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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 6 Standoff (II)
Richard Taruskin

Carter had willy-nilly become the chief standard bearer for the traditional modernist view of art and its autonomous history at the very moment when that view began, for reasons that will emerge in the coming chapters, to be embattled (that is, began losing ground). Critics chose precisely the most utopian aspects of Carter's music on which to lavish praise, and began describing his stature, and his achievement, in reckless terms. Reviewing the Third Quartet on its premiere, Andrew Porter (an influential British critic working in New York) dubbed Carter “internationally …America's most famous living composer”43 at a time when Aaron Copland and John Cage, to name only two, were still productive. By 1979, Porter was ready to pronounce Carter “the greatest living composer”44 without qualification, preferring him to Messiaen (Carter's senior by one day) on the argument that “each new work” of Carter's, unlike Messiaen's, “breaks new ground.” A year later, Bayan Northcott, another British critic, launched the article on Carter in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians by observing, quite “factually” as befits a reference work, that “at best his music sustains an energy of invention that is unrivalled in contemporary composition.”45 But a familiar problem gnawed, and a familiar ploy persisted. Porter hailed the Third Quartet as “a major new composition, a piece that is passionate, lyrical, and profoundly exciting,” despite the fact that “myriad details passed by uncomprehended.” A listener, he warned, “will probably never know exactly how precise any particular performance is,” and yet the critic was prepared to affirm that “he will no doubt be more deeply moved by accurate than by loose executions.”46 As we have already seen in the case of Stravinsky's response to the Double Concerto, personal judgment is altogether suspended in favor of “trust in the composer,” even when there can be no sensory or rational corroboration. Just as in genuine religious thought, faith is accompanied, indeed generated, by bafflement.

Reviewing Carter's Symphony for Three Orchestras, in which the multiple perspectives of the Third Quartet are augmented by a sort of hemiola proportion (three independent sound sources as opposed to two, three disparate “movements” at a time, juxtaposed in various unpredictable and sometimes impenetrable combinations), Porter allowed that “at fourth and fifth hearing, much of the detail still remained elusive”47 even to one following with the score. As far as he was concerned, the pitch organization was meaningless. Yet even so he did not hesitate to pronounce the ultimate accolade: another masterpiece. The conclusion is inescapable that to Porter, and many other critics, Carter's masterpieces were like the noise made by a tree falling in an empty forest. They existed purely “ontologically,” by virtue of their perceived complexity, whether or not anyone actually experienced them. Musical value had received its most purely asocial definition.

Ironically enough, it was just at this time, at the peak of his preeminence as an upholder of “absolute” musical value and protagonist of evolutionary history, that Carter began revealing the poetic (yes, “extramusical”) ideas that had motivated some of his most forbiddingly abstract constructions. One of these revelations, perhaps the most important one, concerned the Double Concerto, the work that (thanks in part to Stravinsky's active promotion) had vouchsafed Carter's preeminence. In the sleeve note to the second recording of the work, issued in 1968, Carter reprinted a condensation of the original note, quoted near the beginning of this chapter, but prefaced it as follows:

The idea of writing this Double Concerto was suggested to me by the harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick. As my thoughts took shape, the matter of reconciling instruments with different responses to the finger's touch became a central concern. A concept had to be found that made this instrumental confrontation vital and meaningful. This eventually gave rise to the devising of elaborate percussion parts, the choice of instruments for the two orchestras, and a musical and expressive approach that affected every detail. Various relationships of pitched and non-pitched instruments, with the soloists as mediators, and the fragmentary contributions of the many kinds of tone colors to the progress of the sound events were fundamental. After a time, I began to think of a literary analog to the concerto's expected form—Lucretius's De Rerum Natura [On the Nature of Things], which describes the formation of the physical universe by the random swervings of atoms, its flourishing and destruction. Bit by bit, however, a humorous parody of Lucretius in Alexander Pope's Dunciad [1728] took over my thoughts, in lines like:

  • All sudden, Gorgons hiss, and Dragons glare,
  • And ten-horn'd Fiends and Giants rush to war;
  • Hell rises, Heav'n descends, and dance on earth;
  • Gods, imps, and monsters, music, rage, and mirth,
  • A fire, a jig, a battle, and a ball,
  • Till one wide conflagration swallows all.

