Elliott Carter
by James Wierzbicki

Reviewed by Paula Musegades


Published by University of Illinois Press, 2011   |   136 pages

At 103 years young, Elliott Carter is one of the most influential American composers of the 20th century. Though Carter’s compositional career is frequently divided into three principal stages – an early neoclassical period, a temporally complex mature period, and a lyrical/more accessible late period – Carter is most widely associated with the music of his middle period. Pushing the boundaries of both musical time and texture, Carter’s mature sound simultaneously layers contrasting tempos, meters and/or harmonies, weaving them ultimately into demanding, complex, yet fully cohesive compositions. His oeuvre stands among the most celebrated of the 20th century.

“Elliott Carter’s music is complex, but it has never been music about complexity.” Musicologist James Wierzbicki’s Elliott Carter is, essentially, a compelling argument of this point. In it, one may already note a significant shift away from the standard critical approach to this renowned composer’s music. Historically, Elliott Carter scholarship has focused primarily on analyses of purely technical elements, including atonality, polyrhythms, and metric modulations, without attempting to contextualize these elements in a broader interpretive scheme. Even Carter himself, when asked to explain his own music, generally sticks to the “mechanics” of his works. However, as Wierzbicki tells it, there is more to Carter’s compositions than its complex harmonies and rhythms. Rather, the real interest lies in the ways these individual elements contribute to the multiplicity of meanings unique to each individual piece. Tracing the course of Carter’s life and works – from his early neoclassical beginnings through his most recent compositions to date – Wierzbicki investigates often overlooked facets, both musical and non-musical, in his search for that which makes Carter’s music “Carteresque.”

Importantly, Elliot Carter does not merely cover Carter’s high period, but also his early and late years. While several scholars have glossed over Carter’s early career, Wierzbicki dedicates the book’s first chapter, “Foundations (1908-45)” to it, covering Carter’s early inspiration from Charles Ives to his broad humanist education at Harvard University. Particularly compelling is Wierzbicki’s discussion of Carter’s study at the Longy School of Music, a primary influence on the young composer’s early musical training.

Chapter Two – “Three Seminal Works (1945-51)” – covers the widely acknowledged period of six years during which Carter formed his familiar “Carteresque” sound. Focusing largely on three crucial compositions from the period – Piano Sonata (1945-46), Sonata for Cello and Piano (1948), and String Quartet No. 1 (1951) – Wierzbicki, discusses not only the growing technical importance of time in Carter’s compositions, but also pivotal non-musical influences, including the circular nature of contemporary literature and the post-WWII American psyche. Moreover, Wierzbicki sheds light on the current critical dispute regarding which piece marks the turning point toward Carter’s new aesthetic, before ultimately suggesting out his own persuasive case for Piano Sonata.

Despite the musically dense nature of this crucial chapter, Wierzbicki avoids detailed musical analysis, which helps maintain the book’s accessibility for the general reader. However, it may have been helpful to include a select few excerpts to further demonstrate for the technical reader each work’s primary characteristics, including the fugal treatment of themes in movement two of the Piano Sonata, or the “interplay in which multiple ideas, differentiated at the very least by gestural affect, are offered simultaneously” in Sonata for Cello and Piano. The incorporation of such selections would help one more fully grasp the growing complexity of Carter’s music as he expanded upon these foundations in his following years, a period discussed in chapter three – “Maturity (1950-1980).” It is interesting to note that the music of the mature “Carter aesthetic,” spanning roughly thirty years, amounts to a relatively small musical output. Indeed, the sheer intricacy and magnitude of each piece was so compositionally demanding that the majority of Carter’s works from this period each took years to complete.

Wierzbicki’s argument is particularly compelling in this chapter. While noting that Carter explicitly attributes his motivation to opera, Wierzbicki pursues this idea into an investigation of Carter’s connection to film. Wierzbicki’s deep knowledge of film history makes his analysis of the more fluid, multi-layered elements of Carter’s new aesthetic all the more subtle and effective. Analyzing several films that may have influenced Carter’s non-linear approach, including Le sang d’une poete (1930), Rashomon (1950), and Last Year at Marienbad (1965), Wierzbicki makes a strong case for the benefit of this perspective in any thorough engagement with Carter’s complex music.

Following his 1980 composition Night Fantasies (1980), Carter’s music underwent another considerable change, which Wierzbicki discusses in chapter four – “New Directions (1980-2010).” Growing significantly more prolific in compositional output, Carter’s later musical style transitions to shorter, often more approachable, instrumental and vocal works. The motivation behind Carter’s stylistic shift is a highly debated topic, and, after offering some of the leading arguments in the field, Wierzbicki suggests his own theory. Carter’s works up to the composition of Night Fantasies in 1980, Wierzbicki suggests, are best viewed as “study pieces through which ever more difficult compositional problems were posed and then solved.” He continues, “And it seems that Carter, after he finished Night Fantasies, felt that his lessons had finally been learned.” Unfortunately, Wierzbicki does not carry his analysis on this particular topic much further than this.

In fact, throughout the text Wierzbicki consistently introduces compelling topics, then leaves them rather opened ended. Given that this is an introductory text, this is of course understandable. In fact, this approach has its benefits. By addressing such interesting, albeit broad topics, and leaving out the detailed musical analysis, Wierzbicki opens the field of Carter scholarship to others outside of the music discipline. This, one hopes, may lead to new approaches in understanding the complex meanings within Carter’s music.

Elliott Carter is a welcome addition to the body of Carter scholarship. In just one hundred short pages, Wierzbicki offers not only a fresh perspective on both Carter and his music, but also a broad discussion of both his earliest and most recent compositions. Wierzbicki’s analysis convincingly uproots common misconceptions of Carter’s musical and non-musical life, and demonstrates how these events contributed to the trajectory and multiple meanings found within Carter’s highly influential compositions. Whether one is searching for a new perspective on Carter’s early or later musical career, or a succinct biography of his life and evolving compositional technique, Elliott Carter is an excellent addition to the existing Carter literature.

Paula Musegades is a doctoral candidate in Musicology at Brandeis University, where she is currently writing her dissertation on Aaron Copland’s work in Hollywood Film. Her areas of interest are Film Music and American Music of the 20th century.

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