precision above everything else. The percussionists and the management agreed to arrange a much-needed extra sectional rehearsal. As the technical problems of the music receded, Carter intervened more, sometimes asking to hear apparently minute details, but more often trying to clarify the overall character of the music, the poetry in the notes. At the loudest climax of the piece, Carter had called for a ratchet, a noise-making device that Strauss employed for comic effect in Till Eulenspiegel. Carter wanted to hear the ratchet more clearly and asked the percussionist, who was playing one the size of a Purim grogger, to use a larger instrument. The player found one the size of a baseball bat, but at first he played it a bit tentatively. “Can you swing it over your head, like children at a birthday party?” Carter asked. The ratchet’s wall-rattling racket sounded like a machine gun and brought a smile to the composer’s face, though it was clearly a more visceral and dramatic gesture than Boulez had imagined.

Boulez, I thought, heard Carter’s piece, quite plausibly, as a modernized version of Debussy’s La Mer; Carter was aiming for something more prophetically transcendent, like Ives’s Fourth Symphony. The wild and visionary quality of the music eluded Boulez, but these were expressive qualities few would have expected from a composer who throughout the week was polite, soft-spoken and never self-aggrandizing. Despite all the rough and tumble and the endless stream of insults from the musicians, Carter never lost his composure. Over the years that would follow, I would better understand how Carter’s benign Pickwickian demeanor caged the bulldog within.

There were three performances. I thrilled each time to the power of the music, like a force of nature. The audience was politely hostile, the critics uncomprehending. Boulez and the Clevelanders may not have revealed every secret of the score, but they solved its technical challenges—a task that remains daunting to this day. Forty years after its premiere, the New York Philharmonic has yet to revive Carter’s piece, even though Alan Gilbert, the orchestra’s first American maestro since Bernstein, conducted Gruppen last year to general acclaim.

* * *

As US military involvement in Vietnam waned, the academic job market collapsed—and I decided that if I was going to be unemployed anyway, I might as well be a musician. So, in 1973, I enrolled at the Manhattan School of Music. I saw Carter in passing at the premieres of his Third String Quartet, Brass Quintet, and Duo for Violin and Piano, and I purchased recordings and scores of his work as they became available. My big compositional project at the time, titled Cross-Currents, was conspicuously Carterian, with a few touches of the equally arcane Greek composer Iannis Xenakis. Because the strings and percussion proceeded at different speeds in many places, the piece was scored for a large string orchestra, ten percussionists and two conductors. I was studying with John Corigliano, who was a very helpful mentor in many ways, but Cross-Currents was far from his own style and sympathies. I decided to ask Carter if he might have the time to look at it. Six weeks later, my phone rang at 7 am. It was Helen, the composer’s wife, calling to tell me that “Elliott” could see me that afternoon at 2. 

The building on West Twelfth Street felt neither grand nor, despite its Village location, bohemian; the other tenants were successful musicians and university professors. Each floor had just two apartments. The Carters lived in the west apartment on the eighth floor; its layout seemed awkward, with the living room at one end facing to the south (giving Carter an all-too-vivid view of the events of 9/11) and the dining room and kitchen at the other, with a pair of bedrooms in the middle. But the arrangement was perfect for a composer: Carter’s studio adjoined the living room, so his wife, who functioned as his live-in manager and gatekeeper, could work in the dining room without disturbing him. Except for a few pieces of art—Helen had been a sculptor—the apartment had the genteel shabbiness of academic digs.

