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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 6 Standoff (II)
Richard Taruskin

By the time Stravinsky and Rosen made their remarks, the view they upheld of Carter's music, and of musical value generally, accorded closely with the composer's own. But unlike them, Carter had evolved by slow degrees to the position they assumed as a given. Unlike Britten's, his development as a composer was sluggish and tortuous. The son of a wealthy lace importer, he never had to earn a living from his musical activity and was not particularly ambitious in his youth. His early training exactly paralleled Virgil Thomson's a decade earlier. From Harvard's Francophile music department he went to Paris to study for three years (1932–35) with Nadia Boulanger and came home a confirmed “neoclassicist.”

During the following decade, that of the Great Depression and the Second World War, his music conformed to the pastoral and Americanist idioms associated with Copland, whom he praised in a 1939 review for discovering “a kind of beautiful simplicity which bears a definite spiritual relationship to the simple, direct, and honest people of this continent.”7 That same year Carter's ballet Pocahontas had its premiere performance by Ballet Caravan on a program that also included Copland's Billy the Kid. For his Symphony (1942), he took as a model Roy Harris's Third, in the words of Carter's pupil and biographer David Schiff “the unavoidable Great American Symphony of the day.”8 In one respect, however, Carter's background differed significantly from those of his colleagues in the Boulangerie. As a teenager he had met and been befriended by Charles Ives, who was then nearing the end of his active career as a composer. Thus, even before his exposure to Nadia Boulanger he was familiar with, and affected by, the “ultramodern” American music, unknown in Europe, that Ives was bankrolling as the primary sponsor of Henry Cowell's New Music Editions: Ives's own music (particularly the Fourth Symphony, the Concord Sonata, and Three Places in New England) and the work of Cowell (both his music and his “idea-book” New Musical Resources), Carl Ruggles, and Ruth Crawford Seeger.

This was a music of optimistic romantic spirit and enthusiastic experimentalism that retained a strong maximalist thrust in the face of European retrenchment. His formative exposure to it caused psychological problems for Carter during his years of study with Boulanger (one of the retrenchment's guiding spirits) and during his flirtation with the going American populism of the Roosevelt years. Its influence may have hindered his “populist” music from making the easy contact with its intended audience that Copland's enjoyed. In any case, Carter came to see his “social” overtures as unrequited.

At the same time, Boulanger's impressive mastery of traditional craftsmanship and her pedagogical emphasis on professionalism made Carter somewhat squeamish about the provincial American modernism that had nurtured him before his European sojourn. He betrayed his ambivalence in a condescending review of Ives's Concord Sonata, faulting it for its conventional (that is, romantic) rhetoric, its lack of formal logic, and an esthetic sensibility that is “often too naive to express serious thoughts, frequently depending on quotation of well-known American tunes, with little comment, possibly charming, but certainly trivial.”9 The review caused a painful and permanent rift in Carter's personal relations with his former mentor; but of course he was writing to and about himself and his own creative impasse, giving advice not to Ives but to himself. It took him a decade to reconcile the contradictions in his own esthetic sensibility; and he only succeeded by resolutely purging it of social aspirations.

Over that decade Carter came back to terms with his “ultramodern” inheritance, in a series of works that on the one hand aspired, or reaspired, to the epic rhetoric of the Concord Sonata, which was ultimately traceable to the “transcendent” image of Beethoven that Ives worshiped. This leaning is especially noticeable in Carter's own burly and virtuosic Piano Sonata of 1946. On the other hand, his works of the forties embodied a “problem-solving” attitude toward technique that seemed to put the composer's professional interests front and center, suggesting the research model of modernism already encountered in John Cage and the postwar serialists both in America and in Europe (and anticipated by Cowell's handbook). Carter began to acquire the reputation of a musician's musician—an “original, responsible, serious, adult composer,” in the words of his friend and champion Richard Franko Goldman, “whose gifts have not been fully understood or widely appreciated,” who “regards each new work as being in some respects a problem peculiar to itself,” and who, in consequence, writes “music never lacking in skill but sometimes ingeniously uninteresting.”10

In the Piano Sonata, piano resonance itself—novel effects obtained by the use of the sostenuto pedal and by silently depressing keys—was the object of technical investigation (not that these effects were unrelated to the Sonata's monumental expressive goals). In smaller works, including Eight Etudes and a Fantasy for woodwind quartet and Six Studies for Four Timpani (both 1950), the research could seem to be self-motivated, as the use of the term “étude” already attests. “I had become very concerned with the nature of musical ideas,” Carter later wrote, “and started writing music that sought to find out what the minimal needs were for the kind of musical communication I felt worthwhile.”11

Eight Etudes and a Fantasy actually originated in a Columbia University classroom, where Carter was teaching a course in orchestration in the summer of 1949. He sketched ingenious little experiments in woodwind texture on the blackboard to stimulate his pupils’ imaginations in writing little pieces of their own to be tried out by a little team of hired players. The objective, clearly, was to make much of little: to construct a coherent musical design out of a minimum of raw material. In the first etude, the material consists of big, crisscrossing intervallic leaps that map out a maximum of textural space in a minimum of time. In the fourth, the material consists entirely of slurred pairs of eighth notes describing a rising semitone, treated like the little tiles that make up a mosaic.