The beautiful end of Pope's poem seemed to articulate in words the end of the work I had already composed:

  • —the all-composing hour
  • Resistless falls; the Muse obeys the power.
  • She comes! She comes! the sable
  • throne behold
  • Of Night primeval, and of Chaos old!
  • Before her Fancy's gilded clouds decay,
  • And all its varying rainbows die away.
  • Wit shoots in vain its momentary fires,
  • The meteor drops and in a flash expires.
  • ***
  • Nor public flame, nor private, dares to shine;
  • Nor human spark is left, nor glimpse divine!
  • Lo! thy dread empire, Chaos! is restor'd;
  • Light dies before thy uncreating word:
  • Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
  • And universal Darkness buries all.48

The Double Concerto, it turned out, was a cosmological allegory. David Schiff, Carter's authorized biographer, writing with the composer's approval and active collaboration, elaborated the allegory into a detailed program that took fourteen printed pages to narrate and minutely relate to the musical unfolding, enabling him to claim that behind the sounds of the music lay a “prophetic vision” communicated through “comic irony”49 —an even more impressive claim, perhaps, than ever. What matters, ultimately, is less whether the poetry directly inspired the music (although Carter did say that he began thinking of Lucretius while the form was only “expected,” that is, before the piece was written) than the fact that references to Lucretius and Pope were now being offered to the listener as an explanation of the purpose behind the strange musical discourse and as a guide to its interpretation. At the very least, metaphorical reading made the piece far more accessible to “lay” comprehension. And that was a social gesture.

And a “compromise”? There is no need to ascribe to Carter the ideas, or the motives, of his promoters; but the question nevertheless remains, why was no mention made of the allegory the first time? Was it because of Clement Greenberg's old decree that “subject matter or content” had to be “avoided like a plague” in order to gain the respect of the avant-garde (or even its academic wing)? And why reveal it now?

There may have been some professional mischief in the decision. One of the first audiences to whom Carter revealed the Double Concerto's “extramusical” content was an audience of academic composers at New York University, assembled to hear an interview, or “public conversation,” between Carter and Benjamin Boretz, the editor of Perspectives of New Music. Boretz kept nudging Carter toward accounting for the impressive “complexity” of the work in terms of total serialism; in particular, he suggested that the heavy use of unpitched percussion might indicate an interest on Carter's part with turning timbre into an independent “structural element,” since as he put it (his language unconsciously echoing Greenberg's, some thirty years before), “ultimately there is no way to articulate what a composition is ‘about’ except by examining the total intersection of its component continuities, textures, and all its other ‘media.’”50 Boretz reacted with discomfort bordering on disbelief when Carter, citing his literary models, said that the work “emerges out of a kind of elementary chaos in the percussion,” and “then a great deal happens presenting all its material, and then, in the end, occurs the dissolution of this entire material into chaos, so to speak, with the percussion (as in the beginning).”51 “I think you might be careful in your use of the word ‘chaos,’”52 Boretz protested, then somewhat frantically tried to get Carter to take it back (or at least discount it) so as to preserve the music, as an abstract product of “structure” and “medium,” from the social taint of “content”:

