Music

Deep Read: A life's devotion to musical modernism

Guardian Reporter

The American composer Elliott Carter devoted his life to shaping a modernist musical idiom with a European sophistication.

Composer Elliott Carter (left) receives the Juilliard Medal as one of 17 centennial honorees, from Bruce Kovner, chairperson of the board of Juilliard. (AFP)

Carter, who died aged 103 on Monday, was, apart from Pierre Boulez, the last survivor of the heroic age of postwar musical modernism, and perhaps its greatest exponent. In the 1950s, when Carter wrote his first masterpieces in his new self-made, fabulously intricate language, that age was in full flood. By the time he wrote his playful late masterpieces, it had long since passed into history.

And yet despite his longevity, Carter never became what so many aged artists become: relics of a bygone age, constantly interviewed for their memories of the past. He always lived in the present tense. In his last years he was more interested to hear about the latest thing than in reminiscing. By the same token, he and his music were completely impervious to fashion. The music lost its hectic intricacy of the 1970s and 80s and became so graceful in its modernist purism that it took on the mysterious quality of a classic – always contemporary, through being essentially timeless. In Carter's vicinity, musical history seemed to bend to his agenda; he was always the centre of his own self-made universe, needing no validation from anything or anyone.

The achievement is all the more extraordinary when seen in the context of Carter's life story. Most composers' biographies bear out the adage that geniuses are born, not made. With Carter the reverse is true. There was no revelation in early childhood of unusual gifts, to be eagerly seized on by the world. What distinguishes Carter's early years is not precocious musicality but precocious maturity and unshakable self-belief. He was born in 1908 in New York, at a time when the first skyscrapers were just appearing on the skyline, but milk was still delivered by horse and cart. His father was a lace importer, and the young Carter often accompanied his father on buying trips, which allowed him to learn French and Flemish at first hand.

It was a solid bourgeois ambience but the boy soon showed a rebellious streak. His father was hardly encouraging of his son's musical ambitions, hoping that he would take over the business. He must have been annoyed to find his son so passionate not just about music, but beastly modern music. The young Elliott was incorrigibly attracted to anything new: he attended the first American performance of the Rite of Spring, in 1924.

In the same year Carter met the now-reclusive founding father of American musical modernism, Charles Ives, thanks to a sympathetic music teacher at his school. The frail elderly man took to the determined young man, describing him in a letter of recommendation to Harvard University as "rather an exceptional boy. He has an instinctive interest in literature, and especially music."

Early works
At Harvard, Carter officially studied English literature, but he also learned ancient Greek, sang in the Harvard Glee Club (for which he later wrote three fine pieces) and wrote incidental music for theatre productions. These early works were competent, but gave sign of exceptional promise. A career as a music critic (Carter early on revealed a sharp insightful mind and fluent style) or a humanities teacher (he taught for several years at St John's College, Annapolis, Maryland), combined with some composing for choirs on the side, seemed his most likely prospect. But Carter's persistent explorations and self-questioning suggests an inkling of a bigger goal.

The next 15 years were ones of slow maturing, revealed in a trying-out of various idioms that to the world must have seemed oddly tentative. In retrospect, these years take on an awesome quality of self-possessed, unhurried progress toward a goal whose essence was glimpsed, but for which the technical means were as yet lacking. What Carter was searching for was a music apt for the giddy speed and multi-layered experience of being alive in the 20th century. But he was aware that the obstreperous American modernism of Henry Brant and Ives and Edgard Varèse wouldn't do.

Urban and "machine-age" sounds and gestures did not interest him; they were too much of the moment. He wanted a modernism beyond fashion, rooted in a new kind of syntax, and to achieve that some European sophistication would be necessary. All the things he had absorbed would eventually find a place his modernist idiom: the idea of dramatic personages found in Mozart operas, the independent layers of English madrigals, the syntactic rigour of Arnold Schoenberg – and the combination of strict and free rhythm in jazz pianists he admired, such as Art Tatum.

Synthesising all these within a coherent idiom that was both authentically contemporary and authentically American – but without obvious American pictorialisms – would prove agonisingly hard. At first Carter thought it might be achieved through the pert, lean, unsentimental neo-classical idiom then in fashion.

From 1932 he spent three years in Paris acquiring a solid technical grounding from neo-classicism's leading proselyte, Nadia Boulanger, which left its mark on his String Quartet in C (and possibly other works from that period that Carter later destroyed).

Once back in America, Carter became the musical director for Lincoln Kirstein's Ballet Caravan, for which he composed the ballet Pocahontas, and in the same year he married the sculptor Helen Frost. Like his slightly older contemporary Aaron Copland, Carter was swept up in the populist spirit engendered by the Depression. One result was his Holiday Overture, composed in 1944 during a summer holiday on Fire Island.

'Younger talents to watch'
Copland was a house-guest during that summer and his ballet Appalachian Spring was written at the same kitchen table as Carter's overture. Copland's ballet was a perfect piece of American arcadiana, which touched something deep in the American psyche. Carter's overture, though sharing some of Copland's upbeat diatonic flavour, had an admixture of Carter-ish contrapuntal complexity and dissonance. Carter's inability, or refusal, to strike a purely populist note helps to explain why, with his 40th birthday looming, he was still a marginal figure. When Copland published a surveys of "younger talents to watch", in 1948, Carter did not get a mention, a fact which – despite his affection for Copland – still rankled in later years.

