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Music in the Late Twentieth Century

CHAPTER 6 Standoff (II)

Music in History: Carter

CHAPTER 6 Standoff (II)
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin


Perhaps inevitably, the most widely noticed rejoinder to meet Britten's outspoken Aspen address (and the music it defended) came from Stravinsky, who went out of his way to deride the War Requiem and its social reception in an essay on recent music, ghostwritten by his assistant Robert Craft, that was first published in 1964 (the year of the lecture) and reissued in book form two years later.

“Behold the critics as they vie in abasement before the wonder of native-born genius,”1 Stravinsky scoffed. He compared Britten with Hermann Goetz (1840–76), a forgotten German composer who enjoyed a rapturous critical promotion during his lifetime and for a few decades thereafter (George Bernard Shaw placing him “above all other German composers of the last hundred years save only Mozart and Beethoven”2 —that is, above Wagner and Brahms). The inadequacies of Britten's “cinemascope epic” are sneeringly catalogued: “patterns rather than inventions,” “an absence of real counterpoint,” “a bounteous presence of literalisms” (like the use of timpani strokes where the text mentions “the drums of time”), and the “sedative” use of the organ. The concluding jab, “nothing fails like success,” makes explicit the underlying premise that giving pleasure to one's contemporaries precludes a genuinely “historical” achievement.

Stravinsky's ardent denunciation of the War Requiem gains added resonance in counterpoint with another ghostwritten review he had published slightly earlier, in which he had gone just as far out of his way to praise Elliott Carter's Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano with Two Chamber Orchestras (1961), a choice example of what Britten had termed “Foundation Music.” It had been commissioned, and the many rehearsals that preceded the first performance had been underwritten, by the Fromm Music Foundation, to whose sponsor, Paul Fromm, the work was dedicated. Ex. 6-1 shows a representative page (far from the most complicated) from the Concerto's score, chosen because Stravinsky happened to single it out for praise.

Chapter 6 Standoff (II)

fig. 6-1 Elliott Carter; photo, 1991.

Chapter 6 Standoff (II)

ex. 6-1 Elliott Carter, Double Concerto, p. 101 of the score

Surely the first thing that leaps out is how difficult this music must be to perform. The extreme fluidity of both rhythm and tempo are its most conspicuous features, closely followed by the enormous variety of detail, a bit bewildering in music so quiet. The atomistic texture is typical. Absent is anything that looks like a theme; instead there is a montage of rhythmic patterns, the majority of them consisting of strings of notes of equal value (allowing for the ubiquitous group accelerandos and ritardandos). Their interplay is what provides continuity and interest. It would be very difficult to deduce the harmonic principles that guide the counterpoint. Experimental analysis would quickly show that the music, while freely chromatic and fully “emancipated” in terms of dissonance treatment, cannot be referred to a tone row.

To guide listeners through this very unusual composition at the premiere, the composer offered the following program note, which was reprinted as the sleeve note for a recording, also subsidized by the Fromm Foundation, that was issued shortly afterward. (It is quoted in full except for the first sentence, which repeats information given above):

Completed in August, 1961, it is an antiphonal work for two small orchestras each led by one of the soloists. The harpsichord is associated with an ensemble of flute, horn, trumpet, trombone, viola, contra-bass and percussion (largely metallophones and lignophones [i.e., instruments made of metal and wood]) while the piano is joined by an ensemble of oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, cello and percussion (largely membranophones [i.e. drums with skin heads]). In addition to being isolated in space and timbre, the antiphonal groups are partially separated musically by the fact that each emphasizes its own repertory of melodic and harmonic intervals, the harpsichord ensemble: minor seconds, minor thirds, perfect fourths, augmented fourths, minor sixths, minor sevenths and minor ninths; the piano ensemble: major seconds, major thirds, perfect fifths, major sixths, major sevenths and major ninths. Each of these intervals is associated, for the most part, with a certain metronomic speed with the result that the speeds and their inter-relationships are also different for the two groups. Rhythmically the harpsichord is apt to specialize in derivations of the polyrhythm four against seven, while the piano ensemble uses five against three. These fields of specialization of the two groups are not carried out rigorously throughout the work but give way to the more important considerations which come from the fact that the two groups not only have different repertories of musical characters, gestures, logic, expression, and “behavioral” patterns, but that all of these are meant to be combined with each group and from group to group and result in recognizable overall patterns. The motion of the work is from comparative unity with slight character differences to greater and greater diversity of material and character and a return to unity. The form is that of confrontations of diversified action-patterns and a presentation of their mutual interreactions, conflicts, and resolutions, their growth and decay over various stretches of time.

