It is hard to think of a precedent for the self-renewing prodigality of Elliott Carter. But then, as a New York schoolboy after the First World War, he grew up at a time when musical modernism itself was still in its youth. Personally encouraged by Charles Ives, and excited early on by the breakthrough masterpieces of Skryabin, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Bartók and Varèse, Carter retains to this day a notion of modernism as an emancipation from convention, a continuing urge towards freshness of sound and expression.
Admittedly, after briefly studying with Holst at Harvard in 1932, he submitted to the rigours of three years under Nadia Boulanger in Paris, an experience which convinced him that radicalism could only communicate if expressed with a coherence that made it worth the effort of performers and audiences. Meanwhile, back in the USA, he had to come to terms with the leftish populist mood of the New Deal and Second World War years, exemplified by the works of Copland.
Following the still-tonal, out-of-doors style of the early First Symphony (1942) and Holiday Overture (1944), with his majestic Piano Sonata (1946) he embarked upon a radical redefining of musical technique, from the most basic elements of rhythm and pitch to the overall ‘time sweep’ of entire musical forms. Unlike some figures of the new avant-garde, Carter never regarded technical innovation as an end in itself but as a means to capture – with a ‘focused freedom’ – the teeming simultaneities and changefulness of modern life.
The result was a slowly appearing succession of vastly detailed masterpieces, ranging from the huge First String Quartet (1951), by way of the coruscating Double Concerto (1961) to the tumultuous Concerto for Orchestra (1969) that established his international reputation. The reward for this heroic middle period has been the increasing ease and spontaneity of his composing in more recent years, enabling him not only to complete the largest orchestral project of his life, Symphonia (1992–6), in his late-eighties, but a dazzling array of concertante works, song-settings, shorter instrumental showpieces – and even (at 90!) his first opera, What Next?.And since then Carter has completed still further major scores such as the Cello Concerto (2001) and his Boston Concerto (2002).
Twice a Pulitzer Prize-winner and central to the repertories of such artists as Pierre Boulez, Oliver Knussen, James Levine, Charles Rosen and the Arditti Quartet, Carter remains a man of formidable culture, and an artist of sometimes tragic vision. But, as the airy, volatile textures of such scores as his Nash Ensemble commission Mosaic (2004) exemplify yet again, he continues to be animated by a mercurial lightness of spirit.
Profile © Bayan Northcott