Eventually Carter realised that all the accumulated baggage of his music – the neo-classicism, the madrigalian references, the Greek texts, the Americana – would have to go. In the Piano Sonata of 1945 – written the year he moved with his wife into the brown-stone apartment he would live in for the rest of his life – Carter retains the massive rhetoric of the American sublime. But the cyclic form, the startling use of piano resonances and rhythmic flexibility mark a huge step forward. The Cello Sonata of 1948 is another leap, towards a really radical conception of form. The piece at the end seems to loop back to its opening, in a way that recalls Stéphane Mallarmé's conception of a book that one can begin at any point. At the beginning, a strict metronomic "ticking" in the piano is combined with a rhapsodically unfolding line in the cello. Nothing quite like this joining of two radically opposed worlds moving at different speeds had been heard in music before.

But it was in the first string quartet of 1951 that Carter's new conception of independent musical layers, sometimes co-operating, sometimes clashing in purposeful disunity, came fully into focus. To achieve it, Carter cut himself off from his usual surroundings and moved to the Arizona desert for several months.

What survives from his old manner is a heroic rhetoric of wide intervals, as if the American sublime has been sublimated and purged of anything local.

That joining together of aspiring strenuousness with an ever-increasing allusiveness would define Carter's creative project for the next two decades. It revealed itself in three works of astounding complexity that occupied him for more than 10 years: the Double Concerto, premiered in 1961, the Piano Concerto – written partly in Berlin, and imbued, according to the composer, with the dark atmosphere of that divided city – and the Concerto for Orchestra of 1969.

Carter was by then 61, and his life had long since settled into a pattern that mingled teaching and composing during the academic year, with more concentrated creative work during summer retreats at the Carter's modest country home at Waccabuc in upstate New York. He'd now reached the age at which Brahms was already thinking of retirement, and most composers are in some way retrenching. Nobody could have guessed that Carter was just getting into his stride, and that ahead of him lay more than four decades of creativity. In the 1970s, after a gap of nearly 30 years, he returned to vocal writing in a series of elegantly intricate settings of American poets such as John Ashbery, Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. This decade also produced the distilled essence of Carter's heroic style: The Symphony of Three Orchestras. Inspired by Hart Crane's poem The Bridge, the piece evokes all the conflicting energies of America, with a soaring trumpet solo that captures Crane's image of a gull wheeling over Brooklyn Bridge.

By the 1980s, Carter was established as modernism's not-so-grand old man. This didn't cut much ice with the American public, which preferred an expressive form of post-minimalism (and still does).

Visibility
He was not ignored in America, but it was the respectful esteem of prizes and fellowships that came his way rather than affection. As ever, Carter was a frequent visitor to Europe, where his uncompromising modernism found a warmer reception. He was never a performer, apart from a few teenage piano recitals, so one form of "visibility" was denied him. But although he was an indefatigable worker he was no lonely, ivory tower figure. He was too genial for that, and too involved in practical ways with American musical life. He taught, principally at the Julliard School, in New York, held guest professorships in the US and in Europe, and served on the board of the American section of the International Society for Contemporary Music.

Up to the 70s, Carter had been a severely constructivist composer. Some pieces were based on vast polymetric grids, and all of them involved complex rhythmic gear-changes known as metric modulations. Carter also made use of a highly systematised harmonic system, involving tables of all possible permutations of a given set of intervals. Manipulating these systems involved immense labour and copious sheaves of preliminary sketches (well over a thousand pages for A Symphony in Three Movements).

But from the 80s Carter increasingly composed free-hand, by ear. This is one reason for his astonishingly increased productivity. Another is that the knotted density of his 60s and 70s scores gave way to a new transparency – though the musical thought is more quicksilver than ever ("When will Carter start to write an old man's music?" was the plaintive overheard comment of a composer several decades his junior, but already senior himself). A stream of chamber miniatures emerged, as well as balletically elegant concertos. The greatest surprise of Carter's later years was the appearance of an opera, What Next?, premiered in 1998 when the composer was 90. However, not all the late works were light in tone. Symphonia, premiered in 1996, is his weightiest achievement, with a middle movement, Adagio Tenebroso, that is the most perfect example of Carter's desolate, unfathomably dark slow movements.

In the 1990s, America seemed to wake up to the fact that the most revered living composer on the planet was one of their own. As if to make up for lost time, a stream of home-grown commissions followed. There were more surprises, including a piece composed in 2007 for string orchestra, Soundings, of astonishing simplicity.

This aloof procession of slow chords comes close to Morton Feldman, a composer often thought of as Carter's opposite. When this was pointed out to him, he said, "I know", with a naughty twinkle.

"When you get to my age", he said, "you just want to have fun."

Despite the death of his wife in 2003, Carter's cheerful spirit seemed undimmed. He continued to travel across the Atlantic for performances of his music, despite the fact that these trips brought on pneumonia more than once.

That fact is a reminder that Carter was, under his genial demeanour, a fighter. To the end one could detect a determined set of the jaw, which was already evident in photographs of the young student. And there is sometimes a surprisingly aggressive tone in his letters, according to hints dropped by those who have seen them (they're now kept under lock and key at the Paul Sacher Foundation, in Basel, Switzerland). These clues point to the inevitable human cost of such an implacable struggle sustained over so many years, which perhaps only those closest to Carter had to bear. For the rest of the world, Carter offers an inspiring image of the heights to which determined creative self-fashioning can rise, and a body of work that in its total integrity, masterly craftsmanship and many-sided expressive power, already deserves the name of classic. – © Guardian News and Media 2012

Elliott Cook Carter Jr, composer, born December 11 1908; died November 5 2012

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