In Etude no. 3 (Ex. 6-3a), the material has been boiled down to a single D-major triad (in the middle range shared by all the instruments), sustained throughout in kaleidoscopically shifting timbres as the players’ instruments spell one another by entering and fading out imperceptibly. It is a famous curio, only to be exceeded as a tour de force of economy by no. 7 (Ex. 6-3b), which takes a single sustained pitch, the G above middle C, as a “theme” to be varied by overlapping dynamic shapes and assorted articulations. Carter described it as “draw[ing] out of the fifteen possible tone colors and their combinations and variants due to dynamic and attack differences, a musical discourse entirely dependent on contrasting various types of ‘entrances’: sharp, incisive attacks as opposed to soft entrances of other instruments.”12 Minimal needs, indeed. And yet the placement of a pair of loud unison attacks at the midpoint gives the seventh etude, despite its measly contents, a vivid shape.

From Populism to Problem Solving: an American CareerFrom Populism to Problem Solving: an American Career

ex. 6-3a Elliott Carter, Eight Etudes and a Fantasy, Etude no. 3

From Populism to Problem Solving: an American CareerFrom Populism to Problem Solving: an American Career

ex. 6-3b Elliott Carter, Eight Etudes and a Fantasy, Etude no. 7 (beginning)

The concluding Fantasy (written later, not at the blackboard) is a fugue on a very long subject combining motives from four of the Etudes. Over its course it “modulates” from the tempo of the first etude to that of the seventh, then the second, and so on, motivic elements of the relevant etude coming to the fore as episodes at each tempo station. At various points the subject is heard in stretto at two tempos simultaneously, their relationship translated into conventionally notated note-lengths. In the second measure of Ex. 6-4, the bassoon plays the opening of the subject at a metronome rate of [quarter] = 84, the tempo of Etude No. 1, against a statement in the flute that proceeds in even notes of seven sixteenths’ duration. The flute is thus playing in a durational ratio of 7:4 vis-à-vis the bassoon. Another way of putting this would be that the flute is playing at a metronomic beat rate of 48, since (7:4) × 12 = 84:48.

The source of this playful superimposition of tempi is, of course, the music of Ives: e.g. the contest of two bands at the middle of “Putnam's Camp” from Three Places in New England. Carter has reestablished contact with Ives's example, but only after having extended it to a more arcane ratio (Ives's being a simple 3:2) and abstracting it from its programmatic context. Another, more dynamic sort of superimposition comes at the end of the Fantasy, where the subject is accelerated to the point where it disappears into the blur of a trill while at the same time it is played as a cantus firmus in longer note-values than ever. Each of the instruments participates at various points in both processes.

From Populism to Problem Solving: an American CareerFrom Populism to Problem Solving: an American Career

ex. 6-4 Elliott Carter, Eight Etudes and a Fantasy, Fantasy, mm. 108–111

The timpani studies, which were revised and augmented by an additional pair for publication in 1966 (as Eight Pieces for Four Timpani), continue the rhythmic explorations of the woodwind Fantasy, with particular emphasis on the technique of proportional, exactly calibrated tempo “modulation.” The most sophisticated and thoroughgoing example of it comes in the middle of the seventh piece, called “Canaries” (Ex. 6-5). The title, which may seem surprising in a piece for timpani (and was probably chosen with that surprise in mind), refers not to household warblers but rather to a fast jig-like dance, all leaping and stamping, that was imported to Spain from the Canary Islands in the sixteenth century.

A steady pulse of dotted quarters is established in the third measure of Ex. 6-5. It crosscuts the notated quarter-note pulse, set at the metronome rate of MM96. The relationship between a dotted quarter and a quarter is the hemiola proportion, 3:2. Therefore the metronome speed that would correspond to the dotted-quarter pulse is of 96, or MM64. That shift takes place in m. 6 of the example, and is reinforced by doubling: the timpanist plays the renotated pulse with both hands, using all four drums. The whole passage that follows pits the constant pulse in the timpanist's left hand against a constantly accelerating pulse in the right.