The Concerto, although continuous, falls into seven large interconnected sections. During the Introduction, the two groups in becoming progressively more differentiated state each facet of their material with greater and greater definition. The Cadenza for harpsichord presents in condensed form all the salient characteristics, rhythms and intervals of its ensemble. The Allegro scherzando is primarily for the piano ensemble with brief interruptions and comments by the other group. An Adagio, largely for the winds of both groups accompanied by accelerating and retarding figurations by the two soloists and the percussion joined occasionally by the strings, follows, and is concluded by an extended duet for the two soloists meeting at a stage in the piano's acceleration and the harpsichord's retardation only to separate as the piano proceeds toward its maximum speed while the harpsichord and its percussion proceed toward their minimum speed simultaneously.

The Presto is for harpsichord and all the other instruments except the percussion and the piano, which later constantly interrupts with fragments of the Adagio. Twice this soloist breaks into a short cadenza based on other elements of its material and its second cadenza leads to an amplification of the questioning inflections of the Presto by all the instruments with the percussion dominating. After a brief pause, the work closes with an extended Coda, using the entire ensemble in a series of long-phased oscillations (that include many subsidiary short-phased ones) from one group to the other, during which previous ideas are recalled in new contexts. Reversing the general plan of the Introduction (although not the musical one) these fragments lose their definition bit by bit, become shorter, sometimes more condensed, more dispersed, gradually merging into the slow waves of percussion rolls that move according to the basic polyrhythmic structure of the whole work.3

This fairly lengthy note has been quoted in full just to show how uninformative it is. Except for the matter of the relationship between intervals and metronomic speeds, which is left unexplained and arcane, the composer has disclosed nothing that an attentive hearing would not have revealed, perhaps with a peek at the score to corroborate the point about intervallic “repertories.” (A glance at the double bass part in Ex. 6-1 will mostly confirm the intervallic repertory of the “harpsichord ensemble;” the wind and cello parts will do the same for the “piano ensemble.”) In this it does not differ from the average descriptive sleeve note, often the work of office hacks. Nowhere is there any indication of purpose, whether for the assignment of intervals, or the “behavioral patterns,” or the “polyrhythmic structure,” or even for the sequence of events, the blow-by-blow narrative to which most of the note's detail is devoted. In other words, the description is entirely “formalist,” predicated on Clement Greenberg's assumption, quoted in the previous chapter, that an artwork's form is tantamount to its content, and that (in the case of music) nothing beyond the sounds themselves requires description, let alone explanation.

The only hint at purpose or content comes in the single sentence where “action-patterns” are described in terms of confrontations, interreactions, conflicts, resolutions, growth, and decay, all of these being human actions and life phases. Of course the use of such terms to describe the behavior of musical sounds had a long history by 1961, and it is by no means certain that those who read the note would necessarily think of the literal meaning of the words, or that they were meant to. Nor is any clue given as to what such actions might signify, or (to fasten only on the most obvious musical question) what constitutes a resolution in such a harmonic idiom. The sentence is no more helpful, in other words, than the rest. Take the word “time” out of the sentence, in fact, and it could as easily have been a description of a painting as of a musical composition. Such language might easily have slid unnoticed into an essay or review about abstract expressionist canvases—say an “action” painting by Jackson Pollock—of a kind that by 1961 dominated the museum world and the art market.

