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ClassicsOnline Home » CARTER: Piano Concerto / Symphony No. 1 / Holiday Overture
Elliott Carter, often called the most eminent living American composer, is still actively composing at the age of 95. Famous for highly demanding scores using extraordinarily sophisticated rhythms, Carter is a prime architect of modernist music in the United States. The three orchestral works presented here include two works from Carter’s little-known earlier ‘populist’ style of the 1940s, the Holiday Overture and Symphony No. 1, with his spiky Piano Concerto from 1965. This is an unprecedented combination of repertoire, revealing that Carter composed highly individual, complex works, as well as more approachable pieces.
Penguin Guide Key Recording
By Grant Chu Covell
By Arnold Whittall
Elliott Carter (b. 1908)
Holiday Overture • Symphony No. 1 • Piano Concerto
While no one will ever agree on who is the most important living American composer, Elliott Carter is often called the most eminent, which is difficult to dispute. Now 95 years old and actively composing for eight decades, Carter spans nearly the entire twentieth century and the beginning of the 21st. Famous for highly demanding atonal scores using extraordinarily sophisticated rhythms, Carter is a prime architect of modernist music in the United States. Among his most important works are: the Double Concerto for Piano and Harpsichord with Two Chamber Orchestras, which Stravinsky hailed as a masterpiece, a Concerto for Orchestra which Bernstein championed, a Grammy-winning Violin Concerto, and five string quartets, often hailed as the most important works in the genre since Bartók, two of which were awarded Pulitzers. His most recent compositions include his first opera, What Next?, and a Cello Concerto for Yo-Yo Ma.
The three orchestral works presented here span only two decades, a seemingly insignificant time frame considering Carter’s longevity, but the Holiday Overture and Symphony No. 1, both composed in the 1940s, and the Piano Concerto from 1965 initially feel universes apart. However, this unprecedented combination of two works from Carter’s little-known earlier “populist” style with one of the most seemingly forbidding works from his mature difficult style reveal that the young Carter nonetheless composed highly individual complex works and that later Carter is more approachable than most people think.
Each work emotionally captures an important moment in Carter’s life. The Holiday Overture celebrates the Allied liberation of France. The symphony conjures up Cape Cod seascapes and the natural landscapes of New Mexico where the music was written. The sonic divisiveness of the piano concerto was a direct response to the then newly-built Berlin Wall. Deeper listening reveals many common threads such as creating larger structures from linking episodes rather than traditional development, chamber music approaches to orchestration where the orchestra’s many voices often function as individuals, a love of elaborate polyphony engendered at least in part from compositional studies in Paris with the great French pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, and music that no matter how rigorous is not afraid of occasionally being humorous. Many of Carter’s compositional devices also hark back to Carter’s boyhood mentor Charles Ives, whose maverick works no matter how complicated always had a direct impact.
The Holiday Overture was composed on Fire Island (NY) during the summer of 1944 and reflects the general uplifting spirit of most American concert music composed then. France’s liberation, while especially meaningful for Carter who spent three years in Paris, was a decisive American victory and an early harbinger of the Allied triumph ending World War Two the following year. A triumphant attitude permeates the overture, perhaps Carter’s most bravado music. Yet, even though it sounds almost antithetical to the introspective multi-layerings he would embark on only a few years later, Carter considers the overture transitional. In his 1970 essay The Orchestral Composer’s Point of View (reprinted in Collected Essays and Lectures, University of Rochester), Carter claims the overture was his first composition “to use consciously the notion of simultaneously contrasting layers of musical activity, which characterizes most of my more recent work”. Syncopated themes, while nowhere near his later staggering rhythmic complexity, already sit uncomfortably within measures of common time and already become a tangled web of cross rhythms and dissonances. Although the overture celebrates a major German defeat, it ironically received its first performance in Germany.
Winner of the 1945 Independent Concert Music Publisher’s Contest, which was to have insured a Boston Symphony première under Koussevitzky (one of the judges), the overture was instead first performed in Frankfurt under Celibidache, conducting musicians reading from parts photostatted by Carter, who in frustration, smuggled the originals out of the Symphony’s library after many months of waiting in vain for the première. Carter revised the score in 1961, and the Boston Symphony later on more than made up for their negligence by commissioning and giving the first performance of the Piano Concerto.