I think it's important to emphasize that the notion is metaphorical because, in fact, when you say that one could regard this unpitched opening and its consequent as a progression from “chaos” to “order,” one could equally well invoke any number of other—perhaps seemingly contradictory—images to use as names for exactly this aspect of the relation of the unpitched to the pitched without changing anything in one's understanding or hearing of it in any cognitive sense. In other words, if one were not to use your metaphor, if one were to choose some other metaphor for what happened, could one not still be describing precisely the same set of musical events, and still in fact arriving at the same unique musical structure? In other words, I don't believe the musical structure is really going to be affected by the particular descriptive label one chooses at this level of discourse. And in the same sense, it seems to me that your description of the relation of the instrumental medium to the total composition in the Double Concerto would only be a rather general remark about what seems so obviously striking an example of a complex and fundamental relation of medium and structure—that is, a rather deep relation between obviously unique aspects of the medium and obviously unique aspects of the continuity, texture, pitch relations, and sound relations of all kinds. So, could you perhaps reconsider…53

Carter politely refused Boretz's revision of his answer. By 1968 he could afford to break ranks, slightly, with the Princeton school without soiling his reputation as a serious artist on the most “uncompromising” terms. But there was no question of “populism.” His “extramusical” reference was, in the first place, not to the fairly raw experience of life, still less to the sort of social problems Britten addressed in Peter Grimes, but to fairly esoteric classical and neoclassical literature. And the “extramusical” content, such as it was, was on a cosmic plane infinitely removed from that of human tribulation and emotion (save that of wonder).

Carter remained for the rest of the century the chief standard bearer of autonomous musical art, and a bulwark against the “postmodernist” tendencies that began to emerge, and threaten the modernist faith, in the 1980s. His reputation gathered ever greater luster after the turn of the century as he continued, astoundingly, to compose with undiminished vigor up to and beyond his own centennial anniversary—an absolutely unprecedented feat of creative longevity that made him, finally, a genuine media sensation. Some evidence of ambivalence can be found, beginning in the eighties, in Carter's writings. He has occasionally argued, apparently against the conventional wisdom, that for all its surface complications and its formidable intellectual rigor, his music has always been at bottom an expression—more properly, a representation—of American ideals. “A preoccupation with giving each member of the performing group its own musical identity characterizes my String Quartet No. 4,” Carter noted in the preface to that work, published in 1986, “thus mirroring the democratic attitude in which each member of a society maintains his or her own identity while cooperating in a common effort—a concept that dominates all my recent work.”

That message, however sincerely meant, has nevertheless been mediated through a discourse of elitism. In Clement Greenberg's terms, Carter has been, preeminently, the late twentieth century's “musicians’ musician.” His visions of democracy have been of interest primarily to a coterie of professionals: fellow composers, performers, scholars, and academically inclined or affiliated critics, for whom Carter's music has often served as a touchstone of self-congratulation. But the ambiguities of Carter's position were always implicit in the way his music has been promoted, ever since he won his European recognition as a protégé of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, clandestinely funded by the CIA in defiance of the egalitarian (or at least anti-intellectual) biases of the United States Congress, which would have opposed the use of tax revenues to support élite culture on the European model. Carter thus became one of the protagonists of that “sublime paradox of American strategy in the cultural Cold War,” defined by Frances Stonor Saunders, whereby “in order to promote an acceptance of art produced in (and vaunted as the expression of) democracy, the democratic process itself had to be circumvented.”54

Carter's champions have been particularly vocal in defending asocial theories of music history. Especially prominent among them has been Charles Rosen, already mentioned as the pianist in the first performance of the Double Concerto, and one of Carter's strongest advocates in the concert hall. Since the 1970s, Rosen has been an important writer on music, beginning with The Classical Style, a treatise on Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, which, having won an important award on publication, has been perhaps the best-selling serious “trade” book (as opposed to textbook) on classical music in the late twentieth century. For forty years, Rosen maintained a substantial literary presence as an essayist and reviewer, largely in the pages of the New York Review of Books, one of the most influential of American intellectual journals.

In Carter's success at achieving and maintaining high eminence among contemporary composers despite his lack of audience appeal (an accomplishment in which Rosen himself played a significant role as a performer), Rosen saw evidence that “serious art music will survive as long as there are musicians who want to play it,” or, more strongly, that difficult modernist music has triumphed in spite of audience disaffection owing to “the continued presence of an important group of musicians who passionately want to perform it.”55 The history of music, in short, is created, in Rosen's view, by musicians, and only by musicians.

