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

2. Populism vs. Individualism

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, initially, the music that you were writing was also very much in the populist vein…

ELLIOTT CARTER: Well, when I got interested in music, as I said, it was in the Varèse-and-so-forth period. But when I went to Paris, the new vogue had affected not only the whole musical life but also my teacher, Nadia Boulanger. When Aaron studied with Nadia Boulanger in the ‘20s, they went over Wozzeck with her. By that time I was there she disliked this kind of music. She was right up to the minute, even when she was dying, she was telling me how wonderful Boulez was. I can’t say that she changed, but she had a desire to follow things. She was always interested in what was new and tried to understand it. I must say she disliked Honegger a great deal but she did like Poulenc a lot.

FJO: Now, one thing that I’m curious about is your earliest, earliest music predating the stuff that predates your mature style, music that you were writing in the late ‘20s, early ‘30s, before you were writing in a populist vein. Were you writing music in the style of Varèse and the experimentalists?

The Voice of Elliott Carter

EC: Oh, that’s rather complicated. When I was in college, I did try to write what was sort of dissonant, advanced music, and I always was terribly dissatisfied. And it was partially for a very obvious reason: I didn’t have enough training to understand how to do this in a way that the good composers could do it. So it gradually began to be clear to me that I just simply had to go back and study music, the older music and get a background of the composers that I admired, like Stravinsky, for instance, had, and so I did. I studied with Nadia Boulanger and then I wrote some conservative music. I even wrote populist music during that time I was studying, and it was never very good. I don’t know why. I didn’t really begin to write music that I approved of until fairly recently. There is an old song that I sent to Henry Cowell when he was the editor for New Music that I wrote before I studied, a setting of one of the poems of James Joyce. It’s rather embarrassing, I think.

FJO: I love some of those early pieces. I really do.

An excerpt from Elliott Carter’s The Defense of Corinth (1941)
John Oliver Chorale
Elliott Carter: Choral Music

EC: Well, I’m talking about very early stuff…

FJO: You’re talking about stuff even earlier than what I’ve heard.

EC: Yeah. When I got going, I began to write these choral pieces. I wrote a lot of choral music. Those are pretty good, I think, for what they are.

An excerpt from Elliott Carter’s Tarantella (1941)
John Oliver Chorale
Elliott Carter: Choral Music

FJO: Then there are your Robert Frost songs…

An excerpt from Elliott Carter’s Three Poems of Robert Frost (1942, orchestrated 1980)
Patrick Mason, baritone; Speculum Musicae conducted by David Starobin
The Music of Elliott Carter, Vol. 1 – The Vocal Works (1975-1981)

EC: Yeah, those are good, those are fine, for what they are. I mean, I can’t say I dislike them but they’re not the kind of thing I want to do now.

FJO: Well, certainly, if we’re to look at composers and their careers, from the point when you decided to write in what I’ll call your mature style, which is over 50 years ago at this point, I would say there’s been a remarkable consistency and identity to your music that few composers can claim to have been able to sustain over such a long period of time and development.

EC: Well, that’s nice to hear. [laughs] Part of the problem is I don’t think about it that way. I just write the music that has always meant a lot to me. You see, I switched, actually. About the time of the Second World War, I began to feel that the neo-classical or populist music that I was writing wasn’t strong enough. It didn’t express the feelings that I felt. We had all overwhelming feelings about the war and its result, and Hitler and all that, and this made me feel that I had to write something more serious and much more meaningful, to me at least, if not to the audience.

FJO: So what are some of those feelings that you wanted to express?

EC: Well, I can’t say that I can identify them, but they are in the music. [laughs]

An excerpt from Elliott Carter’s Piano Sonata (1945-46, revised 1982)
Charles Rosen, piano
Elliott Carter: The Complete Music for Piano

FJO: I know that you’ve said frequently that music should speak for itself and that composers aren’t always the best people to articulate what their music means.

EC: Well, yeah, that’s probably true, but the thing is that I’ve reverted, actually, to what originally interested me in music. And it all began to be much more meaningful to me and then also, I began to feel that, with the coming of the people in France after the war and in Germany, and when people like Boulez and the Darmstadt School went back to that earlier period, I felt that I was on the right track. I was on a track, perhaps not the right one, but anyhow, a track that other people felt. I think that this was a genuine feeling after the war. There was a desire to make music much more vivid and much more meaningful. And it’s always condemned nowadays as being academic. There has always been academic music all the time. And I don’t think, a good piece is not any more academic now as they were in the time of Brahms.


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