This is a portion of a larger piece, by Steve Hicken, that explores the responses to the social and political turmoil of the 1960s of three composers—Iannis Xenakis, Luciano Berio, and Elliott Carter, who died on Monday at the age of 103. (The full piece originally appeared in Burning Ambulance #4, which you can buy from Lulu.com.)
The 1960s were a very busy decade for American composer Elliott Carter (1908-2012). Despite completing only three major works, one of which was composed mostly in the late Fifties, Carter spent the decade developing ideas and techniques that informed his music for the rest of his remarkable career.
In his last pieces of the Fifties and first of the Sixties (the Second String Quartet and Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano with Two Chamber Orchestras, respectively), Carter used an extremely small amount of pitch material; one or two four-note sets in each. Without getting too much into technical detail, a “set” is an unordered collection of notes. According to a theory that Carter and other composers and theorists subscribe to, sets of the same cardinality (three-note sets, for example) that can be “reduced” to the same form are equivalent, and can be treated as the same. A full-length piece, such as a string quartet, can be written using just one four-note set because a set can be transposed to as many as 12 pitch levels and its interval content “inverted,” producing as many as 24 distinct versions, which can then be manipulated in countless ways.
Then, in his Piano Concerto (1965), Carter expanded his palette, using all of the three-note sets available (there are 12 of them) in the 12-note, equal-tempered system to create his darkly ironic vision of an expressive, sensitive individual pitted against an unfeeling, relentless mass (the orchestra). Crucial passages of the Piano Concerto were composed in Berlin, where the periodic sounds of machine gun fire around the Wall influenced the orchestra writing in the second movement.
By the last part of the 19th century, the makeup of the symphony orchestra was largely standardized. The core of the orchestra was a large body of strings. The woodwinds and brass were in pairs, sometimes trios, and the percussion consisted of a timpanist and maybe one or two additional percussionists, depending on the piece being played.
The music composed for the orchestra naturally reflected its makeup, with the main melodic burden carried by the strings. More specifically, the violins carry the melody most of the time, because tonal harmony was built from the bass up. The orchestral music of Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss shook this model up somewhat, as they frequently put the winds in the role of melody-carrier for the bulk of a piece, with the strings more in the background. Much of the orchestral music of the first half or so of the 20th Century was cast in the strings- or winds-centric tradition, or treated the orchestra as a collection of chamber groups, rarely using the whole ensemble at once.
Claude Debussy went further than many composers in imagining an orchestral sound not based on strings, or on the opposition of strings and winds. He proposed seating orchestras so that winds sat near the strings that were in their same register—for example, flutes would sit near the violins. When Carter received a commission from the New York Philharmonic for a substantial piece for the orchestra’s 125th anniversary, he knew that the makeup of the modern symphony orchestra would cause some problems for his evolving style. It now seems inevitable that he took the occasion as an opportunity to rethink the orchestra along those Debussian lines.
Carter wanted to celebrate the abilities of the modern orchestra with this commission. (One of the salient facts of the history of the orchestra in the 20th Century is its explosive virtuosity. There are some effects in Strauss’ music that were written to be blurs; he knew the orchestras of his day could not play them precisely, whereas today’s student orchestras can and do.) Accordingly, Carter wrote a concerto for orchestra, rather than a symphony. He wanted to portray the orchestra as a group of individuals—highly skilled, expressive members of a functioning society—so almost every member of the orchestra gets a solo or at least a prominent moment.
Given that Carter’s music was no longer thematic in nature nor was it composed along tonal lines, he took Debussy’s notion and used instrumental register as the organizing basis of the form of the Concerto for Orchestra. The Concerto is in four sections (the music is continuous), each one featuring instruments in a given range. The first section is scored for tenor-register instruments (cellos, trombones, bassoons, etc). It is written in decelerating phrases that start faster and get slower at each appearance. The second is written for soprano-register instruments like flutes and violins. It is fast music in even note values that slows down over the course of the piece. And so on.
Not surprisingly, the sections don’t appear one after the other in order, though it is true that the first one dominates the first quarter of the piece, the second the second-quarter, etc. Rather, each movement is briefly interrupted by the other three, according to a structural polyrhythm of 10:9:8:7. There is something cinematic about how Carter cross-cuts between different kinds of music, music that develops over the course of the entire piece.
The Concerto came at just the right time for Carter’s explorations of the possibilities of pitch organization. Writing an orchestral work with fairly thick textures presented a problem for the composer—how do you write chords for substantial groups of orchestral instruments without resorting to octaves? (Octaves tend to emphasize a pitch and make it sound like a tonal center.) In the Second Quartet, Carter assigned intervals to each instrument. In this Concerto, he assigned intervals to each group, and combined these intervals into sets of as many as seven notes. Carter used all of the three-, four- (there are 29 of them), five-, and seven-note chords (38 each), divided among the four registrally-organized groups. In this way, each group has a large repertoire of chords that are used to give each section its own distinctive sound.
Midway through composing the Concerto, Carter read Vents (“Winds”) by the French poet St. John Perse. Vents is an epic poem about America being swept by great winds of change. The colorful, ebullient music Carter was writing seemed to him to fit the broad ideas of the poem as well as the tenor of the times. The Concerto fairly sings of the turmoil and passions of the 1960s and places them, and American concert music, in an artistic and cultural context.
Carter spent much of 1968 in residence at the American Academy in Rome, working on the Concerto. The proximity to the events in Paris and his keen awareness of similar events at home and around the world informed his work on the Concerto, even before reading Vents. In fact, it wasn’t long before Carter abandoned the poem as a model but rather used some of its images to characterize the sections of the Concerto and place them in their expressive contexts.
The Foreword of the published score of the Concerto for Orchestra includes lines from Vents to illustrate the broad correspondence between the poem and the music. These excerpts, including “[t]hese were very great winds questing all the trails of this world,” “a whole century was rustling in the dry sound of its straw,” “there is a freshness of lands in infancy,” “[w]ill no one in the world raise his voice?”, “the season of man like a new theme on our lips,” and “my cry of a living being on the causeway of men,” among others, are highly suggestive of a musical/poetic landscape of sweeping gestures and constant change.
And that constant change what the Concerto for Orchestra (and pretty much all of Carter’s music from the 1950s on) is all about. One of the ways that Carter maintains constant change over the course of the work’s 22 minutes is through rhythmic style. There’s no steady pulse or beat in the Concerto—everything is either speeding up or slowing down. There are swirling passages in even note values, but they are too fast to be heard as a pulse, and they change speeds frequently. The temporally unstable surface of the music along with the expansiveness of the pitch material contributes to the fact that the music is always in a state of becoming rather than of being. Everything exists in a heightened “now,” and is the process of becoming both “then” and “next.” The change is coming and the change is here; it leads to more change. The journey is the destination.
The first several measures of the Concerto for Orchestra are concerned with setting the stage for the work. The percussion plays long rolls on drums and cymbals while the notes and chords of the sections are introduced. Once all twelve of the notes of the chromatic scale have appeared, deployed in a particular registral arrangement that recurs at important structural points throughout the Concerto, a harp glissando triggers the whirling activity that leads up to the beginning of the first section. After the winds sweep through the orchestra during the main body of the piece trombone glissandos (the only other glissandos of the piece) signal the beginning of the raucous Coda. The Coda is marked by ringing bells, as if heralding the new world the winds have brought to life. The bells die away, the piece ends quietly. We have our new world, what are we going to do with it? Are we going to be able to live with the changes or will we be consumed by them?