To maintain this even in the case of Carter is to ignore the social factors, above all the prestige machine and its political stimuli, that could counter, and even overbalance the audience (the one social factor that everybody recognizes as such) in influencing the course of history. Rosen saw himself and others like him as playing a heroic resister's role. As the autonomy model continued to lose credence, the claims on its behalf became ever more sweeping and strident; with the end of the cold war in Europe, the model's anachronistic cold-war underpinnings have become ever more blatant. By 2002, another writer, Paul Griffiths, went so far as morally to equate audience reception with Communist oppression, invoking the tribulations of Dmitry Shostakovich as another demonstration, along with Carter's, of resistance to “the limits on artistic freedom that might be imposed by a tradition, a public or a government.”56

But as the story of Carter's reception makes especially clear, the asocial esthetic is itself a powerful tradition, and governments have at times played a significant role in its propagation. By now it is hard, however passionately one has invested in the autonomy principle, to doubt that Rosen's many meritorious public acts on Carter's behalf were made possible not only by Carter, and Carter's emergence was made possible not only by Rosen. Both have been beneficiaries of the prestige machine in which both were willing participants.

The embattled zeal with which Rosen and comparable writers defend the model of musical autonomy that validates Carter's success has led him, like many academic historians, to devalue and dismiss the role of prestige machines in other periods—notably the aristocratic one that influenced Beethoven toward the writing of the “difficult” late works that altered the course of music history two hundred years ago—and to oppose more recent historians who emphasize social factors alongside “musical” ones. Reviewing the work of one such historian, Tia DeNora, who has documented the role of aristocratic patronage in the formation of Beethoven's musical style, Rosen stubbornly minimized such considerations as “influential forces, but rarely determining ones.”57 The determining forces, in his view, are of course the autonomous activities of composers and performers, people like himself.

But the insistence upon nominating the determining factor instead of evaluating a range of influential ones is a product of the false dichotomy between history and society broached at the beginning of the previous chapter. By the end of this one, it should be clear that the insistence is itself the product of a particular historical juncture, one that is now past. Our task in the concluding chapters of this book will be to assess, and attempt to explain, the situation that has replaced it.


(43) Andrew Porter, “Mutual Ordering,” The New Yorker, 3 February 1973; rpt. in Porter, A Musical Season: A Critic from Abroad in America (New York: Viking Press, 1974), p. 140.

(44) Porter, “Famous Orpheus,” The New Yorker, 9 January 1979; Porter, Music of Three More Seasons (New York: Knopf, 1981), p. 281.

(45) Bayan Northcott, “Carter, Elliott (Cook, Jr.),” in New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Vol. III (London: Macmillan, 1980), p. 831.

(46) Porter, A Musical Season, pp. 145–46.

(47) Andrew Porter, “Great Bridge, Our Myth,” The New Yorker, 7 March 1977; Porter, Music of Three Seasons (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1978), p. 529.

(48) Elliott Carter, liner note to Columbia Records MS 7191 (1968).

(49) Schiff, The Music of Elliott Carter (1983), p. 210.

(50) Benjamin Boretz, “A Conversation with Elliott Carter,” p. 3.

(51) Ibid.

(52) Ibid.

(53) Ibid., pp. 3–4.

(54) Saunders, The Cultural Cold War, p. 257.

(55) Charles Rosen, Critical Entertainments, p. 317.

(56) Paul Griffiths, “Play That Old Piece if You Must, but Not for Old Time's Sake,” New York Times, Arts and Leisure, 2 June 2002.

(57) Charles Rosen, “Did Beethoven Have All the Luck?” New York Review of Books, 14 November 1996; Rosen, Critical Entertainments, p. 115.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 6 Standoff (II)." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 5 Mar. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-006007.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 5 Mar. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-006007.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 5 Mar. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-006007.xml