Though completed in Santa Fe in December 1942, parts of Symphony No. 1 date to the mid-1930s and were originally part of the early ballet score Pocahontas, among the earliest music by Carter that he still acknowledges. Other parts of the symphony, such as lush string chords opening the first movement, date to the work’s revision in 1954 after Carter’s music had already undergone a radical transformation. Although called Symphony No. 1, to date there has never been a Symphony No. 2. “Symphony” appears in only two other Carter titles: A Symphony of Three Orchestras (1977), and his recent orchestral triptych, Symphonia: sum fluxae pretium spei (1993-96). Compared with these massive works, Symphony No. 1 is much humbler. Scored for a small orchestra and employing mostly diatonic harmonic vocabulary, it also sounds far removed from Carter’s subsequent musical interests. Yet, as in the Holiday Overture, there are hints of the later Carter.
In the first movement, two basic pulses occur simultaneously throughout creating cross rhythms in a 3/2 ratio. Tempos also change constantly, a technique Carter later refined into his trademark metrical modulation where speed is transformed by superimposing differing tempos and then removing one. The second movement presents a long expansive melody which grows without developing, foreshadowing the extremely long development-less melodies throughout Carter’s later music. The finale, probably the earliest of the three movements to be composed, is the most populist, containing a jazzy clarinet solo and square dance-tinged violin lines.
Carter’s Piano Concerto, dedicated to Stravinsky on his 85th birthday, was composed a full generation after the Symphony and the Holiday Overture. Though the earliest of his solo concertos, it is in many ways the least concerto-like. By the mid 1960s, Carter had already built the foundations of a brand new music through chamber works where different musical strands were presented simultaneously for the sake of contrasting rather than blending, where differences between instrumental lines became more emphasized than similarities. Carter was eager to expand this idea to orchestral music but the orchestra’s institutional nature greatly discouraged his experimentation.
Between the Holiday Overture and the Piano Concerto, Carter composed few orchestral works, a ballet, The Minotaur; the Elegy for Strings, orchestrating a chamber piece, the Variations for Orchestra which employed a dissonant harmonic language but with relatively straight-forward rhythms and orchestration, and the revolutionary Double Concerto which completely revamped the way orchestra members were distributed as well as how they interacted with one another, resulting in music that more closely resembles a large scale chamber work than an orchestral piece. The Piano Concerto refines the approach initiated in the Double Concerto. Rather than pitting the piano directly against the orchestra which Carter refers to as “a society of sounds”, the piano is protected from direct confrontation with the orchestra by a concertino group of seven musicians, flute, English horn, bass clarinet, solo violin, solo viola, solo cello, solo double bass, which Carter describes as “mediators”. That group shares similar material with the piano whose rapid-fire music is in stark contrast to the “elaborate ambiance” of the rest of the orchestra whose musical materials consist of longer sustained harmonies derived from a completely different set of triads. That is not to say that the orchestra functions as a monolith, at times there are up to 72 different parts going on simultaneously containing as many as eight distinct rhythmic layers combining simultaneous accelerations, retardations and regular beating.
Divided into two roughly equal-length movements, the Concerto begins and ends with unaccompanied piano. In the first movement, the concertino group engages in dialogue with the piano with occasional intrusions from the orchestra which remains mostly subdued. In the second movement, the orchestra explodes in a brutal sonic assault eventually disappearing, leaving only the piano and the concertino group, with the piano alone quietly having the last word. It is the opposite of the glorious fanfares in Carter’s earlier music, but it’s ultimately still heroic. Though one of Carter’s most astringent scores, when heard in the context of his earlier, more approachable works, the Concerto can be heard in a new light. Like his earlier music, it brims with relentless energy. Behind the web of layers, lurks a powerful and deeply moving tour-de-force.
Frank J. Oteri
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CARTER: Piano Concerto / Symphony No. 1 / Holiday ...