Carter greeted me at the door and led me to his studio. He began to study my score, seated at the piano but without playing a note, and while still on the first page he said, “You can’t do that.” I would hear the same rebuke countless times during my three years of study with him at Juilliard, where he had been teaching since 1966. As a teacher, he unleashed his inner bulldog. Cross-Currents began with all of the violins playing their open G string. As Carter had done (or so I thought) in his Concerto for Orchestra, I blended this sound with percussion, beginning with a snare drum roll that I had indicated should be played softly. “You can’t do that,” Carter said, pointing to the snare drum part. “A drum roll is not just soft; it has a shape, a beginning, middle and ending. Do you want a crescendo? A swell? Every note has life in it, and as a composer you must imagine that life precisely.” In a flash, Carter had revealed me as a rank amateur, but also emphasized how I needed to listen and think to be a genuine composer. He spent the next two hours pinpointing, with uncushioned directness, all the other rough and approximate ideas in my piece that required much greater care and precision if they were to have their intended effect. By the end of the lesson, I felt (as I would after all my future lessons) like I had been pummeled by a champion prizefighter. Somehow, though, I also was exhilarated, sensing that I had found the teacher I needed. As I walked back uptown, my head was full of a surprising and un-Carterian melody, the duet between Pinkerton and Sharpless in the first act of Madama Butterfly—a celebration, fraught with irony, of male bonding and intimations of “You can’t do that.”

* * *

“Every note has life in it.” Many years later, I came to understand that Carter’s advice was a rejoinder to John Cage’s insistence that sounds were just that and nothing more. Life, Cage said ad nauseam, was a quality we mistakenly assigned to meaningless occurrences in a world that remained utterly indifferent to us. For Carter, Cage’s position was sentimental: it made life—and art—too easy. That was also his view of serialism, the twelve-tone method of Arnold Schoenberg as redefined by the postwar European avant-garde, which interpreted the compositional technique in quasi-Marxist terms as a decisive move in the dialectic of history. In a series of polemical articles written in the late 1940s, Boulez promulgated a radical serial aesthetics and lashed out at the unseemly compromises of his elders, including his teacher at the Paris Conservatory, Olivier Messiaen, Carter’s exact contemporary. Boulez proclaimed that any musician who did not understand the historical necessity of serialism was “useless.”

In the 1950s, the techniques of serialism and systematic indeterminacy seemed to reflect a fundamental change in human consciousness in the wake of the Holocaust and Hiroshima. These events appeared to negate humanism, and many avant composers, including Cage, Boulez, Xenakis and Stockhausen, reacted to them by dehumanizing their music, composing by algorithm or chance operations. In his Music of Changes of 1951, Cage used divination methods from the Chinese I Ching to select notes rather than rely on his own taste or instincts; in the first book of Structures, written the same year, Boulez assigned an equally depersonalizing role to the twelve-tone row itself. Similar tactics, employed most powerfully in Xenakis’s Pithoprakta and in the harrowing cantata Il Canto Sospeso by Luigi Nono, treated the historical force underlying modern atrocities as somehow statistical, the product of manic, absurd mechanisms, as if humans had not planned and executed them.

Carter’s music sprang from the same history but recoiled from the absurd. Although he had closely studied the music of the Schoenberg school and the later European vanguard, Carter never composed a serial piece. He derived his atonal techniques from the music of American “ultramodernists” like Ives, Henry Cowell and Ruth Crawford—composers Boulez either did not yet know or had dismissed as barely deserving of mention in the same breath as the lowly Henze. Boulez’s close encounter in the early 1950s with American ultramodernism in the person of John Cage had turned what was a close friendship into a mutual disengagement, as their published correspondence revealed.

Two decades later, during that memorable week in Cleveland, Boulez was respectful and cool toward Carter. Fluent in French from early childhood, Carter had known Boulez since the 1950s and was present at the premiere of his colleague’s most famous piece, Le marteau sans maître. Yet at a dinner with Carter in Cleveland to which I had been invited, Boulez seemed preoccupied and distant. During rehearsals, I never heard him praise Carter’s music either to the composer or, more important, to the orchestra. No one ever accused Boulez of being overly effusive, but I think his reserve was political (or at least pseudo-political), not personal. Carter’s music did not conform to Boulez’s historical scheme. But then Carter, and his music, rose above scheming. No matter how complicated they might appear, his notes always had life, sentient and with the potential for pathos and humor, resistance and survival. Yes, it turns out you can do that.

Classical music in the age of recording is the subject of Paul Elie’s Reinventing Bachreviewed here recently by Michael O’Donnell (Jan. 21).

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