- Published on Amazon.com
This edited volume, published in 2012 by Cambridge University Press, contains 14 essays by musicologists on Elliott Carter's music. As is always the case with such volumes, all the essays are not equally interesting, and which are which will vary from reader to reader. The contributions I found very valuable to my understanding of Carter, one of the absolute best of late 20th Century composers in my view, along with Iannis Xenakis, were:
2) "Elliott Carter's late music" by John Link,
3) "The search for order: Carter's 'Symphonia' and late-modern thematicism" by Arnold Whittall, and
7) "'I try to write music that will appeal to an intelligent listener's ear.' On Elliott Carter's string quartets" by Dorte Schmidt
Link charts Carter's path to his simpler, more lyrical late period, and documents the deliberate choices he made that resulted in an amazing increase in productivity. Carter simplified the technical demands of his music, "...reducing the number of contrapuntal voices, and drastically simplifying his rhythmic notation" (43). He made the music easier to play, and also easier to write by ceasing to painstakingly fit every component into an overarching structure (44). Link notes that in the coda to "A Symphony of Three Orchestras," Carter fiercely mocks minimalism (53), so clearly Carter's concept of "simpler" had its limits!
One of my favorite passages in Whittall's essay is his quote from an essay by Carter in which he says of Debussy that other than "Pelleas," "there never seems to be any kind of darkness in it." According to Whittall, Carter's reference to several Second Vienna School examples of compositions by Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern "implies that with these we get an 'emancipated discourse' whose darker tone of voice is the perfect complement to Debussian elegance and mystery" (63).
Whittall and Schmidt both shed light on Carter's harmonic structures. Discussing the choices facing a "post-tonal composer," Whittall points out that "[f]or Carter, the all-triad (or all-trichord) hexachord (ATH) -  - became one such constraining construct..." (58) "...Carter's use of such hexachords, as lines and as chords, is a mark of identity in his musical language, a source or resource which has come to signify for him the plenitude and freedom inherent in post-tonal composition" (60). Great stuff. (The number of the chord comes from Carter's "Harmony Book.")
Carter's view of music as freedom is spelled out further a little later. In 1984, agreeing with Adorno on the "regression of listening ability," Carter:
"diagnosed 'a loss of the wish to pay attention to music' as 'one of many types of of breakdown of communication we are faced with at a time when focused attention [is] needed more than ever in our democratic and highly complex society, where choices of citizens are so important for their own welfare.' At the same time he declared that 'music that is mechanically ordered like some minimalist or some popular music seems to me pointless as it does not give any sense of being alive'" (62).
Whittall's central argument is that Carter employs a post-tonal thematicism, using what Boulez refers to as "recognizable musical objects" (67). If so, they are not easily recognizable, and his case is not strong, but it is suggestive and fascinating, and well worth reading for anyone who enjoys Carter's music.
Carter himself said in 1959: "...my music has sought mainly two things -- to deal with vertical and horizontal dimensions in a more varied way than is usually done -- I try to find continuities that gain meaning, change, and operate on a level that is parallel to our present experience of living" (57).
Schmidt's essay on the string quartets illuminates the connections with Bartok and especially with Schoenberg and serialism. In a discussion of the First Quartet, drawing on Carter's sketches, Schmidt reveals Carter's tetrachords, one of them using "a system of permutations on a twelve-tone row which Carter divides into two, three, four, and six-tone segements, combining their original and retrograde forms and finally interlacing row segments, the way Schoenberg and Berg also did (183). After further discussion of tetrachords and hexachords, the author concludes that "...Carter's starting point for systematic thinking about pitch was apparently twelve-tone rows and related permutations... At the same time, while working on the First Quartet, he went beyond serial thought by trying out chord structures that seem to anticipate the thought process that led to the Harmony Book" (184). Carter compiled the book throughout the 1960s, and it was fully assembled by 1975 (43). By the time of the Third Quartet, "...Carter creates a consistent harmonic space that provides both a concrete architecture of pitch as well as an interconnected abstract system of intervals and chord classes" (186-7).
A composer interested in exploring Carter would no doubt be better served by the scores and the Harmony Book. But for those who are not composers or musicologists but avid Carter listeners, this book is of great value. No doubt others will find different essays that are useful and interesting.
(verified library loan)