Carter at 100: Part 10

1. Concerto for Orchestra (1969)

By the last part of the 19th century, the make-up 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 three, 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 make-up (and vice-versa), with the chief 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 some, 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 orchestra.

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 was asked to write a piece for the 125th anniversary of the New York Philharmonic, it seems appropriate that he took that particular occasion to rethink the orchestra along those Debussian lines.

Carter wanted to celebrate the ability 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 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 near the end of Carter’s exploratory period. 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 piled up these intervals into chords of as many as seven notes. In this way each group has a large repertoire of chords that are used to give each section its own distinctive sound.

Each orchestral group has a particular three-note chord fixed in its characteristic register—the four trichords add up to a twelve-note chord that represents a kind of home base for all of the harmonic materials of the Concerto. This chord appears at important structural points like the cross-cutting of the sections.

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.

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 of the “home base” chord are introduced. Once all of the chord’s notes have appeared, 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 (only the second 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?

Part 1: Sonata for Cello and Piano (1948)/Duo for Violin and Piano (1974)

Part 2: Night Fantasies (1980)

Part 3: Enchanted Preludes (1988)

Part 4: Symphonia: Sum Fluxae Pretium Spei (1996)

Part 5: Boston Concerto (2002)

Part 6: Clarinet Concerto (1996)

Part 7: A Mirror on Which to Dwell (1975)

Part 8: String Quartet No.5 (1995)

Part 9: Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano with Two Chamber Orchestras (1961)

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