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ClassicsOnline Home » CARTER, E.: 100th Anniversary Release - Mosaic / Dialogue / Solo Pieces (New Music Concerts, Aitken)
By David Denton
Last year Elliott Carter, the grandfather of America’s cutting edge musical modernity, reached his 100th birthday, this disc being issued to mark that milestone. Unswervingly his life has been devoted to the concept of atonality, and he leaves to future generations his concept of abstract music. “Each new piece is a crisis in my life”, he has written, but he has never looked backwards, always attempting to press music into new directions. A young studied at Harvard, he moved to Paris to work with Nadia Boulanger, but returned to the States without a developed musical objective. It was to take some years before he found that personal voice, often taking years before a projected work came to fruition. As he grew older he became increasingly productive, one of his most active period coming when already turned seventy. Regular readers will know of my difficulty in coming to terms with his style, but much of this disc of chamber and instrumental music—written since he was 80—I have much enjoyed. The first and second Figment takes the solo cello into unchartered and fascinating territory while remaining within the confines of traditional sound. Mosaic and Dialogues for mixed ensembles are the two most extensive scores and offer unusual sound spectrums as if looking into a musical kaleidoscope. They surround eight tracks of shorter pieces including the highly attractive Gra (meaning ‘play’ in Polish) for solo clarinet, and for flute and cello the intriguing Enchanted Preludes. The recorded sound is overly reverberant for the two ensemble works, but elsewhere is good, and the playing of the New Music Concerts Ensemble, mostly derived from leading Canadian orchestras, is most persuasive. If the attached composer’s ‘live’ interview DVD, made when Carter was 97, is not one for frequent repetition, it is a nice souvenir of the composer and it comes with the CD.
Elliott Carter (b. 1908)
100th Anniversary Release
Twice winner of the Pulitzer Prize, first composer to receive the United States National Medal of Arts, one of the few composers ever awarded Germany’s Ernst Von Siemens Music Prize, and in 1988 made Commandeur dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the Government of France, Elliott Carter is internationally recognized as one of the leading American voices of the classical music tradition. He recently received the Prince Pierre Foundation Music Award, bestowed by the Principality of Monaco, and was one of a handful of living composers elected to the Classical Music Hall of Fame.
11 December, 2008, will mark Carter’s hundredth birthday with celebration plans in place worldwide. In collaboration with G. Schirmer, Boosey & Hawkes has launched a centenary website, www.carter100.com, to chronicle and announce the exciting hundredth-birthday season. It will, no doubt, prove to be even more successful than his 95th birthday celebration season, which brought salutes from performing organizations around the world. Concerts in Boston, London, Los Angeles, Minsk, New York, Washington DC, and other cities observed the milestone, as significant recordings were issued on the ECM, Naïve, and Mode labels.
First encouraged toward a musical career by his friend and mentor Charles Ives, Carter was recognized by the Pulitzer Prize Committee for the first time in 1960 for his groundbreaking compositions for the string quartet medium, and was soon thereafter hailed by Stravinsky for his Double Concerto for harpsichord, piano and two chamber orchestras (1961) and Piano Concerto (1967), both of which Stravinsky dubbed “masterpieces”. While he spent much of the 1960s working on just two works, the Piano Concerto and Concerto for Orchestra (1969), the breakthroughs he achieved in those pieces led to an artistic resurgence that gathered momentum in the decades that followed. Indeed, one of the extraordinary features of Carter’s career is his astonishing productivity and creative vitality as he reaches the midpoint of his tenth decade. Critics agree that his recent scores are among the most attractive, deeply-felt and compelling works he has ever written.
This creative burst began in earnest during the 1980s, which brought major orchestral essays such as the Oboe Concerto (1986–87), Three Occasions (completed 1989) and his enormously successful Violin Concerto (1990), which has been performed in more than a dozen countries. A recording of the latter work on Virgin Classics, featuring Oliver Knussen conducting the London Sinfonietta with soloist Ole Böhn, won Carter a Grammy for Best Contemporary Composition of 1994. New recordings of Carter’s music appear continually, making him one of the most frequently recorded contemporary composers.
Carter’s crowning achievement as an orchestral composer may be his fifty-minute triptych Symphonia: sum fluxae pretium spei [“I am the prize of flowing hope”], which received its first integral performance on 25 April, 1998, with Oliver Knussen conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra as part of the ISCM World Music Days in Manchester. A prize-winning recording of Symphonia by Knussen and the BBCSO has been released on Deutsche Grammophon. It is paired with Carter’s lively and playful Clarinet Concerto (1996), which has traveled widely in performances by the Ensemble InterContemporain, Orpheus, London Sinfonietta, Ensemble Modern, and several other distinguished ensembles. Those works were followed by a pair of works for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra: Cello Concerto (2000), given its première by Yo-Yo Ma with the orchestra, and Of Rewaking (2002), an orchestral cycle of three songs on texts by William Carlos Williams; Daniel Barenboim led the premières of both works. Boston Concerto, commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and given its première by the ensemble under Ingo Metzmacher, also made its début in 2003 and has recently been nominated for the 49th Annual Grammy Awards in the category “Best Contemporary Composition”.
