Many readers of this blog know how important Elliott Carter’s music has been to me, and as we approach the composer’s 100th next week, I began thinking about which of his pieces have meant the most to me, and why. Naturally, that thinking has led to a list. So, beginning today and running through the 11th, the composer’s birthday, I’ll post an annotated list of the ten Carter pieces that have meant the most to me over the years. Some of them because of what I’ve learned from them, others because I heard them at the right time, and all of them because I just like them as music.
10. (Tie): Sonata for Cello and Piano (1948)/Duo for Violin and Piano (1974).
OK, so there are going to be 11 pieces in this top 10.
An important element of Carter’s music throughout his career has been the raising of heterophony (a textural term dealing with the presence of two or more more-or-less equal musical voices or lines) to a structural/dramatic value. In many of Carter’s works two or more streams of intensely contrasting music proceed simultaneously. The drama is in how they relate to each other as their foreground/background relationship shifts over the course of a piece.
The Sonata for Cello and Piano is Carter’s first thoroughgoing essay in structural heterophony, as well as an accessible and challenging piece for performers and audience alike. Carter was still writing music based on tonality at the time of the Sonata (it was completed on his 40th birthday in 1948), so the characterization of the cello and piano is based largely on rhythmic behavior patterns and the expressive style of the two instruments.
The beginning of the first movement is a direct statement of the idea of structural heterophony as well as the first example in Carter’s music of what would become an obsession with him. In this opening statement the piano moves in regular beats (what the composer would come to call “chronometric” time) and the cello plays irregularly expressive phrases with no specific link to any meter (“chronoametric” time). This passage echoes through the rest of Carter’s career.
The Duo for Violin and Piano dates from 1974, 24 years after the Sonata, and well after Carter’s massive stylistic change that was, I believe, triggered by the Sonata. The contrast between the violin and piano parts—Carter’s music was, by that time, pantonal, and the musical materials are partitioned between the two instruments by two-, three-, four-, and five-note sets as well as by the chronmetric and achronometric rhythmic personalities of the Sonata—is so integral to the musical content of the piece that Carter’s performance note suggests that the players be as far apart on the stage as possible.
In addition, much of the expressive drama of the Duo is created from the simple acoustic reality that the piano, as an instrument, is characterized by the fact that the performer has little control over a note once the key is struck while a violinist exerts a great deal of control over a note—including the ability to make it grow louder, which the piano cannot do, except by rapid repetition. The Duo, then, is a superposition of two distinct and expressive personalities, much like a marriage. (The piece is dedicated to Helen Carter, the composer’s wife, who died in 2003.) As in the Sonata, the Duo stakes out its poetic territory from the beginning, with the impassive tolling of rich, dissonant chords on the piano juxtaposed against mercurial phrases from the violin. Carter has compared this opening to “a man trying to climb a glacier”.
The Duo is one of the most “difficult” pieces from a composer known for his difficulty. It’s just this difficulty that has, in recent years, drawn more and more performers to Carter’s music—they see it as an artistic and technical challenge; a challenge worth accepting. When heard through the notion of two contrasting personalities trying to make a go of it together, the difficulty becomes part of the pleasure and the poetry.