Elliott Carter
Elliott Carter: The Career of a Century
Elliott Carter Photo by Kathy Chapman, courtesy Boosey & Hawkes

Elliott Carter: The Career of a Century

1. New Music Across the Century

FRANK J. OTERI: As a composer who’s been a major force for most of the 20th century, I think you’re in a unique position to talk about our time. And, you know, everybody’s been talking about the millennium and whether or not we’re in a new era. I was just wondering what your thoughts were about it and what you feel are the most significant things that have happened in music in your lifetime?

ELLIOTT CARTER: Well, my original interest in music, after all, goes back to the 1920s. I always lived in New York City, and during the ‘20s when I was a high school student, there was a good deal more contemporary music played than in many periods after that time. At that time, for instance, Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra did Wozzeck staged at the Metropolitan Opera. It was not part of the Metropolitan’s series, and the League of Composers organized it and the house was sold out. I sat next to George Gershwin. But I didn’t dare to talk to him at that performance. And I heard other things. Schoenberg was also done on that series, and then down here in Greenwich Village, there was this big department store, Wanamaker’s, that had concerts, and I heard a good deal of Varèse’s music played.

FJO: Wow. In the ‘20s?

EC: Yeah. In the ‘20s. And so I knew Varèse from that time on. And I also heard works of Charles Ives. There was somebody not far from here on 3rd Avenue, a woman named Catherine Ruth Hayman who played Scriabin and Schoenberg and Charles Ives and Ravel and Debussy and I went to all of these things when I was very young. And I had various friends who were involved with this whole field. One of them was Eugene O’Neill’s son, who went to the same school with me and was in my class. The Provincetown Playhouse gave performances of O’Neill’s plays right here down on MacDougal Street. So that this whole field of avant-garde of that period was something that got me very interested in music. Actually, I came to wish to be a composer through hearing that music, and rather disliking the more conservative music like Beethoven and Mozart, and it was only years later that I began to like that kind of music. So there’s always been this background of that early period of modernism that has remained with me all my life.

The Voice of Elliott Carter

FJO: When you were at the production of Wozzeck, it was sold out and you were sitting next to Gershwin… Would you say that there was more of an attitude welcoming new music in the 20’s than there is today, or at other times in your life?

EC: It’s a very different period, you see. There’s been a big history of change that was caused largely by the big Depression during this time. And in the early days, in those early days, there was the recovery from the First World War and a very great effort on the part of many countries, particularly France, to present their culture in this country so that the French government subsidized a good many performances of all kinds of things in this city in order to recover from the awful shock of the war… And, beside that, there was an income tax difference – it was enormous. These wealthy people were willing to put up a lot of money for the performance of Wozzeck, and wealthy people came to these performances. It was all sort of a very wealthy upper class that was interested in modern art. The Museum of Modern Art was started by such people. When the Depression came and the whole tax thing was entirely changed, there was a very different world of people. And the wealthy people were no longer the wealthy people that supported the arts. Support for the arts came from people who were not that wealthy anymore, and so everything diminished a good deal.

FJO: And that’s something that we’re still experiencing to this day.

EC: Oh, yes. Of course. There’s been a big sociological change. There always were people like myself who were just students or didn’t have a great deal of money who went to these concerts. But in the early days, the concerts were also largely supported by older people who had money, who wanted to be “with it,” who were very interested. Modern music at that time was something to be “with,” something to follow: it was a new and exciting thing.

FJO: So do you feel the changes were more due to changes in economy than changes in the music itself?

EC: I think the changes in the economy were certainly one of the effects of all of this, but that wasn’t all. Even in the post-First World War world, people already began to see, particularly in France and Germany, a new change in music. Composers like Poulenc and Milhaud and Honegger, and in Germany, composers like Hindemith and Krenek began to show a whole new point of view about what was called avant-garde music. And there was a return, in the case of a composer like Poulenc, there was a desire not only to suggest Mozart but to suggest that music be very eclectic. There was a whole period of eclecticism that persisted, first in France, and then it came to this country. And that was also connected with the whole notion of populism, the very advanced, dissonant music that had been written before the war and was being written still a little bit afterward, was considered an elitist thing. And then there was a powerful desire to not write elitist music, and to write music that was more popular. And finally, of course, Aaron Copland, who was a great friend of mine during a good part of this period, wrote Billy the Kid. He started with El salón México, and then wrote Billy the Kid which was on the same program with my Pocahontas in 1939. And Aaron was very concerned with writing music that would draw a different kind of public than the older kind of music had been drawing.

An excerpt from Elliott Carter’s Suite from Pocahontas (1939)
American Composers Orchestra, conducted by Paul Lustig Dunkel
From the CRI CD American Masters – Elliott Carter


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