The composer’s astonishing late-career creative burst has continued unabated: the first few weeks of 2004 brought a pair of acclaimed new scores: Micomicon, a witty concert-opener for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and the incisive Dialogues for piano and large ensemble, commissioned by the London Sinfonietta. France enjoyed the world première of Réflexions at Cité de la Musique in February of 2005 and celebrated Carter’s work with multiple ovations. Back in the United States, the Boston Symphony Orchestra brought Carter’s Three Illusions for Orchestra to life in October 2005, a piece which the Boston Globe calls “surprising, inevitable, and vividly orchestrated”, while in the same month Daniel Barenboim assumed both the rôle of conductor and of pianist in the world première of Soundings with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Carter’s first opera, What Next?, commissioned by the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin, was introduced there in 1999 under Daniel Barenboim and made its staged première in July 2006 at the Tanglewood Music Festival under James Levine. The 45-minute work, to a libretto by Paul Griffiths, comments wryly on the human condition as its six characters, unhurt but confused, confront the aftermath of an auto accident. What Next? has been hailed by critics from around the world for its wit, assured vocal writing, and refined orchestration and has been issued by ECM, paired with Asko Concerto.
Carter continues to show his mastery in smaller forms as well. Along with a large number of brief solo and chamber works, his later years have brought major essays such as Triple Duo (1983), Quintet (piano and winds, 1991), and String Quartet No. 5 (1995), composed for the Arditti Quartet. Another dedicated advocate of Carter’s music, Ursula Oppens, joined forces with the Arditti Quartet to give the première of Quintet for Piano and String Quartet in November 1998 at the Library of Congress’s Coolidge Auditorium in Washington, followed by tour performances throughout Europe and the United States. Recent works include Asko Concerto, written for Holland’s ASKO ensemble, and Tempo e Tempi, a song cycle on Italian texts for soprano, oboe, clarinet, violin, and cello. Recent premières of chamber works include the playfully humorous Mosaic, with the Nash Ensemble in 2005 as well as three premières in 2006: Intermittences, a piano solo cocommissioned by Carnegie Hall Corporation and The Gilmore International Keyboard Festival and performed by Peter Serkin, In the Distances of Sleep, with Michelle DeYoung and the MET Chamber Ensemble under James Levine, and Caténaires, a solo piano piece performed by Pierre-Laurent Aimard. A new Horn Concerto was premièred in November 2007.
Bridge Records recently released Vol. 7 of the extensive series of recordings entitled The Music of Elliott Carter, which includes ASKO Concerto, and world première recordings of Grammy-nominated Boston Concerto, Cello Concerto, and 2005 Pulitzer finalist Dialogues. Volume 6, released in 2005, included Violin Concerto, Holiday Overture, and Four Lauds.
A native of New York City, Carter has been compared as an artist to another New Yorker, Henry James, with whom he is seen to share multifaceted richness of vision and fastidiousness of craft based on intimate familiarity with Western (and in Carter’s case, non-Western) artistic traditions. Like Henry James, Carter and his work reflect the impress of a lasting and deeply felt relationship with Europe, a relationship dating from adolescent travels with his father, nourished by study of the fruits of European artistic and intellectual culture, and cemented by a threeyear course of musical training in Paris with Nadia Boulanger during the period 1932–1935. Enriched through wide acquaintance with European artists, including many, such as Bartók and Stravinsky, who came to America during World War II, Carter has seen his work as widely appreciated and as actively encouraged overseas as in his own country. In 1987 the Paul Sacher Foundation moved to acquire all Carter’s musical manuscripts, to be permanently maintained in a public archive in Basel alongside similarly comprehensive deposits of the manuscripts of Stravinsky, Boulez, Bartók, Hindemith, Strauss and other universally acknowledged twentieth-century masters.
Elliott Carter is published by Boosey & Hawkes.
January 2007 (Reprinted by kind permission of Boosey & Hawkes)
Mosaic (2005) for solo harp and seven instruments.
Carlos Salzedo, the extraordinary harpist, was a member of the small group of modernists that surrounded Varèse and Ives in the 1920s and 1930s and has remained a memory which I cherish. His unusual developments in harp technique always seemed to me too infrequently explored in recent times. So in writing Mosaic, commissioned by the Nash Ensemble, I decided to explore many of his exciting inventions to recall his friendship in the early 1930s. The score is formed by many short mosaic-like tessera that I hope make one coordinated impression.