The central Adagio, in which rhythm and tempo are at their runniest, is sampled in Ex. 6-2. The ingenious notation, which allows a single conductor to coordinate simultaneously steady, accelerating, and retarding tempi, actually disguises the central fact that the wind instruments (the slowest-moving parts) play at a steady rate. The score, in other words, looks altogether different from how the music is meant to sound—itself a fascinating aspect of the piece, if a somewhat baffling one. But why is all of this happening? Carter does not tell.

Britten would have spoken here of snobbery. Stravinsky, for his part, emphasized the Concerto's “interesting performance problems,”4 commended Carter's choice of historical model (Berg's Chamber Concerto, he thought), then cheerfully confessed himself unable to understand the all but peerlessly patterned, detail-heavy music except in the broadest “gestural” terms. Giving it a twelve-tone pedigree suggests that Stravinsky was actually mistaken as to its technical premises, probably having made no attempt to parse its syntax. But Stravinsky did not think it ill bred of Carter to address him in a language he did not understand. Indeed, its very inscrutability magnified the Concerto's appeal, giving it an aura to which Stravinsky reacted as if to a religious revelation, declaring, “analysis as little explains a masterpiece or calls it into being as an ontological proof explains or causes the existence of God.”5 Then came the words that have been endlessly repeated in the literature that has grown up around Carter's music: “There, the word is out. A masterpiece, by an American composer.” A masterpiece exists as such even (or especially?) when no one understands it, Stravinsky seems to imply. The process through which one recognizes a masterpiece, then, has more to do with pedigree than with cognitive intercommunication—with history, that is, not with society—and it is a matter of faith. Difficulty—especially conspicuous in Carter's music of the 1960s and 1970s, which had the most intricately detailed textures, the most complicated surfaces, and the most abstruse notation of any music of its time—was itself taken as an earnest of masterpiece status, as religious disclosure unveils what the Bible calls a “truth that passeth all understanding.” It is remarkable that Stravinsky, who derided British critics for their “abasement” before a false masterpiece, assumed that very same stance to acknowledge what he took to be a true one.

Charles Rosen, the pianist in the first performance of the Double Concerto, offered a secular variation of Stravinsky's piety when he wrote that “it is important for a radically new work to be understood only little by little and too late,” because “that is the only tangible proof we have of its revolutionary character.”6 On the face of it both Rosen's and Stravinsky's remarks are examples of a special kind of tautology known as the assumption of a false converse: if masterpieces are inscrutable, then what is inscrutable is a masterpiece; if what is revolutionary is understood too late, then what is not understood now is revolutionary.

Chapter 6 Standoff (II)Chapter 6 Standoff (II)

ex. 6-2 Elliott Carter, Double Concerto, Adagio, mm. 360–374

Understood within the ideology of romantic historicism and its modernist extensions, the remarks are not difficult to interpret. If artists live only in evolutionary history, then their work has validity only to the extent that it makes a contribution to evolution. The most obvious contributions to evolution are revolutions. They address the future rather than the present. The only proper contemporary audience for a contemporary masterpiece, then, consists of evolutionary historians, whose awareness of historical process allows them to extrapolate from the past to the future. And sure enough, Carter's Double Concerto was given its very successful first performance at a concert held at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art in conjunction with the Eighth Congress of the International Society for Musicology, at a time when evolutionary historicist views thoroughly dominated academic music studies. Carter's Concerto, from the moment of its unveiling, was a historic work in the narrowest sense of the word—the sense that, according to the ideology we have been tracing, specifically excluded the social.


(1) Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft, Themes and Episodes (New York: Knopf, 1966), p. 13–14.

(2) The World, 22 November 1893; in Bernard Shaw, Music in London 1890–94, Vol. III (New York: Vienna House, 1973), p. 100.

(3) Elliott Carter, liner note to Epic Records BC 1157 (1962).

(4) Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft, Dialogues and a Diary (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1963), p. 48.

(5) Ibid. p. 49.

(6) Charles Rosen, “One Easy Piece,” New York Review of Books, February 1973; in Rosen, Critical Entertainments (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), pp. 283–84.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 6 Standoff (II)." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 21 Sep. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-chapter-006.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 6 Standoff (II). In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 21 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-chapter-006.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 6 Standoff (II)." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 21 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-chapter-006.xml