First (m. 8) the right hand reverts to the old quarter note, at 3/2 times the speed of the dotted quarter in the left. In m. 9 the parenthetical accents imply a pulse duration such that two quarters = of the dotted quarter at MM64, or twice the original quarter at MM96, either way implying a pulse of MM96 or MM48. At m. 10 that half-note pulse is filled with three triplet quarters: the right hand has accelerated once again by a hemiola ratio of 3:2. This time the pulse in the right hand is 3 × 48 or MM144, while the left hand is still beating at a rate of MM64. The proportion 144:64 reduces to 9:4, which is why the notation in m. 10 suddenly looks complicated. Notated in terms of the new right-hand pulse, the old left-hand pulse equals 9 sixteenth notes under a triplet bracket. Only the visual appearance of the notation (and the wordy descriptive prose that is now tracking it) are complicated, however; to the ear, two successive hemiola proportions—(3:2) × (3:2) = 9:4—are easy to follow.

The notation is eased in m. 11, when the triplet brackets are removed, and the new pulse is specified instead by the metronome setting. There is no audible difference between m. 10 and m. 11, except that now the right hand is once again preparing for a hemiola proportion, grouping its quarters by twos. The new implied half-note pulse, as Carter's setting specifies, is MM72. When it is filled by a triplet, as happens in m. 12, the triplet quarter will run at a spiffy MM216. Since 216:64 reduces to 27:8, or (3:2) × (3:2) × (3:2), the old pulse ofMM64, still plodding along in the left hand, must now be represented as a duration of twenty-seven thirty-second notes against the right hand's quarter. At m. 17 yet another hemiola proportion is prepared, by grouping the new quarter pulse by two (implying a pulse of MM108) and then dividing the implied half note into a triplet (each quarter now zipping by at MM324!). The new notation of the old pulse now becomes even more finicky, since the notation has followed the right hand through four hemiolas, and the left-hand duration must now be represented as the equivalent of eighty-one sixty-fourth notes, since (324:64) ÷ 4 = 81:16.

From Populism to Problem Solving: an American Career

ex. 6-5 Elliott Carter, Eight Pieces for Four Timpani, “Canaries,” middle section

At this point the limit of practicable speed has been reached by the timpanist's right hand, and so the pattern of successive hemiolas is broken. The two hands begin alternating in a duple pattern at the rate of the fastest triplets, implying a quarter note pulse that is half of MM324 (= MM162, as notated in m. 24). The notation becomes simple again, but not because the music has become more simple. The complications in the notation paradoxically arose in connection with the simplest element in the music: the steady, absolutely fixed and immutable left-hand pulse.

The only way to make the relationships between the constant pulse and the changing pulse metronomically exact was to continually readjust the notation to show the changes, leaving the constant element to adapt. (The weird notation of the Adagio from the Double Concerto in Ex. 6-2 is a more complicated instance of the same principle.) Timpanists performing the piece do not actually have to count durations of twenty-seven thirty-seconds or eighty-one sixty-fourths. All they need to do is keep their left hand swinging at a constant rate and concentrate on the changing patterns in the right. Woodwind and brass players in the Double Concerto's Adagio face a similar problem.

Although the main preoccupation (or compositional “problem”) in “Canaries” is obviously rhythmic, the pitches are also organized in a way that reflects preoccupation with “the formation of ideas with minimal material,” and that became equally characteristic of Carter's music. From the set of four pitch-classes to which the timpani are tuned (EBC♯ F, reading its actual pitches from the bottom up), every interval from the semitone to the tritone can be extracted, which means that every interval there is can be extracted from the given tetrachord, since all other intervals are either inversions or compounds of the basic six (sometimes called “interval classes”). Such “all interval tetrachords,” as they are now called in the theoretical literature, are the most economical possible way of expressing (or implying) the full range of intervallic possibilities. There are exactly two such tetrachords. The one Carter used in “Canaries” can be represented in closest spacing as /0 1 4 6/ reading up or down (in this case down from F). The other is /0 1 3 7/. All-interval tetrachords play an increasingly prominent role in Carter's music from this point on, for reasons that will later emerge more fully.


(7) Elliott Carter, “Once Again Swing; Also ‘American Music,’” Modern Music, January 1939; in Else Stone and Kurt Stone, The Writings of Elliott Carter (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977), p. 46.

(8) David Schiff, The Music of Elliott Carter (London: Eulenburg Books, 1983), p. 115.

(9) Elliott Carter, “The Case of Mr. Ives,” Modern Music, March 1939; The Writings of Elliott Carter, p. 51.

(10) Richard Franko Goldman, “Current Chronicle,” Musical Quarterly XXXVII (1951): 83–84.

(11) Elliott Carter, “Music and the Time Screen,” in Current Thought in Musicology, ed. John W. Grubbs (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1976), p. 67.

(12) Ibid.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 6 Standoff (II)." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 16 Sep. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-006002.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 16 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-006002.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 16 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-006002.xml