Scrivo In Vento (1991) for solo flute.
Scrivo In Vento, for flute alone, dedicated to the wonderful flautist and friend, Robert Aitken, takes its title from a poem by Petrarch, who lived in and around Avignon from 1326 to 1353. It uses the flute to present contrasting musical ideas and registers to suggest the paradoxical nature of the poem. It was first performed on 20 July 1991 (coincidentally on Petrarch’s 687th birthday) at the XVIIIe Recontres de la Chartreuse of the Centre Acanthes devoted to my music at the Festival of Avignon, France, by Robert Aitken.
GRA (1993) for solo clarinet.
GRA (‘Play’ in Polish) for solo clarinet, was written as a tribute to my dear friend, Witold Lutosławski, to commemorate his eightieth birthday. During the twentyfive or so years that I have known Witold, I have never ceased to admire his impressive works and his gracious personality. This clarinet piece combines frequently changing, playful characters together (all based on the same material) and recalls to me my many delighted visits with the composer in America and Poland.
Enchanted Preludes (1988) for flute and cello.
Enchanted Preludes is a birthday present for Ann Santen, commissioned by her husband, Harry, and composed in gratitude for their enthusiastic and deeply caring support of American music. It is a duet for flute and cello in which the two instruments combine their different characters and musical materials into statements of varying moods. The title comes from a poem of Wallace Stevens: The Pure Good of Theory, “All the Preludes to Felicity”, stanza No. 7:
Felicity, ah! Time is the hooded enemy,
The inimical music, the enchanted space
In which the enchanted preludes have their place.
The score was given its first performance by Patricia Spencer, flute, and André Emelianoff, cello, of the Da Capo Chamber Players in New York, on 16th May, 1988.
Steep Steps (2001) for solo bass clarinet. Steep Steps was written for the greatly admired clarinetist and friend, Virgil Blackwell, during the summer of 2001. Its title comes from the fact that, unlike the other woodwind instruments, the clarinet overblows at the twelfth, a large interval that forms the basis of much of this composition.
Figment No. 1 (1994) for solo cello. The idea of composing a solo cello piece had been in the back of my mind for many years, especially since so many cellists had been urging me to do so. When Thomas Demenga asked me for this at my 85th birthday concert in Basel (in 1994) for a concert he was giving sponsored by the Naumberg Foundation in New York, I soon set to work. Thomas Demenga had already impressed me greatly when he played some of my chamber works at my eightieth birthday concert in Badenweiler, Germany, and especially by his wonderful recording of these works for ECM, New Series. Figment, for cello solo, presents a variety of contrasting, dramatic moments, using material derived from one musical idea.
Riconoscenza (1984) for solo violin. Riconoscenza per Goffredo Petrassi, for solo violin, was composed for the 1984 Festival Pontino celebrating the eightieth birthday of Petrassi, Italy’s foremost living composer. It was first performed at a festival concert in the medieval refectory of the Abbey of Fossanova, Priverno, Italy, by Georg Mönch on 15th June, 1984.
Figment No. 2 (Remembering Mr. Ives) (2001) for solo cello. Figment No. 2 was composed in the spring of 2001 as a present for the wonderful American cellist Fred Sherry, who with his outstanding instrumental and organizational abilities and his boundless enthusiasms has done so much for music. This short Figment for solo cello recalls fragmentarily bits of the Thoreau movement of the Concord Sonata and Hallowe’en by my late friend Charles Ives, whose music I have known since 1924 and have loved these works in particular.
Rhapsodic Musings (1999) for solo violin. Rhapsodic Musings is a present to Robert Mann on his eightieth birthday. It is a small tribute to his extraordinary, devoted advocacy of contemporary music. As is wellknown, with the other members of the Juilliard Quartet he gave such pioneering and commanding performances of quartets by Bartók, Schoenberg, and many others, including my own, that many of these works became part of the performers’ repertory. His teaching and other activities brought these scores to the attention of students. Using his initials R. M. in the title of this short violin solo and in its main motive—re, mi (D, E)—this piece tries to suggest some of his remarkable human and artistic qualities. It was composed in June, 2000, in Southbury, Connecticut.
Dialogues (2004) for solo piano and eighteen instruments. Dialogues for piano and chamber orchestra is a conversation between the soloist and the orchestra: responding to each other, sometimes interrupting the other, or arguing. The single varied movement is entirely derived from a small group of harmonies and rhythms. Commissioned by the BBC for the brilliant young pianist, Nicolas Hodges, it was composed in New York during 2003.
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